Wade Into Natural Wines the Easy Way
These lively, low alcohol reds are a delicious introduction to the category
I remember the first time I tried a natural wine. It was a Beaujolais that practically jumped out of the glass it felt so alive. It had precise flavors and fresh acidity, with a tension and energy that I hadn’t encountered before. That one glass sent me down the rabbit hole, questioning how and why this wine was different.
Natural wine seems to be on your minds too. Lately, I’ve fielded several questions on the topic, including: What exactly is natural wine? Are all natural wines spritzy and funky tasting? I want to try it, but am not sure where to start — any recommendations?
There’s so much to explore! But first, a framework for discussion: Think of winemaking as a spectrum. At one end are industrially made wines, where flavor scientists develop recipes in a process similar to formulating SunnyD, the 80s lunchbox “tangy orange drink.” Moving down the line, you pass small conventional producers, then organic and biodynamic producers. Finally, at the far other end are natural wines that — in comparison to SunnyD — are fresh-squeezed orange juice.
Interest in these wines is growing. Natural wine searches on Google tripled in the U.S. over the past 5 years, according to Google Trends. But natural wine accounts for just a tiny sliver of the global wine ecosystem — likely less than 1% of global sales, though it’s hard to pin down exact numbers given that there’s no official definition or standards.
Regardless, what used to be niche is now turning mainstream, as natural wines pop up everywhere from staid bottle shops to grocery chains. So let’s dive in.
What is Natural Wine?
Natural wine is a concept that’s part philosophy and part practice. The goal, for natural winemakers, is that the juice in the bottle accurately represents the living ecosystem of the grapes and the vineyard they come from.
Thinking about what that means in practice, it’s really traditional farming. People have been fermenting grapes into wine for thousands of years. Back then, vines were tended without pesticides or herbicides. Grapes were picked by hand and fermentation started spontaneously via native yeasts. Nothing was added to the wines, and nothing was taken away.
TL;DR - Natural wines are:
Organic, biodynamic, or otherwise farmed without chemicals
Picked and processed using low tech methods (e.g. hand picking, foot treading)
Fermented with native yeasts
Made without the use of additives or enzymes
Unfined and unfiltered (e.g. microbes and proteins are not filtered out)
Bottled with little to no sulfites (a preservative to stabilize the wines)
In the modern era, the natural wine movement kicked off in France in the 1970s and has grown over time, with excellent examples now made across the globe, from Australia to Argentina. Natural wines may be sparkling or still, and made from any type of grape. All sorts of techniques can be used, from extended skin maceration (where white grapes make orange wines) to fermenting and aging in clay amphorae as the Greeks and Romans did.
Are All Natural Wines Funky?
Natural wine styles vary considerably. Some are sour and barnyard-y, with flavors more like kombucha or sour beer. Others are clean and classically styled, with a certain je ne sais quoi vibrancy and complexity to them.
What’s responsible for that range of sipping experiences? These wines are alive — as in literally alive. There’s a party happening at the microbial level. By minimizing sulfur use and forgoing fining and most filtration, yeasts and bacteria can go wild — with good and bad results.
Yeast strains like Lactobacillus add tang, while Brettanomyces give wines funky flavors like spice, leather, and horse blanket. Traditionally, winemakers tried to control these microbes. But some producers are moving into brewing territory with their funkier wine styles — brewers intentionally add these strains to beer in pursuit of new expressions.
Then there’s the question of sulfites. Sulfur dioxide is a preservative that slows bacterial growth and oxidation. Isn’t that what gives me a wine headache? No. That’s the alcohol (drink more water). While some people do have sulfite allergies, it’s rare. If you’ve ever had a handful of dried apricots and lived to tell the tale, you’re probably good. A serving of dried fruit has some 2,000 parts per million of sulfites, while most organic wine has less than 100 ppm — in the entire bottle. Conventional wines in the U.S. can have up to 350 ppm.
Some natural winemakers push the limits, adding no sulfur or very little, around 20 parts per million. That makes the wines particularly sensitive to spoilage. I’ve poured many bottles down the sink over the years after taking a sniff reminiscent of rotten vegetables or mouse cage. So keep in mind that these wines can be risky — you may get a few bad bottles here and there. I recommend drinking natural wines soon after purchase unless you can store them in a cool, dark place. (And to my mind, the payoff of a stunning bottle is worth a bit of risk.)
Which Producers Do You Recommend?
Pét-nats and orange wines get a lot of attention in the natural wine world, but they can have off-putting flavors if you’re just getting into natural wine. Instead, start with the reds. I chose three natural California producers whose wines are clean, fresh, and flavorful.
There’s a technical reason for that freshness: Higher acidity helps kill microbes, preserving the wines better in the absence of sulfur. There’s also not much oak aging, as winemakers look to convey the natural expression of grape and place.
So you’ll find these wines fruit-forward and enjoyable, but not simple — they’ve got some complexity. They’re also surprisingly low alcohol, topping out at 12.5% ABV. That makes them ideal for an afternoon of sipping and snacking (cheese and charcuterie board, Middle Eastern dips and pita) with friends at the park or in your own backyard. Give them a slight chill, and enjoy!
This low-alc (11.4%) Merlot, Grenache, and Mourvèdre blend is made by Donkey & Goat, an urban winery in Berkeley that was one of California’s pioneering natural wine producers (est. 2004). The husband-and-wife team Tracey and Jared Brandt follow through on the promise of their labels. “Ingredients: Hand picked grapes and minimal sulfur.” That’s it. On the nose, you get high-toned berries and florals (raspberries + pomegranate + iris) along with earthy notes (pine) and spice (black pepper). The flavors layer in and evolve around a structure of bright acidity and well integrated, smooth tannins.
Operating out of a warehouse in Berkeley, winemaker Chris Brockway farms organic vineyards and bottles his wines with no or very little sulfur. This wine is made from a blend of three grapes. According to Brockway, the Carignan give blue fruit character; Valdiguié contributes brightness and lifting acidity; and Syrah adds depth and structure. The medium-bodied wine has fresh acidity and bright flavors reminiscent of blackberry and blueberry cobbler, plus a touch of herbal, earthy complexity.
In a sea of overly alcoholic California Zinfandels (looking at you 16% ABV big boys), this 99% Zinfandel, 1% Vermentino wine is a refreshing departure. Crushed fruit (blackberries + black cherries) aromas and flavors mingle with spice and tobacco notes. It’s a juicy wine with black tea astringency — and at a mere 12.5% ABV, I could sip it just like iced tea all afternoon.