What is natural wine?

With consumer consciousness becoming more attuned to ideas of sustainability and organic farming, the rise of natural wine was surely inevitable. As wine drinkers, we are increasingly curious about these once outlandish but now extremely desirable bottles of organic, fermented grape juice.

Natural wines adhere to a key principle: to have as little added and as little taken away as possible. These are wines produced in harmony with nature, the products of organic, slow-farming and minimal intervention in the cellar.

The barn at Oxney Organic, known for producing organic UK wine.

For natural viticulturists, everything starts with careful cultivation and restoration of the land. An expressive, lively wine, capable of evolving on the taste buds, is the product of healthy, micronutrient dense soils. Natural winemakers use no synthetic pesticides or herbicides in their vineyards. Instead, herbal sprays, like those made from made from nettle or chamomile, are used to treat the vines.

Grapes are hand-harvested and hand-sorted as a low-intervention approach means removing machinery and using human judgement to select the highest-quality grapes. In the cellar, natural winemakers only use indigenous yeasts in the fermentation process. These are wild and freely occurring on the grapes so no synthetic yeasts are added to adjust the wine’s flavour profile.

Natural wine is seen as a somewhat modish and relatively new phenomenon, but it is in fact a return to the oldest viticultural practices. In 6000 BC, in what is now Georgia, farmers were fermenting grapes in terracotta qvevri (large clay containers) buried in the ground. Innovative natural winemakers like Ben Walgate at Tillingham in the UK are reviving the use of these ceramic fermentation vessels and bringing them back in to winemaking practices today.

Wine Tasting at Oxney Estate anyone?

In the spirit of keeping synthetic adjustments at bay, no fining agents are used to ‘clarify’ natural wines or give them that crystal-clear appearance consumers are used to. Instead, a natural Riesling, for example, can appear cloudy or hazy rather than clear. A small array of crystals or even some sediment may be found at the bottom of your natural Pinot Gris as filtration is also kept to a minimum with only racking or riddling techniques allowed.

Natural wines are always organic but the process for vineyards to obtain certification is a lengthy and expensive one. As a result, some natural wines have a higher price point than conventionally produced bottles and a frequent criticism of natural wine is that it can be pricey and hard to find in a local supermarket. But more importers, restaurants and online sellers are now making these wine increasingly available and a well-deserved spotlight is being shone on winemakers using sustainable, natural practices.

Two pioneers of natural wine-making here in the UK are Ben Walgate over at Tillingham in East Sussex and Laura Gray at Ancre Hill in Wales. Both welcome visitors, natural wine newbies and enthusiasts alike. Organic vineyards like Albury, Westwell and Sedlescombe also offer vineyard tours, giving an insight in to the care they take with the land. My personal favourite, Oxney estate, even has a set of luxe ‘shepherds’ huts’ for a snooze after a long afternoon’s natural wine tasting.

You can see more from Alicia on Instagram @naturalwine.girl.

Read about Vine & Country UK wine tours here or why not learn about more on Bordeaux here?

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