Most of the winemaking world is heavily regulated. One well known example is that it may be illegal to label sparkling wine “Champagne” unless it originates from the region of France by the same name and is made under specific rules. It is surprising then that “natural wine” has no legal or agreed-upon definition by winemakers or consumers. This is probably in part because natural wine encompasses a broad variety of practices employed both in the vineyard and in the cellar. Natural wine does not refer to a particular product, but more so refers to a philosophical approach to grape growing and winemaking.
There are several concepts involved in the idea of natural wine. The first and most widely-understood is organic farming—where grapes are grown without pesticides or synthetic chemicals. However, even the idea of organic farming is not necessarily equivalent to low- or no-intervention. In fact some organic producers employ botanical and herbal concoctions and tonics in their vineyards in a process that can be even more laborious than the application of synthetic pesticides. There are also many farmers who may be growing grapes in the spirit of organic practices, but are not “certified” as organic. These farmers may not wish to seek such certification because of the fees charged by certifying authorities, and the result is that they may be unable to label their bottles as “organic,” but that does not necessarily mean they are not natural.
This does not mean that natural wine is of lower quality. Instead, it means that the focus is even more on the vignerones who must develop the skill to grow and produce quality wines without the benefit of synthetic manipulation. In a sense, natural wine is also a step back to basics. Natural wine is fermented spontaneously with native yeast, an intrinsic process that lab-grown yeast used in modern industrial winemaking only attempts to replicate. Native yeast fermentation thus connects natural wine—quite literally—to the place where it is produced. But the same spontaneous fermentation that forms part of the allure of natural wine also makes it high risk. In addition to labor-intensive techniques such as hand harvesting and crushing, which means only small quantities or natural wine can be produced in a given year, not every batch is of sufficient quality to be sold.
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