By this point you’ve likely heard of natural wine, the latest trend that’s sweeping the wine world one pét-nat at a time. But despite its reputation as a buzzword, natural wine is not a new phenomenon. If anything, it’s the wine of yesteryear, before the invention of chemical herbicides and additives used in modern-day conventional winemaking.
In the last 50-some years, wine has become so industrialized and chemically modified that it barely resembles what it once was ― nothing like the romantic, artisanal scene that many of us still believe it to be.
Natural, though it has no government-regulated definition, implies a wine made with organic grapes and minimal intervention. Or as Michael Volker, a natural winemaker in Germany, put it: “Nothing added, nothing taken away.”
This means ditching agrochemicals in the vineyard and additives in the cellar, a step above organic and biodynamic wines, which can still contain some additives. And its implications affect not just the earth, but your body, too.
Natural wines ditch the chemicals.
While most conventional wine is made with commercial yeast strains, natural wine goes through “spontaneous fermentation,” much like kombucha, kimchi and sourdough bread, and has similar probiotic effects.
A bottle of natural wine contains a multitude of wild yeasts and gut-healthy bacteria as well as polyphenols ― a group of antioxidants proven to improve the beneficial flora populations in our guts ― leading to overall health and longevity.
Basically, grapes produce polyphenols as part of the fruit’s own immune system to protect it from fungi, frosts and so on. These antioxidants act similarly in our bodies when we consume them.
When grapes are treated with chemical pesticides, on the other hand, they’re “protected” from pests and harsh growing conditions, and don’t need to produce polyphenols to protect themselves, meaning a wine made with conventionally farmed grapes contains much less of these antioxidants.
But natural wine’s greatest health benefits lie in what it lacks.
Natural wine does without chemical sprays and modifications, both of which are linked to adverse health effects such as headaches, hangovers and even links to non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
While 30 percent of Americans buy organic meat and produce, very few of us consider what goes into our wine.
“If you’re thinking about where your meat comes from and how it’s raised,” said Joel Wright, a natural wine importer in Wales, “why wouldn’t you extend that to the wine world?”
Chemical sprays like glyphosate are used just as liberally in vineyards as in other forms of conventional agriculture. And studies show that these chemicals are making it into the wine.
After the World Health Organization deemed glyphosate carcinogenic to humans in 2015, further studies found adverse health effects in animals, even at ultra-low doses. These studies illustrate a serious concern for the effect of glyphosate on human health, and challenge the relevance of the current “safety levels” for glyphosate exposure and consumption.
A natural wine uses organic or biodynamically farmed grapes, meaning it’s unlikely to contain traces of glyphosate. Some organic California wines were found to contain traces of glyphosate, but this is likely due to their close proximity to conventional vineyards (sprayed glyphosate can spread through the air, like cigarette smoke, unfortunately).
There are fewer additives in natural wine.
A bottle of conventional wine can contain dozens of FDA-approved additives — things like sulphur dioxide, added sugar, colorants and anti-foaming agents — and winemakers aren’t required to list them on their labels.
A lack of additives in natural wine could be why natural wine drinkers claim they get fewer headaches and hangovers. The science is still young and inconclusive as to why, but some studies point to sulphites, a topic that’s been hotly debated.
It’s possible that sulphites can inhibit the production of positive gut-flora bacteria, which might be one reason we get hangovers from wine. Sulphites can also deplete our glutathione levels, which helps digest alcohol in the liver.
European Union labeling laws require winemakers to label “Contains Sulfites” on any wines that contain more than 10 milligrams per liter, and the World Health Organization recommends an intake of no more than 70 mg per kilogram of body weight, meaning an average-sized man can safely drink less than a third of a bottle of conventional white wine per day.
Plus, about 1 percent of Americans are allergic to sulphites ― some fatally ― leading to asthma, stuffiness and gastrointestinal and skin irritations.
Other additives, such as added sugars, commercial yeasts, tartaric acid and a colorant called Mega Purple, may have less questionable health effects, but they can powerfully change the taste of the wine, softening and distracting from a wine’s natural terroir.
The same properties that make a natural wine more nutritious can make it more delicious, too.
Or at the very least, more dynamic. Wild yeasts, bacteria and polyphenols all have aroma compounds and flavor profiles that influence the taste of the wine.
Sterile filtration and added sulfur are used to kill off remaining yeasts and organisms to “stabilize” a conventional wine, which makes it more shelf-stable and consistent. But a natural wine is very much alive (with all those wild yeasts and bacteria) and is constantly evolving, in the bottle and glass.
“It’s true, it’s alive,” said Joy Kull, a natural winemaker in Lazio, Italy. “Conventional wines are very flat and one-dimensional to me at this point. They taste completely dead.”
Natural wine can have a range of interesting and unfamiliar flavor profiles, challenging our perceptions of what a wine, even a certain grape, can taste like.
This can make natural wine more approachable, inviting a new crowd of wine drinkers who’ve long felt excluded from the club.
“I want to make wines that are affordable and easy to drink so there’s no pretense about it and people don’t feel so intimidated,” Kull told HuffPost. “I literally say that — this is just meant to be drunk. I’m not going to ask you what you smell in it, just drink it. Do you like it? Good.”
Critics of natural wine call it amateur and unsophisticated, pointing to a tendency towards “funky” and “barnyard-y” notes due to a wild yeast called Brettanomyces. But while a certain funkiness is trendy these days, it’s not ubiquitous to natural wine.
“There are plenty of natural, sulfur-free wines that have been, say, aged five years in a barrel, and don’t have a super crazy flavor profile,” Volker said. “Those are the wines that I would pick to show an experienced wine drinker that it might not even taste that different.”
If you find that natural wine is more expensive, it’s for a reason.
It’s the same reason you might spend money on an artisanal loaf of bread made with good flour. Natural winemakers are often farming the grapes themselves, pruning vines, picking grapes and sorting grapes by hand.
“I think it’s important to put the wines in context of the grower, the place and how hard they have to work to make wines this way,” Wright told HuffPost. “It’s much, much easier to make conventional wine, so it’s not like these winemakers are doing it to make a quick buck — these are people that believe in it.”
Here are six natural wines under $30 to get you started. But keep in mind that wines are extremely vintage-variable and can change from season to season, meaning the 2017 version of a wine might be completely different from a 2016. Wright suggests finding a specialized wine shop in your area that can help you find something you’ll enjoy.
Downloading the Raisin app is a good place to start. It helps you find natural wine stores, wine bars and restaurants based on your location.
An Italian prosecco made with skin contact. Bone dry and a little yeasty.
A white blend of sylvaner, bacchus and müller thurgau with some skin contact that makes it a bit interesting, but not too crazy.
Mostly Trebbiano and Procanico with some Malvasia, crushed by foot and pressed directly. It has a lovely light floral nose and fresh structure.
A crowd-pleasing Beaujoulais-style Gamay with lush, soft fruit.
A blend of 45 percent Carignan and 55 percent Zinfandel. Light and fruity with good acidity.
A familiar Spanish Red made with 100 percent Grenache. Both rich and light-footed.