You’ve probably heard someone – a waiter, a food-obsessed friend – mention the word “natural wine.” It has become one of the buzziest terms in the drinks world. But do you actually know what it means?
Natural wine, put simply, is wine made the old-fashioned way, with nothing added, and nothing taken away – that means no chemicals, no commercial yeast thrown in to speed up the fermenting process, and no machinery. As Justin Chearno, the wine director of the Four Horseman (a Williamsburg wine bar known for its vast natural wine selection) puts it, “this is wine with as little human intervention as possible.”
Natural wines are much less uniform than other wines; there is no panel, or certification requirements. This often translates to a much more interesting, unique taste – a quality that has made it an endless source of fascination for many winemakers. There are no defining taste characteristics for natural wine, but the way Chearno sees it: “The flavor is better, the wines are vibrant and alive and more stunningly intense and profound to me. When I started tasting these wines, it changed my opinion of what I thought wine could and should be.”
Taste a natural wine, and you might discover a funky, acidic flavor – the result of the lack of additives, which allows certain (friendly!) bacteria to thrive – or a much lower alcohol content, which makes natural wine much easier to drink than other types of wine. “These are wines that are super fresh, almost thirst-quenching,” Chearno says.
He says to think of natural wines versus other wines like free jazz versus jazz. “These are different, but different is not bad. It might be a little atonal, but it is still really studied and practiced.”
A lot of people see natural wine as a passing fad, something that’s just popular on Instagram, but doesn’t have a lot of substance. Chearno, however, is on a mission to educate people about the importance of bringing winemaking back to its natural roots. “There is this parallel to organic food,” he says. “People are really caring about what they put in their bodies, and some wines have 200 or 300 ingredients – not just sugar, but thickeners and coloring and glycerins. There is some really nasty stuff that happens to industrial wine.”
Because you can’t read a description on a bottle or a menu and know, immediately, whether a wine is natural or not, the best way to step into the natural wine world, Chearno says, is to develop a relationship with your local wine store. Here are his tips for getting started:
Ask these questions of your wine shop: Is this wine fermented in its natural yeast? Is it not chaptalized (this means added sugar)? This’ll ensure you’re being steered in the right direction.
Remember that organic wine is not the same as natural wine. You can use organic chemicals or organic yeast, which would make a wine organic but not natural. Don’t conflate the two.
If you like a particular grape, try the natural version of it. It’s likely that the natural processes will bring out the traits you love even more. “Natural wine turns up a lot of the characteristics in a grape,” Chearno says. “You’ll find that it goes in a certain direction more, maybe that means more acidic, or more base notes.” A note of caution, though: “That can also mean a lot more weird-tasting, or more frizzy. But you’ve just got to try.”
Keep an open mind. The wine might taste a little saltier, or rustier, than your palate is used to – but keep buying different varieties and experimenting with pairings, and you’ll develop your own preferences within the natural wine category.
Be prepared to spend a little more money than your usual 9-buck bottle. Because the process of making natural wine is not commercialized or standardized, these wines tend to be a little more expensive. But don’t worry – you can still pick up great bottles for on $13 or $14.
Sicily, southwest France, Mendocino, and the Loire Valley are all great places to start when you’re looking for natural wines. These areas offer plenty of easy-drinking varieties that make for great starter wines. Chearno’s favorite growers from these regions include Marcel Lapierre (“one of the first wines I had that was truly special”), Frank Cornelissen (“elegant and beautiful, with no additives whatsoever”), Domaine Ecu (“Fresh, crisp white wine that tastes like oysters”), and Olivier Cousin (“a benchmark of old-school natural winemaking”), all of which can be easily found online or at wine shops.