If you’ve scanned a restaurant wine list lately or hung out with any oenophile friends, you’ve probably picked up on the buzz surrounding natural wines. But what exactly differentiates them from regular ol’ wines?
The definition of natural wine, sommeliers tell us, is a bit elusive because there’s no official regulation for it. In general, though, natural winemaking involves the least possible use of chemicals and additives and involves minimal intervention, explains Jenelle Engleson, sommelier and assistant general manager at Henley in Nashville, TN. Grapes are handpicked from sustainable, organic, or biodynamic vineyards and are fermented with no added yeasts and few, if any, sulfur additions, she says. It’s all about that pure, undisrupted grape juice, Engelson explains, and since natural wines are unfiltered, you might even notice a cloudy hue.
The taste of natural wine, of course, can vary depending on the producer, grape variety and region—just like your typical wines, explains sommelier Elizabeth Sammuri, the wine and beverage director at Flagstaff House Restaurant in Boulder, CO.
“What makes natural wine so appealing is that it really shows off the terroir of the wine, and the natural characteristics of the grape,” Sammuri says.
But natural wines are not without downsides. Flavors derived from Brettanomyces—a kind of yeast—can be high in certain wines. In small amounts, this yeast adds complexity. But when it’s out of balance, Sammuri explains, it can make you turn up your nose because your wine will have a funky barnyard aroma.
Buzzy, natural wine has been around for centuries, Sammuri says, and was exactly how wine was made before chemicals became commonplace in vineyards. Now, many winemakers are returning to this practice as consumers are increasingly conscious of what they’re eating and drinking.
Pro tip: Look for organic and biodynamic farming certifications on wine labels, Kinyon suggests. Demeter International is the largest certification organization for biodynamic agriculture in the world.
Curious about natural wines? Here are five expert-approved bottles to try.
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