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Appealing to the conscious consumer, natural wine is one of the most exciting styles of wine in the world right now. Although there has been a surge in interest, natural wine is not a new phenomenon. Despite its growing popularity, natural wine still only represents less than 1% of all the wine in the world.

What is ‘natural’ wine?

Natural wine has no legal, official or regulated definition, but winemaking philosophies are commonly centred around sustainability, organics and biodynamics with little to no chemical or technological manipulation. You may also have heard of natural wine being referred to as ‘minimum intervention,” “low intervention” or “non-invasive.”

Natural wines can range from wild and funky to complex, while others are very normal in style. Natural wines run the full gamut, including white, orange and red wine and Pétillant Naturel, also known as Pet Nat, a natural sparkling wine also affectionately referred to as “hipster bubbles.” Due to the labour-intensive techniques used, natural wines are often made in small quantities.

Natural wine is characterized by:
• Grapes that are usually grown by small-scale, independent producers.
• Grapes are hand-picked from sustainable, organic or biodynamic vineyards.
• Fermentation occurs without the addition of yeast (native yeast).
• No additives are included in fermentation.
• Little to no sulphites are added during the winemaking process.

What’s the difference between natural and conventional wine?

Natural wines are distinctive for their difference in appearance, flavours and aromas in comparison to their more mainstream counterparts. Natural winemakers will use naturally occurring yeasts for fermentation, avoid adding large quantities of sulfites and opt not to remove any impurities prior to bottling. Wines are bottled unfiltered and unfined, meaning steps are not taken to clarify wine by removing dissolved solids.

Sulfites

Sulfites are a natural byproduct of fermentation, and yeasts that are present on all grape skins generate small amounts of them. Therefore, there is no such thing as sulfite-free wine. Sulphur, often in the form of sulphur dioxide (SO2), has been used as a preservative for more than 200 years. It inhibits mould and bacteria growth, stops oxidation (browning) and preserves the wine’s natural flavour.

Properly handled, sulfites are not toxic to humans or the environment, and many winemakers feel that they are essential to prevent oxidation and spoilage. For this reason, some jurisdictions such as the U.S. and European organic winemaking standards allow for the addition of strictly controlled amounts of SO2. Some winemakers add sulfites to their wines to keep them fresher for longer. Those extra sulfites are a point of contention in the natural wine world.

Organic and biodynamic farming

Organic and biodynamic farming are aspects of natural winemaking. Certification requirements for organic wine vary from country to country, with different entities having responsibility over certification worldwide. In Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is responsible for enforcing the applicable regulations through approved third parties that verify the application of the organic standards.

Generally, organic practices mean that the vineyard is farmed without the use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers or herbicides. In some cases, wineries may be technically ‘organic’ but have chosen not to pursue certification. It can take up to three years to convert a traditional vineyard into an organic one. Certification also comes at a cost and often involves working through bureaucracy and government standards. Some wineries may also not pursue organic certification if there is disagreement over the government certification standards. Without certification, wineries cannot use the term ‘organic’ on their label.

Biodynamics is generally viewed as either an enhanced or more extreme form of organic agriculture. Biodynamics is based on the theories of philosopher Rudolf Steiner, which in relation to wine making results in each vineyard being viewed as a self-sustaining organism. Biodynamics attempts to bring the farming process more closely in tune with nature. Some believe that for this reason biodynamic wines are better at exhibiting expressions of terroir, meaning the smells, flavour and textures from which the grapes originate.

Natural wine has become one of the most debated and polarizing topics in the wine industry. Whether your preference is natural or conventional or you love it all, there is a diverse selection of great Canadian wine to suit everyone’s preferences.

Cheers and happy tasting!

By Rhona Stanislaus and Shannan Schimmelmann 

Shannan Schimmelmann first fell in love with B.C. wine and spirits while studying hospitality at Camosun College in Victoria, and she has spent the past two decades exploring more than 100 wineries and distilleries in B.C. and beyond. She is a business leader and consultant skilled at partnership development, export strategy and supply chain management. She has an MBA from Royal Roads University, a wine business management certificate from Sonoma State University, a restaurant management diploma from Camosun College and Canadian Wine Scholar WSET-1 accreditation.