We are now experiencing a wonderful time for natural wine. Unless you’ve been drinking under a rock for the last few years, the likelihood is you’ll have at least seen or heard about it. From the various natural wine bars popping up in cities across the UK to the transformed wine lists of Michelin-starred restaurants, natural wine is the cool, interesting and approachable sibling to “conventional” wine’s uptight and often elitist persona.
But what is it? How does it differ? What’s it all about? To answer all this and more, we’ve compiled a comprehensive briefing on natural wine, including a handy explainer and set of recommendations to help you decide what to drink and where to drink it.
How does the natural wine process differ to that of conventional wine?
First things first, natural wine is nothing new. Despite becoming ever more popular over recent years, natural wine is the original process of wine-making used before the industrialised techniques of the 1950s. To understand what it is, let’s first consider wine’s other incarnations.
Apologies if we’re getting too basic for you here, but wine – in its conventional bottled form – is fermented grape juice. The process, which is highly industrialised, involves grapes being grown, picked and pressed before the juice itself is fermented. There’s over 300 additives that can go into a bottle of wine and numerous processing techniques that can be used. Filtering, fining, the addition of yeast, clarification agents – it’s all fair game. Meanwhile the vineyard can be treated with whatever’s needed to quench that industrial thirst.
The next step up is organic wine. The long and short of organic wine is that in order to maintain disease-free grapes, the vines are treated with organic herbicides and pesticides. This is good news for the people that work in the vineyard and even better news for the environment. Meanwhile, in the cellar, it’s still a free for all in terms of additives and processing.
Another step towards natural. Biodynamic wine is a set of farming principles that considers the vineyard as an eco-system, which means a no-chemical approach akin to organic wine, but also includes a preventative approach to soil that hopefully means you won’t need to use chemicals later down the line to treat vine disease. There’s a bit less manipulation in the cellar too.
Natural wine is, dare we say it, the natural progression of all of the above. Grapes are traditionally grown in the best possible chemical- and machinery-free environment and are usually picked by hand. In the cellar, the grapes are fermented by “natural” or “wild” fermentation techniques, meaning once pressed, the grapes are left to ferment by themselves thanks to naturally-occurring yeast.
The clarification process of the wine is minimal – so there’s no to very low fining or filtration. The sulphur levels are low, so usually less than 50 parts per million of sulphur is added. Think of natural wine as the philosophy and organic and biodynamic as tools which are part of that philosophy.
How does the wine itself differ?
With the process considered, the product is thus noticeably different. For starters, a longer process usually results in smaller batches. Whilst other wines can often be manipulated in order to reach a particular deadline of fermentation, natural wine is ready when it’s ready. There’s no rushing it.
The resultant wines are fascinating and the most noticeable difference is the taste, with a wider range of notes and room for more complex natural flavours. The smell is different, the nose of the wine has a lot more to it and you’ll often hear the term “funk” or “funky” thrown around. Aromas will typically be strange, but nonetheless complement the taste. There’s also a cloudiness or spritziness to the appearance, too.
Under a microscope, natural wine is dramatically different. On a microbiological level, the wines are alive in the bottle, there’s a lot happening there and it results in each bottle being characterful and unique.
What are the misconceptions?
As you can imagine, any reference to “natural” inevitably conjures imagery of sandal-clad hippies and drum circles, but that’s a stereotype that’s unfounded. In every wine-making country there’ll be either a large or small community of natural wine-makers. The stuffier, more convention wine elites often speak negatively of natural wine, unable to deal with unconventional tastes, aromas and appearances but you only need to consider Michelin-starred pairings and an ever-growing popularity worldwide for evidence of credibility.
On a more technical note, one of the most commonly asked questions – due to the lack of added sulphur – is can it still age? In this sense, it’s no different to conventional wine. There’s natural wine made for ageing and there’s natural wine made for drinking young.
The definition of natural wine isn’t bolted on either – it’s not a box-ticking exercise. Although some might begrudge others for adding a little sulphur, that same sulphur (usually less than a bag of dried apricots) can provide a safety net for those trying to make wine in a better way, which ultimately, is akin to walking a tightrope. Think of natural wine as a fluid concept and applaud those trying to make wine in a traditional way.
Will drinking natural wine stop me from getting a hangover?
Listen, if you drink any form of alcohol to excess you’re going to get a hangover. It’s as simple as that. But, it’s worth considering, what actually goes into conventional wine? The answer: loads of chemicals. Remember, over 300 potential additives are incorporated – and that’s not including the hardcore herbicides and pesticides used to treat the grapes as they’re growing on the vine. If you go pick up a bottle of supermarket wine right now, there’s a high chance it’s going to have some trace of pesticide residue in it.
With a natural wine, the most you’re going to get is a small amount of sulphites. Anecdotal evidence from natural wine drinkers is conclusive in pointing out less of a headache and groggy feeling in the morning but of course, that all depends on how much you’ve had and what you’ve had it with. Some scientific evidence points towards a link between the presence of sulphites and an inability to process alcohol in the liver, but we’ll leave the science to the scientists. Wishful thinking is not conclusive proof.
Why should you care about natural wine?
There’s a certain romance and purity with natural wine that’s difficult to find elsewhere in the wine world. Natural wine is about making sure you’ve got the healthiest grapes possible and then essentially letting the wine make itself. What results is a really big vintage variation and an honest reflection of what that year has given you. In a hot year you might have a ripe, full-bodied wine with high alcohol levels. In a cooler year, you can have a lighter-bodied wine with higher acidity and increased freshness.
It means you’re tasting different expressions of the same territory, the same area and the same grapes – an honest reflection of a place rather than something that’s a manipulated product. Going back to traditional wine-making principles has also opened up wine to a new crowd, which can only be a good thing. In the same way that craft beer has steered the ship away from the middle-aged CAMRA member, if you go to a natural wine tasting evening, you’re likely to see a younger, more diverse and welcoming group from different backgrounds.
It goes without saying that natural wine is a delicious product. Whether you’re a Malbec or Rosé drinker, there’s something to cater for your tastes. From the vibrant labels hinting at what’s inside to the variation in bottle-styles, natural wine is a mouth-watering labour of love.
Where to drink natural wine?
You may have cottoned on or you may still be sleeping, but chances are a natural wine bar has popped up in your city. If you reside in London, they’ll be multiple in your borough but you might be surprised how many are elsewhere across the country. An extended list of favourites include: Bunch (Liverpool), Wayward (Leeds), Elm (Sheffield), Kwas (Huddersfield), Good Bros and Little Rascal (both Edinburgh), Brett (Glasgow) and Erst (a restaurant in Manchester with a great selection).
In London there’s an equally impressive cohort: The Remedy (Fitzrovia), Terroirs (Charing Cross) Nobel Fine Liquor (Hackney) and P Franco (Clapton) are all excellent ports of call.
At this point, before recommending a few bottles, it’s worth pointing out that the patrons of these places most likely live and breathe natural wine, so talk to them. Ask them what they like, what they don’t like and the stories, people and suppliers behind these wines. Buying online is handy, but it’s worth making the most of the in-store experience with natural wine and learning a few things.
Ape’s Natural Wine Recommendations
Tempranillo, Gran Cerdo
An extremely drinkable and affordable natural red. Matured in steel, this is a bright and juicy Spanish wine with faint notes of lavender and an earthy edge. Pair with red meat.
Viura, Gran Cerdo
The white to the Tempranillo’s red. Another affordable gateway choice, this is the ideal day-to-day dry white. Ripe and juicy, flavours of white peach and apricot stand out. The perfect bottle for keeping in the fridge for impromptu company.
Nero D’avola Ciello
Another fantastic value red, this time from Italy. Medium-bodied, with fresh dark fruit flavours and a little spice. Organically-farmed and bottled without fining or filtration, this is a great option to have around the house and goes beautifully with simple pasta dishes.
Ciello Bianco Catarratto
The corresponding white from Sicily that’s another great value and extremely drinkable dry white. Again, organically-farmed and bottled without fining or filtration, the cloudy interior is bursting with fruity flavour.
Rainbow Juice, Gentle Folk
Ask anyone in natural wine and they’ll tell you how quickly Rainbow Juice sells out. All the way from Adelaide, this light red is juicy and refreshing. A blend of 23 different varieties, we recommend buying in bulk if sighted on the shelves.
Riesling Vom Berg, Brand Brothers
A beautiful example of a family winemaker doing wonderful things. This Riesling from Daniel and Jonas Brand is crisp, dry and refreshing with lemony and tropical fruit flavours. Another testament to the care taken, their grandmother hand-draws the labels for their bottles.
FRV 100, Jean Paul Brun
Another great reason to try natural wine is that it’s a reason to cast aside negative stereotypes often associated with sparkling and rosé. This sparkling rosé, which uses the Gamay grape, is absolutely delicious and should be kept chilled for a sweeter weekend evening glass.
I Wish I Was A Ninja, Testalonga
Testalonga’s Craig Hawkins is widely-respected on the natural wine circuit and his South African options are so easy to fall in love with. With eye-catching labels abound, our pick is this sparkling number with flavours of pear and elderflower. Completely additive free and delicious.
A special thanks to Bobby Fishel of Bunch, Liverpool for his extremely helpful natural wine expertise and enthusiasm.