What Is Natural Wine?
A wine editor and beverage director indulge our natural curiosity
Raise your hand if you’ve heard the term “natural wine” pop into conversation at your local wine shop. Have you seen it printed on the revamped brunch menu at your go-to spot, perhaps? I've encountered both in the past year, and it’s only becoming more common. I've enjoyed most of the natural wines that have been poured for me, and I wanted to know more, so I spoke with Ray Isle, Food & Wine’s Executive Wine Editor, and Hugh Crickmore, Wine Director at Roberta’s, a popular and well-regarded wood-fired pizza restaurant in Brooklyn, for advice.
Both experts I spoke with used the terms “hands-off,” which means that natural wine is made with as little human intervention as possible. Isle and Crickmore also both explained that natural wine is made only with naturally occurring yeasts (other wines are often inoculated with supplemental yeasts), and ideally with no sulfur (a preservative often used in conventional winemaking).
“Natural wine doesn’t have any official legal requirements, so it’s often defined differently by people,” said Crickmore. “But I would say that most people who are into natural wine are pretty clear on what it is. To me, at the very least, natural wine is biodynamic and organic.”
And that means what, exactly?
“Organic viticulture [grape-growing] means that no chemical fertilizers or pesticides are used in the vineyard,” said Isle. Explaining that while many wines come from certified organic vineyards, organic regulations vary tremendously. For example, in the United States, you can’t use sulfur in organic wine, whereas in Europe, winemakers are allowed to add a small amount of sulfur to the product. “It’s a bit of a mess,” says Isle.
Biodynamic wine comes from biodynamic agriculture, a style of farming created by Rudolf Steiner (yes, the same one who founded the Waldorf School). “Essentially it posits the farm as an ecological whole,” said Isle. “It also involves a lot of homeopathic ‘preparations’ for the vineyard. It gets rather mystical and spiritual in a kooky way, but there are quite a few extremely good vintners who swear by it.”
These qualities are paramount for Crickmore when he selects natural wines for Roberta’s. Recently, Crickmore collaborated with Shinn Vineyards in the North Fork of Long Island to make Zero Bad, Roberta’s first signature wine.
“We were trying to think of something to call it that didn’t sound too pretentious,” said Crickmore. “The common term for no sulfur in French is sans soufre, which literally means ‘without sulfur,’ but that seemed a little too hoity-toity.” The team eventually settled on “Zero Bad,” which relayed their commitment to a wine made with natural qualities while maintaining a tone of accessibility.
If you’ve never tried natural wine, Isle recommends looking them in for smaller, independent wine markets or wine bars: “Look in places like Bushwick (the trendy Brooklyn neighborhood where Roberta's is located) rather than Midtown (Manhattan), for example.” Isle notes that while the natural wine movement is blowing up in Paris, many other large cities also have a burgeoning collection of shops serving and selling natural wine. He recommends Four Horsemen, Wildair, and 10 Bells in New York, Williams Corner in Virginia, Lou Wine Shop in Los Angeles, Terroir in San Francisco, and Brawn in London.
And of course, you could head to Roberta’s to see which bottles Crickmore has open. Since he’s operating in a pizza restaurant, Crickmore won’t try to knock you over with a super-funky wine right off the bat. Crickmore’s method of serving natural wine in Roberta’s leaves me, a relative newbie in the wine-world, with hope: “I try to keep everything accessible and challenging and fun and at the same time, but not overwhelming.”