What is Natural Wine?

June 10, 2019



Confused about natural wine? You’re not the only one.

Natural wine is an all-encompassing word for wines that are made with respect to the land. This typically means making wine with organically-grown grapes and avoiding the use of sulfites and chemicals during the fermentation process. However, there is no official definition and “respect to the land” can be interpreted in a million different ways. So, natural wine is actually a very broad term!

If you ask for a natural wine at a bar or shop, you will probably get asked for more specifics so here are the most common types of natural wine with some explanations to boot.

Organic Wine

Organic wine is made from grapes that are farmed using organic practices. Although regulated differently in every country, most agree that the farmer must use natural methods to control pests rather than resorting to pesticides, herbicides, and chemicals.

Some countries, like the United States, require that wine makers limit additives and restrict the addition of chemicals during processing. It’s worth noting this is not the case for wines made in Canada and most of Europe.

Since it’s expensive and difficult to get certified organic, many natural wine makers forego the official stamp of approval and aren’t able to promote their bottles as such. You can find out if a vineyard is making their wine in a truly organic spirit by doing some simple online research or asking the knowledgeable staff at your local wine spot.

Biodynamic Wine

Biodynamic wine is like organic wine taken to the next level thanks to Rudolf Steiner. This philosopher from the 1920s vouched for a natural farming practices based on astrology and the lunar calendar. One part of the process even calls for a cow horn to be stuffed with manure and buried only to be excavated at a later date.

However, these are the more woo woo elements of Steiner’s philosophy. His main aim was to get wine makers to view the vineyard as its own ecosystem. One that relies on all aspects of nature (plant, animals, and buried cow horns alike) in order to maintain balance and provide the best situation for growing grapes.

Vegan Wine

You might be surprised to find out that not all wine is vegan. Even though wine is made from grapes, some winemakers use animal products like albumin (egg whites), gelatin (made either from animal products), and isinglass (a gelatin made from fish bladders) during a process called fining that helps remove sediment.

Interestingly enough, most wine will self-fine if given enough time and some winemakers intentionally use vegan-friendly products during fining. That means a lot of wines out there are vegan! Vegan wines sometimes have a description on the back label that denotes it as vegan friendly. You can also check out the winemaker’s website or look for your wine bottle on Barnivore’s comprehensive list of vegan wines.

Vin de France

Previously known as Vin de Table (table wine), Vin de France is an official category of wine that literally translates as “wine from France.” It is lowly regulated and relatively easy to obtain, which is noteworthy because French wine laws are notoriously strict.

For many years, this category of wine mainly consisted of cheap table wines that were intended for everyday consumption at home. Some marketers were smart and imported these bottles to other countries where Vin de France seems like something special and they could get a better price for it.

But then came the natural wine makers! Many of them were already bucking tradition with their wine making process, so it’s probably no surprise that they also chose to eschew the traditional wine designation process and chose the label that’s easiest to obtain. As a result, many natural wines are labeled simply as Vin de France.

Orange Wine

Orange wine is a popular type of wine in the natural wine world that is made from white wine grapes.

When making traditional white wine, the wine maker presses the juice from the grapes and then allows it to ferment. Orange wine is fermented using the entire white wine grape including the skin, seeds, stems, and all. For the record, red wine is made in this exact same way.

True to the name, orange wines range in hue from a pale golden yellow to a true orange or dark bronze. Some even come out more on the pink side. The weirdest thing about orange wines is that they often look like a white wine but have tasting notes that are more typical of bold red. Although I guess that isn’t so weird because orange wines are basically white grapes that are processed like red wines.

Skin-Contact Wine

A skin-contact wine is one that goes into the barrel with the grape skins on so that they skins stay in contact with the juice for a certain amount of time (either a few days and sometimes up to a year).

Since red wine is typically processed this way, most people use the term when referring to white wines. This means skin-contact wines are also orange wines and orange wines are skin-contact wines.

Pét-Nat Wine

Pét-Nat, short for Pétillant Naturel, is a sparkling wine that is increasing popular with natural wine makers.

Most sparkling wines like Champagne, Cava, and Prosecco get their fizz from a second fermentation when yeast, yeast nutrients, and sugar are added to the wine. This reliably creates a strong, tight intensity that we’ve come to associate with the bubbly stuff.

On the other hand, Pét-Nat is processed using the Méthode Ancestrale. It only goes through one fermentation in the bottle and relies on the natural sugars of the grapes to create subtler bubbles. This takes a lot of skill to regulate and is not as predictable, which many natural wine makers see as a fun element of the process.

P.S. Go on a wine adventure with me to Helen’s Wines, a wine shop in Los Angeles that stocks lots of natural wines.