What the Freak is Natural Wine?

More and more we hear terms like, “natural wine,” “naturalist,” and “minimal intervention” pop up when describing wine making styles and winery philosophies. What does this even mean and when would a wine be made “un-naturally?” Why do we even care?

It’s trendy these days to call a wine natural, and there are no real regulations governing the term. It’s understandably hard to know what to expect when you buy one, so let’s see if we can break it down for you right now.

NATURAL WINE, the basics: 

You could call a wine natural if you don’t really intervene in grape growing or during fermentation. In the vineyard, if the producer chooses not to use sprays, weed killers or fertilizers, they could say the grapes are growing naturally. 

In the winery, once the grapes are harvested and pressed, fermentation may start spontaneously thanks to wild yeasts in the air and on the grape skins. If the fermentation is more or less left alone, then then the wine is processed without fining agents or much filtration, the producer could say it was made in a natural style. Boom, it’s that simple. Or is it?

I read in a magazine that natural wines eschew the concept of “purchasing” flavour, and that seems like a nice, simple way to understand them. Like when a winery buys oak barrels to add toasty notes and body to a wine or when techniques such as micro-oxygenation or pump overs are used. These purchased flavours are not wrong and in fact, I think we all love a full bodied and toasty red wine. But, it is a good way to look at how “natural” differs from other styles.

Concrete vs Oak: 

When a wine claims to be natural, you may find that the juice was fermented in concrete tanks shaped like eggs or amphorae. This is in stark contrast to large stainless steel tanks wrapped with temperature regulating glycol or toasty French oak barrels. The reasoning here is that concrete, like oak, is porous and allows a small amount of oxygen contact with the fermenting juice, not manipulating the flavour profile of the wine. Oak barrels accomplish the same task, yet add texture, aromas and flavours to the wine that weren’t there in the first place — so not wrong, but also not natural.

What does this mean for you? Aromatically, wines raised in concrete or “neutral” oak tend to be juicy, fruity and pretty raw. Raw as in no sweet caramel or brioche flavours from oak barrel mingling with the characteristics of the grape.

To Fine or Not to Fine: 

Fining agents like egg whites or bentonite can be used by winemakers to remove off aromas and flavours. This is where things start to get “un-natural.” A winemaker can employ this tool to pull out under-ripe flavours or weird and uninteded aromatics. Natural wine enthusiasts rejoice in wines that show off their raw character, flaws or no!

Orange Wine – Reverse Rosé

Orange, or skin contact wine might be the trendiest thing for wine drinkers right now. But, unlike trying out a new provencal rosé, the aromas and flavours might offer up a wild surprise. 

To call a wine orange is to simply acknowledge that white grapes have been fermented like red grapes – with the juice and the grape skins in contact for anywhere between a few days to a few months. This pulls loads of flavour and texture out of the skins without “purchasing” those features. The practice also imparts crazy new characteristics to your Pinot Grigio, say. Winemakers can go so far as to put whole clusters of foot stomped fruit into concrete vats to ferment, uninterrupted for months. 

In your glass, Orange wine is going to look, well, orange. Often darker in colour like marmalade, or murky like a belgian beer. You could find notes of peat smoke, apricot jam, vermouth, apple cider and a wild range of other aromatics. On the palate, orange wines can offer up some tannin and body thanks to the time the juice spends with its skin. 

You can absolutely decant these wines and they’ll change immensely over time. Some of the best skin contact whites in the world can handle a day of decanting, and often improve with that much time! 

Food-wise, these bottles are versatile and can stand up to some crazy flavours. The spices of Middle Eastern and North African cuisine can be a tricky match for most wines, but the skin contact bottles are up to the job. The wild flavours of Orange wine compliment the savoury spices with their own unique character. Smoked fish, lamb, game birds and complex vegetarian dishes could all mingle well with these orange curiosities!

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