First of all, have a look at this. There are many yeast strains in our environment. When grapes, or any fruits, are left unattended, yeasts ferment sugar in grapes and turn it into alcohol. The process of fermentation, therefore, is natural. However, depending on the yeast strain that reacts with sugar, the resulting wine can be very different, some palatable, and some funky or even undesirable. Whatever the quality, the final product is often cloudy with sediments, and eventually turns into vinegar because of oxidisation or bacteria spoilage.
When man commercialised wine, they planted vineyards in a manageable manner to control quality and quantity. In the wineries, they used cultured yeasts – selected strains of natural yeast – to make sure a pleasant wine is produced. Natural fining agents such as egg white and gelatine derived from fish bladders were used to combine with the suspended particles in wine to form bigger precipitates that can be filtered from wine, thereby making the wine bright, clear and visually pleasing. To make sure the wine has a longer life, winemakers added sulphites to protect the wine from oxygen and microbial spoilage. The entire fermentation is still natural and the products used to ensure the quality standard are also natural.
As the demand for wine increased, producers began using chemicals in vineyards to increase yield and protect the vines from disease, just like all other agricultural products. Synthetically-produced fining agents replaced real egg whites and fish bladders. Winemakers also began using yeast nutrients (ammonia products) to ensure a smooth and thorough fermentation, and control factors such as fermentation temperature and extraction. They also experimented with fermenting or ageing wine in different containers such as stainless steel tanks or wood barrels to make fruitier or more complex wine. The fermentation process is still natural but man exerts more control in the process to maintain quality.
Today, the term natural wine has no official definition. It is an approach to vine growing and winemaking with vines that are farmed organically, biodynamically or sustainably; and wine is made hands-off without the aid of cultured yeasts, fining agents and filtration. Sulphites may or may not be added to final wine. The quality of wine ranges from pleasant, fresh and pure, to gamey, sour and foul. A few things that are for sure, are that natural wines have vanilla or cinnamon aromas as they are not aged in new barrels, and they cannot be stored for a long time because of minimal preservatives or none at all.
To me, all wines, whether using inorganic or biodynamic farming, wild or cultured yeasts, synthetic fining agents or without fining, with our without sulphites, are all naturally made. The rise of natural wine is like an anti-establishment movement. Consumers are fed up with mainstream, industrial products and are embracing alternatives. It's like the hippies lifestyle in the 70s, and to a certain extent, the election of a non-mainstream government throughout the world.
There are both good and bad conventional and ‘natural’ wines. Drinking ‘natural wine’ is a lifestyle choice but consumers must know to identify bad ‘natural wine’ rather than blindly accept it as ‘natural’. Producers who label their wine ‘natural’ to disguise fault are cheating consumers outright.
I am not against natural wine, but thinking aloud, I wonder if ‘natural wine’ will still be cool if its quality becomes more predictable, more consumers accept it, and it eventually becomes mainstream.
Maybe another type of wine will takeover?