Opinion: why are so many people switching to natural wines - and just how do they differ from conventional wines?

What is natural wine?

Natural wines are a response to modern conventional winemaking in both practices and tastes. Where possible, the grapes are grown without fungicides, pesticides or irrigation, which encourages the growth of indigenous yeast on the skins. Hand-picking ensures quality selection and can occur earlier than usual to retain acidity and prevent high alcohol levels (from excess natural sugar) in the finished wines.

Harvesting early also avoids over-ripe flavours in the wine, which, along with high alcohol, has been fashionable in recent decades. Winemakers reject the usual technical controls used in modern wine and allow the ambient yeasts to start and complete the process of fermentation. The result is a lively, individualistic wine, whose unpredictability attracts some, but deters others.

From RTÉ Radio One's Today With Sean O'Rourke Show, a discussion on natural wines with Le Caveau Wines' Pascal Rossignol and sommelier Colm McCan

So what's wrong with conventional wine?

It is not an exaggeration to describe commercial bulk wine as the junk food of wine. This is not wine snobbery, but simply acknowledging that the modern wine industry operates like the food industry. The cheaper and more commercial the wine, the more overworked and homogenised it is likely to be.

Think of the cheapest bulk wines as heavily processed food. Now think of natural wine as raw food, picked from the garden, simple and free from any chemicals or processing – perhaps misshapen and uneven – but at the other end of the food spectrum. Most conventional wines fall somewhere in between.

Minimal intervention and local knowledge in the vineyard and cellar used to be the norm and wines were a truer reflection of the vintage, grape variety and place. Over the last six decades, the wine industry has worked to make wine a globally popular beverage. Major technical improvements in grape-growing, as well as winemaking, brought consistency, and the encouraged use of only a few recognisable grape varieties simplified the market. Out of the thousands of grape varieties worldwide, ten dominate the commercial wine industry today.

From RTÉ Radio One's The Business, John Wilson from The Irish Times and wine industry expert Jean Smullen discuss how making cash from a cabernet is not as simple as it may seem

Additionally, a canon of descriptive wine language created by wine writers and critics gave popular grapes and wine regions a textbook profile of universal aromas, flavours and a style. In a bid to join the changing market, producers made their wines in a style that followed this dominant narrative. 

It tastes fine to me

Conventional wine, which most of us are used to, operates within a regulated marketplace of production and taste. It teaches us that wine should taste a certain way and part of its popularity and success is down to its consistency and drinkability. In Europe, systems such as AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) and PDOs (Protected Designations of Origin) ensure quality control of agricultural output.

Products from a specific place made in a specific way – usually based on rather unspecific notions of heritage and terroir – should have a recognisable look, standard of quality and taste. This includes wine and these systems have done a lot of good for wine since their inception in the early 20th century by assisting winemakers, promoting wine regions, controlling fraudulent activity and maintaining quality.

"Out of the thousands of grape varieties worldwide, ten dominate the commercial wine industry today"

However, some natural winemakers have clashed with expectations over how specific wines should look and taste. Conventional wine employs numerous tricks and corrective measures to ensure a stable, consistent, and tasty product. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this approach, and it makes sense commercially.

These corrective measures are avoided in natural wine, as is the excessive use of sulphur. Sulphur dioxide (listed as "sulphites") is widely used throughout the food and wine industry. It removes oxygen, slows the growth of bacteria and prolongs shelf life. Being one of the 14 listed food allergens, it must be declared on any bottle of wine sold within the EU, though the actual added quantities differ greatly between varying wines. A small percentage of the population have sensitivities to it, especially in higher doses, and it has been attributed to next day headaches - hence there is a perception that low-sulphur wine is healthier - but arguably, excessive alcohol consumption and dehydration are greater factors in post-drinking indisposition

The notion that all wine is lovingly produced with family pride, experience and heritage, as many wine labels would have us believe, is simply untrue

The use of agri-chemicals is also widespread in conventional winemaking (as it is in much of the food chain) to mitigate disease and pests and to increase yields. One of the key points of the natural wine movement is limiting or eradicating the use of chemicals. The health of the vineyard, by which is understood that the vineyard is alive with microbes, insects, natural yeasts, and bacteria, depends on the individual grower's approach.

The hands-off ethos of natural winemaking in the cellar is equally crucial, though this varies from producer to producer. It is an unregulated process and, as wild yeasts are encouraged and little or no protective sulphur is used, an element of chance plays a role in how the finished wine will turn out. It is this chance that natural winemakers feel is part of making "real" wine. This is where some natural wine can trip itself up, with its unadorned style being wrongly explained as faulted or a result of poor winemaking. Faults do occur now and then, but this is true of all wine.

"The hands-off ethos of natural winemaking in the cellar is equally crucial"

Conventional wines look aesthetically correct – clear – because they are filtered before bottling, whereas many natural wines remain unfiltered. The white wines can thus be a little cloudy and are often bone dry. Some age oxidatively, are slightly tannic and can turn a coppery orange colour. Reds can be lighter in colour and body, lower in alcohol, and may even have a slight spritz upon opening. These vibrant but unfamiliar characteristics can be somewhat jarring at first. The polished finish of modern conventional wine has made it immediate, whereas these pared-back wines can take time to get used to. Sweet ripe fruit and strong oaky notes are rarely evident with rustic individual flavours challenging everything we think we know about quality wine. 

Is this just a passing trend?

In truth, natural winemaking is not new, it simply hadn’t been commercialised before. These traditional wines have long been produced by rural families for their own personal consumption, much in the same way as they would have made their own fresh cheese, cured meats and grown fruits and vegetables. The difference today is that trained winemakers (and novices) are the ones doing it to make a living. 

It has been slowly growing since the 1980s, but it took until the mid-2000s for the wines to make an impact. Initially, producers could not give their wine away, as the break with formality was too much for the market. Although not mainstream, natural wine now fits in quite well alongside other trends (craft beer, sourdough bread, single origin coffee and chocolate, probiotic fermented food, raw milk and even veganism). The break with formality has also cultivated a sense of artistic freedom, and in some instances, a punk-like resistance expressed through quirky artwork, political statements, some risqué imagery and plenty of puns on bottle labels.

"New descriptive words such as "smashable", "gluggable" and "downable" simplify the discourse while ignoring the highfalutin stuffiness of professional tasting notes which still permeate the wine world"

The movement has come in for a lot of criticism as it does not sit comfortably with what critics and consumers have come to know. In some circles, the wines have been fobbed off as difficult, obtuse and the folly of a handful of upstarts. With overall output modest at best, and with demand growing worldwide, there is simply not enough bottles available to be sold in supermarkets or typical off-licences.

A distinguished collective of shops, bars and non-traditional restaurants are the main outlets for natural wines, with Ireland having a small but respectable and growing selection. Being available in such small amounts has rendered them somewhat elite or of cult status among fans, but those who do not see what all the fuss is about see them as a case of the emperor’s new clothes. 

So what does it all mean?

To an extent, wine is still both intellectualised and associated with a certain level of sophistication. Interestingly, natural wine has attracted a younger fan base through its practices and non-conformist image. New descriptive words such as "smashable", "gluggable" and "downable" simplify the discourse while ignoring the highfalutin stuffiness of professional tasting notes which still permeate the wine world. 

The overarching labels of "natural", "clean", "raw", "real", "low-intervention", and the opposing "conventional" and even "dirty" are most likely unhelpful and confusing to many, yet have evolved as indicators of style. The perceived need for knowledge to truly appreciate wine feeds its reflexive nature, inclusive to those in the know and exclusive to those that are not. And language in wine, wherever one's loyalties lie, remains a bit of a minefield. 

Natural wine has attracted a younger fan base through its practices and non-conformist image

Good wine is good wine, no matter how it is produced. But the notion that all wine comes from a glorious vineyard and is then lovingly produced with family pride, experience and heritage, as many wine labels would have us believe, is simply untrue

The re-emergence of natural wines is by no means a revolution, but it is a shift away from what we have come to accept as "normal" wine. Increased awareness towards environmental responsibility, physical health and simple craft - coupled with similar food trends – has influenced the wine industry as a whole to reconsider production methods, with many now beginning to make wine cleaner and lighter (without necessarily identifying with modern wine rhetoric) – and this could be viewed as a positive.  

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ