The Rise of Natural Wine: Embracing Tradition and Sustainability


Summary: Natural wine, made with organic grapes and minimal processing, is gaining popularity in the U.S. despite a decline in overall wine consumption. This unconventional approach to winemaking emphasizes sustainability and authenticity, attracting a growing number of enthusiasts. While natural wine currently constitutes less than 1% of sales, demand for these earthy and savory wines is outpacing the wine category as a whole. However, the lack of a standardized definition and labeling for natural wine poses challenges for its wider adoption.

Traditional winemaking techniques are capturing the attention of wine lovers in the U.S., as natural wine gains momentum despite a decline in wine consumption. Natural wine stands apart by focusing on sustainability and minimal processing. Instead of relying on chemical additives, natural winemakers use hand-picked organic grapes that are free from herbicides and pesticides. The grapes are crushed, sometimes by foot following ancient Roman methods, and naturally fermented without the addition of water, yeast, or other ingredients. Some natural winemakers choose to add sulfites as a preservative, while others do not, resulting in wines that are unfiltered and full of character.

John Keller, the owner and winemaker at Neu Cellars in Northern Michigan, describes natural wine as being alive with a unique taste profile. Despite its appeal, natural wine faces obstacles. Unlike organic wine, which requires government certification, there is no set definition for natural wine in the U.S. Moreover, finding natural wines can be challenging, as many producers do not label their bottles with the term ‘natural.’

The resurgence of natural winemaking reflects a return to tradition rather than a passing trend. Countries like Georgia have continued to craft natural wines for centuries, using ancient methods like fermenting grapes in egg-shaped clay pots. However, the distinction between natural and conventional wines remains blurry, particularly for higher-end wines made with carefully selected grapes. Some experts argue that many additives used in winemaking, such as yeast, are already present in vineyards. To address this, France has implemented standards and labeling for natural wine, allowing over 430 vintages to bear the ‘vin method nature’ label and certification. In the U.S., Total Wine has responded to increased demand by adding natural wines to its inventory, yet the lack of consistent terminology hampers clear communication with consumers.

The absence of standardized definitions and labeling also opens the door for deceptive marketing practices. Some wine brands take advantage of the natural wine trend without disclosing how they define ‘natural,’ leading consumers to pay a premium for wines produced by smaller, authentic producers. Meanwhile, winemakers have mixed opinions on the need for standards. While some support standardization, others argue that inspections and associated costs pose obstacles, including organic grape grower John Keller. Additionally, the sheer variety of interpretations for the term ‘natural’ makes standardization challenging. Transparency initiatives, such as ingredient labels and nutrition information on wine bottles, may offer a solution. The European Union will require these labels starting in December, and experts anticipate similar requirements in the U.S., making it easier for consumers to identify wines made without additives.

The natural wine movement is not about absolutes, according to Pax Mahle, proprietor and winemaker at Pax Wine Cellars in California. While he embraces natural winemaking techniques, including foot-crushing grapes, he also believes winemakers should have the freedom to make slight adjustments when necessary. Mahle highlights the importance of quality and taste within the natural wine spectrum, rather than adhering rigidly to a specific definition.

Tags: natural wine, sustainability, winemaking, organic grapes, traditional methods, standardization, transparency, authenticity, wine industry, consumer preferences