At the wine shop where I used to work, customers would often ask, “What is natural wine?” as they browsed the cool-looking bottles with eye-catching art and modern graphics. Without delivering a whole TED Talk, my elevator pitch was, “If conventional wines are like packaged white bread, where each slice tastes exactly the same, think of natural wine as artisanal sourdough — the end product can vary from loaf to loaf.” That’s precisely why natural wine is described as tasting more alive and, to many enthusiasts, more exciting, but also why you may find variations among bottles of the same wine. To many wine traditionalists, these variations and other characteristics of natural wine are seen as flaws rather than selling points. I’d argue that natural wine is not necessarily better or worse than conventional wine — just different (and a category that’s definitely worth exploring).
Natural wine has steadily been picking up steam among imbibers around the world, with many celebrities living the natty wine life (Dua Lipa, Action Bronson and Eric Wareheim each have their own line of natural wines). Hip restaurants and wine bars touting the stuff can be found all across Europe and the U.S. It seems like a new trend, but natural wine actually dates back to ancient times — it’s how wine was made before more modern methods were invented. Its recent popularity can be attributed to the cool factor while some swear that it’s a healthier wine compared to conventional options, with claims that it mitigates hangovers and dehydration, even boosts gut health. But what makes a wine natural? The definition can be as hazy as the product itself. Read on to get a clearer picture.
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What is natural wine?
In her book, Natural Wine for the People, author Alice Feiring writes, “Natural wine is wine without crap in it.” She goes on to air a dirty little secret in the wine industry: Conventional wines can contain up to “72 official, perfectly legal, completely unnecessary, possible additives.” These include everything from Mega Purple (a syrupy grape concentrate to enhance the color, body and sweetness of wine), oak chips (for flavor and tannins) and dried fish bladders (to clarify the wine). This isn’t to say all conventional wines are suspect. If you’re concerned, seek out bottles from high-quality producers that are transparent about their practices.
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Natural wine isn’t made from one type of grape, rather it’s the method of winemaking that’s sometimes called “low-intervention wine.” Some intervention is needed so the grape juice doesn’t just ferment into vinegar, but there is significantly less meddling involved compared to conventional wine making. There are no government regulations on what can be called natural wine, but at the very least you can expect it to meet the following criteria:
- Made from organic grapes (not sprayed with pesticides or herbicides)
- Fermented from yeast that’s naturally occurring on the grapes (or cultivated yeast that’s organic)
- Bottled unfiltered with minimal or zero sulfites and no other additives that are commonly found in conventional wine
You might be thinking, “That all sounds awesome. Why would you make wine any other way?” Well, it turns out this method requires more time and effort, so a bottle of natural wine on average costs more to make — just as growing organic fruits and vegetables is more expensive than those sprayed with pesticides. Conventional wines, on the other hand, can be mass produced at lower cost, then manipulated at each stage to make sure every bottle tastes exactly the same.
What does natural wine taste like?
The flavor can vary from producer to producer and bottle to bottle. Some may taste weird and funky. What do we mean by that? Sometimes a natural wine will be reminiscent of kombucha or a funky cider. You can also find plenty of natural wines that are not funky at all. Many natural wines are what the French call “glou glou,” light, easy drinking and immensely crushable.
Why is natural wine cloudy?
Natural wine is cloudy or “hazy” because it hasn’t been filtered or fined (clarified with substances like gelatin, egg whites or the aforementioned fish bladders.) So if you invert a bottle of natural wine, you’re likely to see the sediment still inside. The sediment won’t harm you but if you find the texture unpleasant, let it settle to the bottom of the bottle or glass and drink around it.
Is natural wine organic?
All natural wine is organic (made from organic grapes) but not all organic wine is made in the natural method.
Does natural wine have sulfites?
Natural wine will contain some amount of sulfites because grapes have naturally occurring sulfites. Some producers may add a small amount just before bottling to protect the wine during shipping or to prevent flaws from developing. But it will be far less than what’s found in conventionally made wine, which gets sulfites added throughout production to kill off natural yeasts. The amounts are around 20 parts per million for natural wine vs. up to 350 parts per million allowed in the U.S. for conventional wine.
Does natural wine give you a hangover?
Unless you have a hollow leg, any alcohol consumed in large quantities will likely make you feel horrible the morning after. Most natural wines have lower alcohol content (usually 10% to 12%) so that could be one contributing factor for a less-than-raging hangover. But if sensitivity to sulfites is causing the next-day grogginess, it makes sense that wine lower in sulfites would help with that as well. However, the science is out on anything definitive to back up these claims so, as with consuming any alcoholic beverage, it’s best to enjoy in moderation and stay hydrated.
Where can I buy it?
Head to your local wine shop or wine bar and ask if they have any natural wines. Try a bottle or glass for the type of wine you like — natural wines can be red, white, rosé, orange and sparkling wines. There are also some wine delivery services dedicated to natural options. If taking bottles home, keep them in a cool, dark place and drink them within a year or two of purchase. Natural wines can be less stable than than conventional, so are best enjoyed fresh!
Susan (she/her) is the recipe editor at Good Housekeeping, where she pitches ideas, parses words, and produces food content. In the Test Kitchen, she cooks (and samples!) recipes, working with developers to deliver the best written versions possible. A graduate of Brown University and a collaborator on several cookbooks, her previous experience includes stints at Food & Wine, Food Network, three meal kit companies, a wine shop in Brooklyn, and Chez Panisse, the pioneering restaurant in Berkeley, California. She enjoys playing tennis, natural wines, and reality competition shows.