At conventional wineries, human intervention is a necessary step in the process: vineyards are sprayed with chemical pesticides and herbicides, preservatives like sulfites are used during fermentation and bottling, and synthetic enhancements such as powdered tannins and acids, sugars or food dyes like "Mega Purple" are added to intensify flavor and color. But in a world that increasingly seeks out unprocessed, sustainable and farm-fresh products, some wineries are embracing more natural alternatives.
The term "natural" refers to varietals made from grapes grown on small vineyards, hand-harvested, crushed by foot or basket press, cultivated without pesticides, fungicides, or fertilizers ("organic"), unfiltered for sediment, and fermented with wild yeasts with no additives, sulfites or oak aging. At its purest, this is grape juice from an organic vineyard fermented into wine.
Natural wines are always organic but an organic wine may or may not be natural. This is because organic vineyards are required to be government certified, but once the grapes are harvested organic winemakers are free to make adjustments to their products, whereas natural vintners keep their wines unadulterated.
A curious subset of natural/organic wine is "biodynamism," imagined by Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner in the early 1920s. Steiner believed that farming should not only be chemical-free and holistic, but should also be based on the phases of the moon. It was subject to astrological influences, with specific days of the year assigned to tasks like watering, pruning, lying fallow and harvesting. One of his precepts was to bury a manure-filled cow horn during the autumn equinox, then dig it up in the spring, mix the contents with rainwater and spray the fermented mash over the farm property to induce "cosmic forces" into the soil. As unorthodox as the concept may seem, today a growing number of wineries are adopting these practices.
Natural wines are not without controversy. While aroma and flavor profiles can be sweet or dry and just as complex and fruit-driven as those of conventional bottlings, they can also be acidic, sour, fizzy or cloudy with suspended sediment. They can show funky, gamy, yeast-like characteristics. And without sulfites as preservatives, shelf life is limited. In general, natural wines are lighter in body and lower in alcohol.
The Basics of All Things Wine
The natural wine movement started in France during the 1980s when a small number of winemakers, disillusioned by the modern industrialized era, chose to create rustic wines in the style of their forebears.
Natural and organic wines are produced from familiar varietal grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling to more obscure indigenous varieties.
Although small amounts of sulfites occur naturally during fermentation, conventional vintners add additional sulfites to boost antioxidant and antibacterial properties. Since natural winemakers do not add sulfites, they risk the chance of funkiness or "mousiness" in the finished wines.
Since natural winemakers use no pesticides or fungicides they must look to eco-friendly vineyard management. They use ladybugs, mites, predatory wasps, hens and even bats to eat insect pests; free-roaming sheep to contain weed growth; natural bacterial fungicides to prevent mildew; and compost made from vineyard waste to provide protective cover for roots and to act as fertilizer.