An intro to natural & orange wines
What's the deal with natural wine?
Words— Clay Sandhu
If you're the type of person who drinks wine, you've probably heard of Natural wine. Named drink of the year in 2017 by Bon Appetit Magazine, Natural-wine is finding itself front-and-center of the contemporary dining scene with wine bars cropping up in cities from Tokyo to Ottawa. Orange wines and Pet-Nats (Petillent Naturel) are not only making frequent appearances on wine lists but often comprise sections unto themselves. It's part of an ever-growing movement towards the promotion small scale producers painstakingly making incredible terroir-driven wines. But what is it, and why the hype? If you're asking yourself this, then I'm writing this for you in hopes of convincing you to open your mind and to fill your glass with what so many people are calling real wine.
What exactly is Natural wine?
Currently, there is no official definition or governing body for natural wine the way there is for organic wine. So without a legal definition, natural winemakers operate under a system of commonly understood practices that cover farming and vinification. As restaurateur Ryan Gray puts it: “Natural wine is, the process of making wine with as little intervention as possible. There's a lot of different definitions for it but at the end of the day, it's wine that's made with the least amount of additions and subtractions as possible.” Or more simply, Isabelle Legeron, Master of Wine describes natural wine this way: “It is good old-fashioned grape juice fermented into wine just as nature intended.”
Oh, but I thought all wine was just fermented grape juice.
It's not. All wine shares one key element: grapes, but that's pretty much where the commonalities end. To understand what natural wine is, we need to understand what it's not, which is industrial, mass-manufactured wine.
What do you mean by industrial wine?
This part is the most technical but it's also the most important because once you understand the difference between what is called conventional wine and natural wine it's like getting pulled out the matrix. The idea that all wine is made from grapes hand-harvested and turned to wine on a pastoral expanse of old-world vineyards, is this romantic idea that is causing you to buy the wrong wines—it’s a marketing ploy. When you picture old world Europe as you're picking up a bottle for 8 bucks, you should really be thinking of sprawling industrial vineyards spraying large quantities of pesticides and sulphur dioxide, big noisy mechanical harvesting processes and a bunch of scientists in a lab adding all types of artificial flavouring agents, acidifiers, colouring additives (like mega purple), artificial yeasts (with flavour additives), antiseptics and more. What you get at the end of the day is less grapes turned to wine and more grapes as an ingredient in a mass manufactured grape-based alcoholic beverage. It's industrial, Monsanto-like wine from concentrate, and it's not at all natural.
What are natural wine makers doing that's so different?
Natural wine producers are generally running very small operations and are both farmers and winemakers, they follow, at a minimum, organic farming practices and bring this mentality with them into the cellar where wines are made with minimal intervention, meaning no flavour additives, no artificial yeasts— no bullshit. The resulting product is a wine overflowing with a sense of time and place and made from genuine fermented grape juice. What that all means is, you're drinking higher quality wine, made by artisans not scientists, in a vineyard and not a laboratory.
Obviously I like the idea of organic products going into my wine, and it sounds like these winemakers take what they do seriously, but is actually better for me?
Arguably yes. Due to the minimal amount of preservatives, pesticides and sulphur in natural wine, you're less likely to get hungover. Those crippling red-wine headaches— that's the sugar and sulphur coming back to bite you in the ass the next day.
Wine lists are so complicated!
When you look at a formal wine list a lot of what you're seeing and what you're paying for is designed to check boxes for people with a deeper understanding of wine than the average person. You'll see producers, vintages, appellations, varietals and cuvée names. These are some of the factors which determine the style and price of the bottles on the list, and if you're pretty well-versed in wine lingo, then these are factors from which you can make a decision, but if you're like most people this can seem like reading a secret code, and talking to a waiter can feel humiliating when they start describing wines in that same secret language.
Okay, so if I'm not an expert how do I choose a wine I'm going to like?
If your wine knowledge is limited, don't fret, sitting down at a bar or restaurant with a natural wine list should be a fun experience provided you’re open to a little exploration. The prestige of Grand Cru vineyards, the particular appellations and grape varieties, none of these things need matter to you. When your server asks you what you like to drink, you don't need to know that you want to drink a bright Gamay from the Beaujolais, or a creamy, textured Montrachet, own your inexperienced palate and say “It's been a long week, I need something fun and refreshing” or “It's a full moon tonight, give me something weird and freaky”. With natural wine, choosing a bottle has a lot to do with energy and emotions; drinking the right wine for the moment. People in the natural-wine business are passionate about what they're serving and they have great bottles of really cool wine that they want you to be drinking, put yourself in their hands and let them have you taste a few things and before you know it you'll be walking into bars and confidently ordering Savagnin from Jura and Austrian Zweigelt. Conventional wine knowledge doesn't always help when it comes to drinking natural wines, so be open to new things and allow for some experimentation with your taste, you'll be greatly rewarded.
I have a wine-nerd friend who says natural wine is just faulty wine with good labels?
This is a common misconception. The word funky gets thrown around a lot when talking about natural wine, and critics of the natural wine movement will often point to those funky aspects of natural wine like brettonomyces, and volatile acidity which in conventional wine making are considered flaws but in many natural wines when correctly integrated, are considered desirable characteristics. Brett and VA in the hands of a skilled producer can yield complex and deeply interesting wines, but these faults can ruin a wine when in the hands of less skilled producer who lacks the comprehension to make natural wine properly. Funkiness is a quality a lot of people love about natural wine, but it doesn't define it, there's a big difference between drinking natural wine as a distinctly characterized product and drinking wines made naturally, which if you didn't know they were natural wines, well you just wouldn't know, you'd just wake up the next day and remember that damn-good bottle of Sangiovese you drank last night.
So how do I know if I'm drinking a good funky wine or a bad one?
Ultimately, it's a question of taste, and taste should always be your guide when it comes to drinking wine. Be wary of wines that are all funk and no substance because even though some of the best wines being made are natural (and funky to boot), there's some crappy ones being made too. Be honest about your tastes and they'll lead you the right way, and remember that the way to drink the best wines is to taste a lot of wine and figure out what you do and don't like.
It sounds like natural wine is just better wine, plus I was pretty-well sold when you got to the no hangover part, is there anything else I should take away?
Just one thing. natural wine is about life and celebration and drinking good-ass-wine. I know “celebrating life” is corny, but when it's done right it's the most uplifting and genuine experience you can have. They call it Vin Vivant (living wine), and the people who make it are fostering life within the vineyard and channelling this life into each bottle of wine they make. The wine produced is a living thing, some are still actively fermenting, most have some of the same macrobiotic cultures found in yogurt and kombucha. When you drink it you're drinking living, healthy bacteria, you’re consuming the yeast cells, and the wine is very much alive. So let that exciting energy flow into you as you open a bottle of something new and strange and utterly delicious. Share opinions, tastes and ideas. Celebrate your passions while consuming someone else's. Eat, drink, and be merry for god's sake, it's the whole point of making this drink in the first place.