What Is Natural Wine? An Introduction to the Hands-Off Winemaking Mentality

Wine is s going au naturale, whether you’re aware of it or not. It’s the latest trend in the ever-evolving drinks scene and it’s bringing funky, fascinating, and flavorful new players to bottle shops, restaurant lists, and wine bars all over the country.

Identifying a natural wine can be tricky. Unlike a genuine craft IPA or certified sustainable Merlot, there is no logo on the label designating its status. Falling somewhere between free-range, organic, unconventional, and indie-rock, natural winemaking is about the closest thing there is to letting the grapes, and the region they’re rooted in, speak freely.

red wine glass vineyard
Kym Ellis

Generally, these wines are made with a hands-off mentality. That translates to no artificial sprays in the vineyard and no additions in the cellar (commercial yeast, sulfites, etc.). Resulting wines so unique they’re just about impossible to replicate. Terroir subscribers often argue that this style of wine exhibits an extreme sense of time and place.

“The phrase ‘natural wine’ doesn’t have a definition, so it can mean anything anyone wants it to mean, which is where the problem lies.”

“The phrase ‘natural wine’ doesn’t have a definition, so it can mean anything anyone wants it to mean, which is where the problem lies,” says Neil Thompson, co-owner of Park Avenue Fine Wines in Portland, Oregon. He’s wary of the trend and believes the focus should be as much on producers who have been quietly producing great wine in natural ways for a while as opposed to those new to the scene.

Thompson recommends New World (non-European) labels like Cameron and Ribbon Ridge, along with Old World acts like RadikonMovia, and Gravner. He reminds us that mankind has spent thousands of years trying to master the art of making wine that is both clean and tasty. Some new to the trend, he might argue, are riding a wave that’s more likely to accept a faulty wine.

If nothing else, these wines are anything but streamlined, taking on telling characteristics. A natural wine from Sardinia, for example, is likely to be all the brinier thanks to coastal breezes in the vineyard and no flavor-stripping additives throughout the winemaking process. The same goes for an earthy and rustic Pinot Noir from volcanic Willamette Valley soils.

teutonic wine company grapes
Teutonic Wine Company/Facebook

When you think of good natural wines, picture scraggly vineyards teeming with an abundance of wildflowers and farming techniques that predate fertilizer and most machinery. It’s a return to the soulful old ways before the modern era placed a premium on high volume and predictability.

Your local bottle shop or restaurant staff should be able to point you towards a solid natural wine or two. At the store, look for things like “minimal intervention,” “native yeast,” “no fining,” and “no added sulfites” on the labels. It may take a little digging, but the hunt will surely lead to some treasured – or, at the very least unusual – finds.

Want other options? We also suggest the naturally-minded work of Antiquum FarmTeutonic Wine Company, and Donkey & Goat.

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