What is natural wine and does 'natural' mean that it's healthier? – USA TODAY


If you ever imbibe, you may have heard the latest buzzword: Natural wine.

And you may have wondered: Isn’t all wine technically natural? Here’s the answer to that question, and a few more questions you might have about the newest trend for wine enthusiasts:

How is natural wine different from “regular” wine?

With “regular” wine, the grape is manipulated before it turns into a wine. Conventional winemakers use commercial yeast, filtration systems and preservatives with sulfites in the fermentation process, whereas natural winemakers say they use fewer sulfites and only naturally occurring yeast.

Is natural wine the same thing as organic wine?

Not exactly. Natural wine is made from organic grapes and is minimally processed using little to no additives, but that doesn’t mean that natural wine is just another name for certified organic wine. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates organic wine, which dictates the way the grapes are grown, but there are no federal regulations for what classifies a natural wine. There are some non-government organizations like the Demeter Association that do certify biodynamic wineries (an even more strict version of natural wine). 

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What is natural wine, exactly?

Although the idea of natural wine is relatively new in the U.S., winemakers in France have been making minimally processed wine since the 1980s.

“While natural wine is a somewhat nebulous term, broadly I would say it is wine that comes from grapes farmed with as little intervention as possible, transformed into wine with as little intervention as possible,” Marlen Porter, co-founder of Amplify Wines, a winery in Santa Barbara County, told USA TODAY. 

Drew Cuddy, founder of Satellite, a farm to table restaurant and wine shop in Santa Barbara that specializes in natural wines describes natural wines as a return to traditional, laborious farming. 

“Rather than wine making (natural winemakers) focus on wine growing,” Cuddy told USA TODAY. “It’s much more about farming than manipulating the product and sort of letting the fruit lead the fermentation of the wine.” 

Natural winemakers do this by using naturally occurring yeast on the grapevine instead of a commercial yeast strain which in turn produces distinctive flavors, Cuddy said.

“There’s yeast everywhere — that’s one thing that comes along with a healthy vineyard is you have healthy yeast in your vineyard,” Cuddy said. “With natural yeast you get something that is very dynamic because every year you can get a unique yeast strain.”

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Why am I just now hearing about natural wines?

The natural wine craze is an extension of the healthy lifestyle movement, the winemakers said.

“The broad public desire to know where their food comes from has now begun extending to drinks, and people are turning their attention to where their beverages come from not just with wine but beer, spirits, etc. So I think the transparency of natural wine is very appealing,” Porter said.

Michael Roth, co-owner of Lo-Fi Wines, a winery in Santa Barbara County, agrees.

“I think people are more concerned about how things are grown and what they put in their bodies and I think people are more interested in knowing how things are made as a consumer,” Roth said. 

But is natural wine healthier than conventional wine?

“I don’t know if wine in general is healthy, yes I guess there’s health benefits to wine, but to say that it’s healthy? I don’t know,” Roth said. “Is American cheese healthier than a natural artisan cheese? — Not to say that conventional wine is American cheese.”

While Porter also wouldn’t say that natural wine is healthier, she has noticed a pattern when it comes to drinking it.

“While I would love to say it’s healthier, I can’t say that there’s any scientific evidence.  I think people experience less headaches, allergies and hangovers which could suggest it’s healthier than conventionally made wine,” Porter said.

How should I choose a natural wine?

When it comes to selecting and purchasing a bottle of natural wine, Roth, Porter and Cuddy recommend working with a reputable distributor — one that sells natural wines or works with natural wineries.

“Find a trusted curator, be that a winery, a local retailer, or a sommelier who can provide direction based on your personal taste and interests is the best place to start,” Porter advises.

“Natural wine is such a broad category, with as vast an array of styles, grapes and wines as one would find in conventionally made wine, that you really need to explore it with a guide whose palate you trust.”

Roth also suggests being adventurous and not always letting critics guide your choice. 

“Listen to your local retailer, just because it has a high rating (from critics) doesn’t mean you’ll like it,” Roth said.

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