Natural wine: everything you need to know
There’s been a buzz about natural wine for quite some time now, along with wines that are described as low-intervention, organic, biodynamic and more. And while they’ve become more prevalent in wine bars and retailers alike, the details (much like some of the wines) can be murky at times. Nevertheless, they’re well worth exploring and considering for your wine list.
Consumers have become increasingly interested in the products they buy – where they’re made and how, not to mention their sustainability credentials. When it comes to everything from cleaning products to groceries, people want to know about the impact of their purchases, on the environment, and on themselves too. The idea of natural wine fits perfectly into this, an antidote to bottles that are perceived as commercial and mass-produced.
Fortunately, there’s more to natural wine than its credentials, with the potential to offer a broader range of flavour profiles, and to present new options for food matching too.
What makes a wine natural?
More a broad concept than a strict definition, the term natural can subtly differ depending on who you’re speaking to. Most people agree that it involves minimal intervention in the cellar – this means no additives, for example, and very little filtration. In addition, the grapes that end up in the cellar will have been farmed in a natural way – whether that’s organically, biodynamically, or something else along those lines.
Pioneering UK-based natural wine business Les Caves de Pyrene describes the wines it promotes as “those that are expressive of their homeland; wines made by hand with minimal chemical intervention; and where the winemaking shows maximum respect for the environment”.
Image credit: @lescavesdepyreneuk
Les Caves marketing director and buyer Douglas Wregg elaborates: “For me, natural wine denotes one not denatured by excessive process, chemical addition and overt manipulation. Farming and winemaking are about transforming grapes into wine; natural wine may technically describe low-intervention wines but has also come to refer to wines that are free and that exhibit a certain spirit or energy.”
There are various reasons to consider natural wine for your list, even if your venue isn’t a natural wine specialist, starting with the fact that customers are increasingly interested in these, and might be actively looking for them.
“This is not so surprising when one thinks of the surge of interest in craft beer and cider, sourdough culture bread, unpasteurised cheese to name but a few products,” says Wregg.
Natural wines have attracted a new generation of drinkers, particularly those who care about provenance, farming methods, environmental impact and (unnecessary) additives in their food and drink.
Of course, there’s what’s in the glass to consider too – how the wines taste. Many will tell you that natural wines can have decidedly different characteristics to their non-natural counterparts, and can offer entirely different styles too. Beyond all of the ethical and environmental considerations, it can only be a good thing to offer more stylistic choice to your guests.
“Natural wines offer such a diversity of flavours and textures, so provide distinctive taste experiences,” says Wregg. “Because of the way they are made, they are often more gastronomic – lighter in alcohol and extraction, for example – and pair effortlessly with a variety of dishes.”
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Tell the world
So you’re convinced, and you have a selection of low-intervention, natural wines on your list. The next step is to let your customers know about what you’re stocking.
“This depends on the venue,” begins Wregg. “Providing information can never be a bad thing and it can be useful to highlight the natural/organic credentials of particular wines for those customers who are interested in delving further.”
There are some considerations that are specific to the category, broad as it is. “Each wine is so particular that the grouping into a single category can seem a bit random,” continues Wregg. “As a wine company, we provide detailed technical sheets with stories about the growers and the places that the wines come from. And, of course, we offer staff training. It is important to communicate well about wine to ensure that it is more than a product for a commercial purpose, but something crafted from the combined efforts of nature and humankind.”
Natural wine styles
While you can find all of the conventional styles of wine made in natural ways, there are a few styles or directions that are unique to the natural wine category.
“Natural vignerons are never afraid to experiment, but many of them, rather than making wine for the hypothetical consumer, really want to produce something that they themselves would drink,” says Wregg. “Wine styles are constantly evolving but one trend that I have noticed (and which mirrors my own taste!) is a move away from intense, extractive opaque red wines towards rose-hued reds – you might call them reds for people who like whites.”
Perhaps conversely, orange wines, which could be described as white wines made like reds, are most often natural too. While most white wines are fermented from only the juice of the grape, orange wines, much like conventional red wine production, are produced with the skins too. This skin contact results in different characteristics and flavours, and most notably, some serious food-pairing potential.
Meanwhile, natural wine has its own sparkling wine style, Pétillant Naturel, or Pet Nat. The epitome of natural, these are produced by bottling unfiltered wine while it’s still fermenting, resulting in carbonation occurring inside the bottle.
Regions to watch for Natural Wines
Natural wines are made around the world, but there are some regions that are particularly associated with this approach to winemaking. “Jura is still the destination for many natural-wine pilgrims,” says Wregg.
But there are others beyond this French wine region, with France in general a great source. Georgia is known for its natural wine, while Spain and Italy have their fair share too, among others in Europe. And the New World isn’t being left behind either – there’s plenty out there to explore.
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