FAQ about natural wines: The whole grain bread among wines

Natural wines are becoming increasingly popular. But hardly anyone can say exactly what makes them special. Our author enlightens and tries her way through the range.

A bunch of grapes vine hanging from a wine opener

The cultivation takes place “without synthetic means, organically, biodynamically, with or without a label” Photo: Alina Kholopova/Alamy/mauritius images

Choosing a wine used to be about the question: red or white? About the grape variety, the country and maybe the vintage. In recent years, a new criterion has been added: classic or natural wine? But what makes it so special, even enthusiastic natural wine drinkers can only rarely explain. Perhaps a visit to a natural wine shop will provide clarity.

1. How long has the term “natural wine” been around?

The term has been around since the beginning of the 20th century. Back then, sour wines were often sweetened with sugar. In order to differentiate itself from this, the Association of German Natural Wine Auctioneers was founded in 1910. They only sold top wines from top locations. With the amendment of the wine law in the early 1970s, the term natural wine was replaced by Prädikatswein. But that has nothing to do with today’s natural wine. The modern natural wine movement has its roots in biodynamic viticulture. In essence, it is about working close to nature. Nature and craftsmanship instead of artificial additives and technology.

2. Is natural wine the same as organic wine?

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The term natural wine is not protected. According to the natural wine association Naturbang, the cultivation must take place “without synthetic means, organically, biodynamically, with or without a label”. For some, this definition does not go far enough. Biodynamic wines have to meet much stricter requirements than those with an organic seal. Some winegrowers completely dispense with the lengthy certification process.

Basically, every organically grown wine is a natural wine, but not every natural wine is certified organic. Ferdinand Boeselager, sommelier and natural wine expert, sums it up like this: “The winemaker does as little as necessary, nature as much as possible.” The 36-year-old works at Viniculture, one of the first specialist shops in Berlin to specialize in natural wine – and with it also of the country.

3. Is natural wine a purely urban phenomenon?

The fact is that natural wines were the first to make it onto the menu in Berlin. Things really got off to a good start, says Boeselager, with the RAW – the world’s leading trade fair for natural wine, which took place in Berlin for the first time in 2015. Nevertheless: It didn’t start in the big city, but far away, in the vineyards of the province. With winegrowers like Peter Bernhard Kühn, who questioned classic cultivation methods and wanted to work more with nature again.

When the Rheingau winemaker started more than 20 years ago, he was laughed at, says Boeselager’s colleague Philipp Deutsch. “Today it’s the other way around: everyone wants to make natural wine.” But among wine drinkers – away from the big cities – he still has to contend with prejudices: it’s too musty, too experimental and cloudy like apple juice from the health food store.

4. Is natural wine always funky and cloudy?

“Natural wine can also be classic,” says Boeselager, pouring out a Pinot Gris from biodynamic cultivation. Looks like a “normal” wine. It is light yellow and clear, tastes smooth. “Here you can see what natural wine can also do: be understandable, precise, clear.” Nevertheless, many winegrowers deliberately avoid filtration. Asked why, Boeselager pours a second glass: the same grape variety, but this time unfiltered. “It has a completely different mouthfeel,” he enthuses, “more viscosity, more aroma.” The wine smells much more intensively – of sourdough bread and must. And – in contrast to the first – it is completely unsulphured.

5. What role does sulfur play in natural wine?

The note “unsulphured” serves as a guide for many when buying natural wine. Sulfur is used to stop fermentation in a controlled manner and to stabilize the wine. Since natural wine is about natural processes, many winemakers do not add sulfur. In principle, however, small amounts are permitted even in biodynamic viticulture. Sulfur is also produced by natural fermentation. Since the substance must be declared from 11 milligrams per liter, the addition “contains sulphites” is sometimes found on wine to which no sulfur has been added.

6. What does “spontaneously fermented” mean?

Another word that comes up often. Yeast is needed to ferment sweet juice into alcohol. In classic viticulture, pure culture yeasts are added – specifically bred to control taste and fermentation. Natural viticulture relies on natural yeasts that occur in the environment: “We also breathe in yeasts right now,” says Boeselager. Anyone who works with spontaneous fermentation, with nature, needs trust and a little courage. The reward: wines that are more surprising, more edgy and often a little wilder.

7. What is it about orange wines?

In short, white wines are made like red wine. After pressing, the grapes – together with the intensely colored skins – are fermented in the mash. If you do this with white grapes, the wine will turn dark yellow to orange. Not every orange is automatically a natural wine. What matters is how the grapes were grown and processed. However, many natural wine vintners use mash fermentation (i.e. produce orange wines), since the skin contains not only color but also many minerals and aromatic substances.

This creates wines where you can taste the environment, the terroir. Just like the amber Italian that Boeselager poured. “A lot is happening there. As if you had just mowed a herb bed.” In comparison, the first wine (biodynamic, filtered and sulphurised) smells like a mild juice. The difference in taste is just as big. The orange one is spicy and powerful, almost like an old red wine.

8. Can you store natural wine?

The expert replies with a counter question: “What do you think, which vintage we just drank?” Resolution: 2016. The fact that natural wines cannot be stored is “absolute nonsense”. He is convinced that if the wine is already full of flavor and complexity, then in ten years’ time it will be even stronger.

9. Which countries have the most exciting natural wine scene?

In France as well as in Italy, close-to-nature viticulture has always played a major role. However, according to Boeselager, the most interesting wines currently come from countries “that are not even on the radar”. Greece – “unfortunately underestimated”. Czech Republic – “great things that are being created there”. Georgia has also (re)discovered natural wine. The country is considered the cradle of viticulture. Grape juice was fermented in clay amphorae around 8,000 years ago. The method is still used today and is now attracting international attention as part of the natural wine movement.

10. How do I combine natural wine with food?

White with fish, red with meat – the old rules are “fortunately outdated,” says Boeselager. This applies all the more to natural wine. An orange wine can easily compete with a hearty meat dish, a slightly chilled red goes wonderfully with asparagus salad or strong fish. Chilled red wine? As far as the temperature is concerned, a lot is different with natural wine. Fruity, light reds can sometimes be served at 9 to 11 degrees.

11. How much does such a natural wine cost?

A winemaker who makes natural wine has to go to the vineyard much more often, says Boeselager. The vines grow more slowly, the yields are lower. That has its price. Boeselager says that if you have a shoemaker make custom-made boots for you, you have to pay more. Natural wine lovers don’t have to invest that much. A good bottle can be had for as little as 10 euros.

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