'Natural wine' on rise in France: what is it and is it any good?

Vigneron and winemaker Jonathan Hesford explains this alternative to over-manipulated products

Bottle of wine pouring into a glass
The idea of Natural wine is to make wines that are free of any additions other than the grapes themselves
Published Last updated

Natural wine has become a niche market in recent years as more and more people look for an alternative to over-manipulated products. 

Water, fruit juice, milk and even honey can be considered to be natural drinks but wine is a processed, man-made drink. Wine is one of mankind’s oldest processed foods, alongside bread, beer and cheese. 

The idea of Natural wine is to make wines that are free of any additions other than the grapes themselves and which have not been modified in any way. 

It sounds like a very laudable thing to do and which should produce wines which taste purer and more representative of the grapes and the vineyard where they are grown. 

However, the reality is that they often do not achieve that aim: Wine is not a natural product. It doesn’t exist in nature. It is made by humans. 

At its most basic it is purely grape juice fermented with wild yeast. That is essentially what Natural wine is trying to be. The most basic form of wine. 

The problem with basic wine is that it doesn’t last very long. Winemaking can be thought of as stopping the process which eventually turns grape juice to vinegar. 

All wines contain sulfites

Vinegar is formed by aerobic bacteria. Therefore the two most obvious ways of preventing wine turning to vinegar are to protect it from air and bacterial infection, ideally from the minute the grapes are crushed. 

Since Roman times, winemakers have used sulphur dioxide to protect their wines. Sulphur dioxide has the unique benefit of being both an antioxidant and an anti-bacterial sterilising agent. 

Added as sulfites in small doses, it doesn’t affect the flavour of the wine. Sulfites are used in many other foods and drinks such as sliced bread, dried fruit and processed meat and fish.

At high levels, it can trigger a reaction in asthmatics and lead to stomach discomfort. 

The amounts added to wine are strictly controlled to prevent these reactions but, even so, most governments have decided that it is mandatory to inform consumers that wine ‘contains sulfites’. 

A myth has developed among a sector of wine consumers that sulfites are responsible for causing headaches. 

Because of this, a main attraction of Natural wine is that it is understood not to contain sulfites. 

However, all wine contains some sulfites from the fermentation process and many Natural winemakers do add low levels of sulfites before bottling their wine.

Hence even Natural wines will bear the words ‘contains sulfites’ on the label.

Throwing the baby out with the bath water

Natural wines are about much more than the avoidance of sulfites. 

They are a counter-reaction to the over-use of science and technology in winemaking since the 1960s, which has led to a homogenisation of wines with flavours and styles manipulated to meet the demands of the market. 

That applies both to popular, bland, mass-produced brands as well as expensive trophy wines designed to appeal to influential wine critics and their followers. 

Natural wine is an attempt to turn back the clock and to strip back winemaking to its basic foundations, ostensibly with the aim of creating more authentic wines. 

It is worth remembering that winemaking advancements made since the 17th century have vastly improved the overall quality of wine and allowed wine consumers to enjoy wines which have the ability to improve in the bottle. 

Without those advancements there would be no such thing as ‘fine wine’ or wine connoisseurs. Rejecting all those advancements risks throwing the baby out with the bath water. 

The presence of faults obscures the characters of the grape varieties used or the terroir on which the grapes were grown, thereby failing to produce wines which are more authentic representations of their origin. 

What is a Natural wine exactly?

The definition of Natural wine is debatable, often being decided by wine writers and sommeliers, rather than the producers themselves. 

In general it includes the following: 

• It is produced from Organic or Biodynamic grapes 

• Fermented only with wild yeast 

• No additions of enzymes, yeast nutrients, cultured yeasts or bacteria 

• No alteration of sugar or acidity levels 

• No fining agents such as gelatine, proteins, bentonite or tannin powder 

• No use of techniques such as micro-oxygenation, reverse osmosis, or certain filtrations

• No additions of any chemicals to correct wine faults 

• No use of oak products such as chips or staves 

With meticulous cleanliness and preventing air from getting to the wine during storage and transfers, it is possible to make sound wines adhering to those criteria and some of the results can be exceptional.

However, it is very difficult, requires top quality equipment and lots of winemaking experience. 

Appealing imperfections

The natural wine world has attracted a lot of winemakers who don’t have the experience, knowledge, equipment or facilities to make good wine under those constraints. 

Therefore the results are very variable and most Natural wines contain faults that would not be accepted in ‘normal’ wine.

Natural wine aficionados cherish that variability and enjoy the presence of faults. That is what they feel makes the wine authentic. 

It may be cloudiness, a distinct oxidised character, the stinky smells of ‘spoilage’ yeasts and bacteria or the whiff of vinegar. 

A young Australian sommelier explained the appeal of Natural wines to me best. He said they are the opposite of what his parents drink. 

Natural wine may have created a niche market by differentiating itself from the worst examples of over-manipulated wine and appealing to the demographic that seeks food and drink free from additives, but we mustn’t forget that, especially in France, there are thousands of well-made, authentic, wines made by conscientious producers who also avoid manipulation or use of additives but which are not considered to be Natural. 

Jonathan Hesford has a Postgraduate Diploma in Viticulture and Oenology from Lincoln University, New Zealand and is the owner, vigneron and winemaker of Domaine Treloar in the Roussillon. www.domainetreloar.com