What is a natural wine? 4 things to know about this “new” wine trend
In Kentucky, we all know the drill when it comes to bourbon—there’s nothing in that bottle that didn’t come straight out of the barrel, other than water. Wine? It’s a whole different story. Additives, sulfites, colorants – there’s a lot of hidden potential in this bottle.
Unless you buy natural wines, a widespread movement among winemakers to create wines using more “traditional” methods, often without the use of pesticides or herbicides and with little or no additives.
An admission: I thought natural wines were a bit of a gimmick. It’s alcohol, which isn’t exactly good for us, so what else is in it? It looked like a marketing tactic and I always ignored it.
That was until a recent bout with COVID-19 warped my taste buds and made the wine taste like nail polish remover.
With a summer trip to Paris in the books, I started experimenting with different styles of wine to see if anyone tasted like it should. Alas, nothing worked out, until some friends from the bartending community brought me a bottle of something called a Pét-nat (short for French “natural sparkling wine”), an Italian wine called Lied that they picked up Old town liquors, 1529 Bardstown Road. A sparkling wine with a screw top bottle, not only was it delicious but it was the first sip of wine I had enjoyed since before the virus.
From there I tried several more, all super tasty, and the conversion was complete. Meet Sarah Height, co-owner of Breeze Wine Bar and Bottleshop in Logan Street Market, 1001 Logan St., at a party recently, I’m afraid I toasted her on the natural wines. She was kind enough to chat later on the case answering any questions I didn’t know I had on the subject.
So here’s everything you need to know about natural wine.
What is a natural wine?
Well, unlike other designations and certifications, there really isn’t an official “it’s natural” seal that can be placed on wine, Height explained. But “the basic principle is zero entry and zero exit,” she says. “You want to be at least organic, don’t you? That is, no pesticides, no herbicides. And then also, many winegrowers practice dry farming, which means that they do not bring water to the vines either. Which just helps the roots to grow deeper and get more nutrients lower down and boost the flavors.
That means most winemakers “just let the grapes grow as they should,” she says. “And then make the wine like they used to do.”
Why is natural wine so popular?
We must first ask ourselves why wine has ceased to be natural. For large winemakers in particular, the use of herbicides and pesticides is “pretty obvious in that it helps protect your produce,” says Height. “When it comes to additives, I believe there are up to 75 different additives that you can put in wine that don’t need to be labelled. And they range from color tweaks to flavor and acidity tweaks, all sorts of things.”
One of the main reasons it started “is because for these massive brands, brand consistency is important. … when you pick up a bottle of wine or spirits or coke or whatever, you want that taste exactly the same every time,” she says.
Additives also help stabilize wine and prevent it from spoiling.
Then, to remove turbidity or particulate matter from the product, winemakers will filter the wine using anything from fish bladders to egg whites to hook and extract them, she says.
The movement towards natural wines started in France, she says, before spreading to Italy, Spain and Europe, then spreading here first to the west coast, where people tend to be concerned of their health.
Are sulphites in natural wine? And are they bad for you?
When I spent time in Europe with friends last fall, we all noticed that even the fairly copious amounts of wine we drank didn’t leave us hungover. It’s because there are no sulphites, we all said to ourselves.
(By the way, sulfites are the chemicals used as preservatives to slow the discoloration of foods and beverages during preparation, storage, and distribution.)
But, Height says that’s not the case.
“I think sulphites have a bad reputation in wine because they are required by the FDA put [on the label] that sulfites are added to it,” says Height. “So people see that and then they associate their hangovers with sulfites based on the bottle of wine but really, I mean, a can of Coke has more sulfites than a bottle of wine.”
So what causes the reactions that drinkers can have?
“It’s not really the sulfites that give you headaches and things like that most of the time,” Height says. “It’s actually histamines that are in wine, or some kind of allergic reaction to industrial yeast products or some kind of additives that are in unnatural wine.”
Wait, histamine, the chemical our body releases when defending itself against a potential allergen?
“Because it’s a grape, especially in red wines, they will have more polyphenols,” she says. (Polyphenols are the structure that gives red wine its color, red fruit flavors and tannins.) “Some people just have a mild allergic reaction to the chemicals that are in these types of grapes.”
This reaction can lead to a red face that many of us have seen or experienced (my almost only white wine drinking myself included!).
Where can I buy natural wine?
If, like me, your curiosity is piqued and you want to learn more about natural wines, start at your favorite local store, says Height.
“Obviously I have a stake in the business,” she says, “but I really think…any local wine store, you can really get much better quality wine and a Better tasting wine from your small wine stores than you can from mass produced grocery store wines.
Not only can independent stores carry more unique varietals and lesser-known regions, they’re less likely, she says, to automatically mark a bottle just because it says Napa. So while natural wines may be more expensive than conventional wines because they cost more to produce, “smaller, lesser-known wines may really be better value because you’re not paying to get this brand into every Kroger in the United States.”
You can start by asking your favorite merchant for recommendations or heading to a quarterly natural wine event taking place on July 17 at Pizza Lupo1540 Frankfurt Ave.
A collaboration between Breeze and Lupo, Crushable is an opportunity to try a selection of natural wines as well as Lupo’s fantastic sourdough pizza. The event starts at 1 p.m. for VIP ticket holders (cost: $75) and 2 p.m. for general admission ($45) and continues until 4 p.m.
Tell it to Dana! Send your restaurant “dish” to Dana McMahan at [email protected] and follow @bourbonbarbarella on Instagram.