Natural wine: a delicious little adventure in every glass

Natural wine is trending – and divisive. Some wrinkle their noses at the enfant terrible of viniculture, while others rave about the new world of flavour in every glass. The sommelier of ‘Rheinton Weinbar’ in Düsseldorf talks about his experiences.

Dark grapes hanging from the vine
Wine is being poured into two wine glasses

What's it all about?

  • What is natural wine?
  • Natural wine vs. organic wine
  • Natural wine making, flavour and market share
  • What does the sommelier say?
 
Vineyard during sunset

The ‘first date’ with a natural wine can offer exceptional flavour experiences. ‘I try to take my guests by the hand, so to speak, and prepare them,’ explains Binali Ithiyar, chef and sommelier at Rheinton Weinbar in Düsseldorf. He has had several natural wines on his wine list for around five years now. ‘For example, I emphasise that the wine has corners and edges, and I give details of the production process.’ 

The basic principle of natural wine production is to keep things as natural as possible. Winegrowers cultivate the vineyard according to ecological principles and interfere as little as possible with the natural processes in the wine cellar. This is why it’s also known as ‘low-intervention wine’. Winegrowers avoid the use of cultivated yeast and rely on spontaneous fermentation. Additives such as sulphites for preserving the wine are used only in tiny quantities or are left out entirely. The same goes for filtration. For this reason, many natural wines are cloudy. Apart from these basic principles, there are no legal standards as yet.

 

Natural wine or organic wine –  what's the difference?

Organic wines bear an organic label so have to adhere to legally defined standards, for example the avoidance of synthetic or chemical pesticides. But there are no legal specifications for natural wines; the term ‘natural wine’ is not yet regulated under EU law. In France in 2020, organic winegrowers and authorities took the initiative and developed a set of guidelines. Since then, the label ‘vin méthode nature’ signifies a wine made using natural methods. The criteria range from organic grape cultivation to the avoidance of techniques like filtering, flash pasteurizing and centrifugation. In short, organic regulations are essential for natural wines but not every natural wine is certified as organic. Moreover, the principles of producing natural wines go beyond organic standards.

Every bottle of natural wine has its own signature

‘My guests are divided into two camps,’ says Binali. ‘Some say it’s great, very exciting, to taste a wine now and again that doesn’t necessarily have the standard aromas. But others don’t get on with natural wines at all because the flavour profiles don’t suit them.’ For example, it’s typical for natural wines to have unusual notes in the bouquet, distinct fermentation aromas and be rather earthy or herby overall.
‘But not all natural wines are the same,’ says the sommelier. Wild characters are just as likely to be found as elegant representatives of the craft. The spectrum is broad and every glass is a little adventure. ‘It’s always a question of where the winegrower wants to go. What is his philosophy? His maturation method?’ says Binali. ‘Many natural wines are very true to the grape. I really like it when I can tell what grape variety was on the vine when I drink the wine.’

Is there a way into the mainstream?

Natural wine is in demand around the world, as shown for example by the ‘Raw Wine’ trade fair, that draws a crowd whether in Berlin or New York. But it still remains a niche product. There are no official figures but a study by the Hochschule Geisenheim University estimates that natural wine production in Germany in 2021 was around 2.5 million litres, which corresponds to around 0.3% of German wine manufacturing. But natural wine producers are optimistic. According to studies, 86% of wineries surveyed predicted that production quantities will increase.

‘Natural wine is here to stay,’ agrees Binali. ‘I think that winegrowers who work closely with nature are adopting the ideal prerequisites for bringing good wine to the bottle.’ Ultimately, he takes a pragmatic view: ‘Whether the wine is natural or not, every wine has its place. The crucial thing for me is that a wine is well-crafted and that people with a passion are behind the product.’

 
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