Walk into almost any newly opened restaurant or wine bar these days and you’ll find natural wines on the wine list. Even if they’re not actually described as natural, the chances are many on the list will be. If you’re wondering what exactly natural wine is, you’re not alone.
The term has no official definition and tends to annoy conventional wine producers, who resent the implication that their wines aren’t natural.
The term essentially refers to wines that are made without the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides, with minimal sulfites and using wild yeasts found in vineyards rather than those manufactured in a lab. In addition, natural wines are often unlined and unfiltered and, in some cases, even made without oak — or at least no new oak — in an effort to preserve the flavour of the terroir. ‘Nothing added, nothing taken away’ is the natural winemakers’ mantra.
The revival of this style kicked off in the Loire and Beaujolais regions of France back in the 1970s, but these days you can find natural wines everywhere.
And what do they taste like? The reds are generally bright and juicy — what the French describe as a vin de soif. The whites, however, tend to be more appley and hazy (critics dub them ‘cidery’), although fresher, more citrussy styles are now more commonplace. There’s a purity and fragrance to them, though, which is particularly appealing — especially when they’re made from aromatic grape varieties like malvasia and torrontés.
Natural wines also tend to have lower ABVs (alcohol percentages) than conventional wines. This is partly due to native yeasts, which are less efficient at boosting alcohol, and partly due to earlier picking times — natural wines are rarely left on the vine until they’re super-ripe.
Two main styles characterise the natural wine movement: ‘pet nat’, or pétillant naturel, a light, refreshing semi-sparkling style in which the first fermentation finishes in the bottle (as opposed to the traditional champagne method, which sees sugar and yeast added to create a second fermentation); and orange wines, which are white wines made using the same methods as red wine, by leaving the juice in contact with the skins and seeds.
The main downside of natural wines is they tend to be expensive. This is largely because they’re typically made by small producers, working their vineyards by hand. They also sometimes need decanting to dispel any initial funkiness.
But once you’ve got used to their distinctive flavours, you may find they change the way you think about wine, and that you find conventional wines a little too sweet and cloying. You should certainly give them a try.
Five natural wines to try
1. Ancre Hill Pet Nat Pink
A natural wine from Wales, this is a light (only 10% ABV) refreshing rosé that tastes of citrus, wild strawberries and granny smith apples. It’s best sipped on a sunny summer’s afternoon, perhaps with some crab sandwiches. £18.75.
2. Ciello Bianco Catarratto 2022
A hazy, refreshing lemon-and-grapefruity Sicilian white at the affordable end of the price spectrum for natural wine. A real summer thirst-quencher to knock back with outdoorsy food, such as grilled seafood and salads. Drink young. £9.50.
3. Mielie Green Testalonga 2022
A more typical natural white from South Africa’s Swartland region, made from chenin vines planted in 1961. Full and richly textured, with the beguiling flavour of ripe pear and honeydew melon. Could pair well with a pork chop. £18.
4. Pépin Orange
A gloriously heady scented orange wine that tastes of orange blossom, mandarin and dried mango. It’s made in Alsace from a cocktail of local grape varieties by a group of natural winemakers. Drink with grilled vegetables, especially aubergines. £23.20.
5. Nibiru Tradition Red
Everything good about natural wine is encapsulated in this delicious zweigelt/merlot blend from Austrian wine producer Nibiru, based in the Kamptal region. Expect pure, bright-red berry fruit. Keep it chilled and drink it with a barbecue. £21.50.
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