Natural Wine Terms
If a wine is Zero/Zero then nothing was added or taken away from the wine. Many purists consider this the true and only natural wine. In the vineyard of 0/0 winemakers you will find no chemicals, herbicides or pesticides used in farming. In the cellar they will ferment using the grapes native yeasts, add no sulphur dioxide (s02) and clean their fermentation vessels without the use of chemicals. Wines labeled 0/0 will be unfined, unfiltered and of course no s02 at bottling. Nothing added, nothing taken away, a wine that is 00 or as i say big double oh, will be grapes and only grapes bottled and corked. However, it is imperative to note this wine will contain sulphites in some respect as it is a naturally occurring element in ALL wines.
Native Yeast are the naturally occurring yeasts that develop on grapes in the vineyard and can be found in cellars. In many winemakers' opinions it's the only way to make wine. Native Yeasts are theorized to be one of the biggest contributions to showcasing a wines terroir. In conventional winemaking (especially mass produced wines) you can find many producers who use lab created yeasts which can help impart flavors and ensure a timely plus more risk free fermentation. Native yeasts take their time to ferment spontaneously, can be pesky and dont always produce the same result. Use of native yeasts will lead to another term we use called Spontaneous Fermentation. Prior to the 1960’s all wines were made with their native yeasts. Commercial yeasts have given winemakers an easier path to their goal of producing the same product year after year. While not all conventional winemakers use commercial yeasts all natural wines are made with their native yeasts. It's a prerequisite, no questions asked.
Organic Wine - If a wine is organic that means they don't use any pesticides or chemicals that have not been extracted from the earth. However some practices used by
organic winemakers still don't comply with a 0/0 philosophy. On top of that the legal definition of organic wine varies from country to country. To hold organic winemakers to certain standards a number of organizations have been created that visit, inspect and issue certifications to vineyards who meet their criteria, these organizations vary by country. Demeter, is one of the biggest ones worldwide that actually focuses on organic & biodynamic farming (which we will touch on shortly). There are plenty of farmers who follow organic practices and techniques but cannot be certified for a few reasons that are important to understand and respect:
- For some farmers they cannot be certified organic due to their neighbors using certain practices which contaminate groundwater.
- Some farmers make the jump to organic farming but had not been using those procedures previously, so it will take some time for the vines and soil to
regenerate to properly fit in the organic spectrum.
- Some farmers meet all the organic requirements but aren’t certified because these certifications can cost a lot of money. Money, some small farmers may not have.
So while all natural wine is organic, not all organic wines are truly natural as native yeast is encouraged but not mandated in organic winemaking meaning a yeast derived organically but NOT from the harvested grapes can be added. Not to mention organic materials that can be used to fine/filter said wine.
A common term you will hear while discussing natural wine is Unfined and Unfiltered. 0/0 wines are always Unfined and unfiltered. Not the case with organic wines or sustainable wines. Let's unpack these terms separately so we can know what they mean together. As fining and filtration are not mutually exclusive.
Many conventionally farmed wines are filtered leading to a cleaner aesthetic and microbial security. Filters range in size and the particle size chosen is up to the winemakers discretion of how much natural sediment they deem acceptable in their wines. Many natural winemakers believe sediment is a crucial part of their wine leading to character and personality. It's crucial to note that sediment affects the texture and overall mouthfeel of a wine which is an important and defining characteristic a winemaker and certainly a wine drinker takes into consideration. Not everyone is down with the “seddy” life. Other winemakers will tell you point blank, filters are expensive and take up space not every farmer has access to and or wants one.
Fining is the process of clarifying a wine while also being able to alter certain characteristics of a wine such as tannins. Fining is what leads many wines to not being vegan as many of the fining agents used are animal products. Egg whites, gelatins and fish bladders are common fining agents used to clarify and fine the wine attaching themselves to certain chemical agents in the wine and removing them from to create the finished product.
Now that we understand fining/filtering, the term ‘nothing added and nothing removed’ begins to make more sense. But what else can be added to wine? According to the FDA imported and domestic wines can contain over 60 ingredients other than grapes! From animal products to chemical thickening agents and artificial acids. This is why we care about winemakers that not only offer us wines with less manipulation but also farm with the earth and future generations in mind. We’ve touched on organic wine and organic farming but here are some other viticulture and farming practices that you will hear about when talking about Natural Wine -
Biodynamics are a set of farming principles created by Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner in the 1920's. This philosophy precedes organics by a few decades. It's important to note biodynamics are a set of farming practices as well as a philosophy. Using natural composts and no chemicals while farming with astrological and lunar influences. Biodynamic farmers use organic methods but take the entire vineyard into account, from surrounding plants, insects and animals all while using the moon and stars to create a biodynamic calendar that when followed instructs the farmer when to water, prune, trim, let the vines rest and when to harvest. In my opinion biodynamics are positively beautiful - it's using the moon to tell you how to treat the earth. Its agricultural harmony at its peak. However, while organic practices are scientifically proven to be better for the earth, the practices of biodynamics are still being studied and debated. Simply put, the benefits of biodynamics are equal to organic but have not been scientifically proven to be any better than regular old organic farming. Biodynamic wines are always organic and can be 0/0 but dont always fall into that category.
Biodynamic and organic farming methods tend to make up the flesh and bones of the natural wine world. These practices along with the rigorous and risky 0/0 techniques will be a majority of what you see in tried and true natural wine shops and bars. However , its important to remember the wine industry is a business and winemakers' livelihoods rely on making wines with little to no flaws. With the growing threat of climate change and an increase in demand for more “natural wines” the margin for error is slim to none.
To understand what natural wine is, it's important to understand what it is not!