I was someone who willfully guzzled 6% ABV bodega “wine product” in college, so the best natural wines weren’t always at the top of mind. It didn’t take long for me to graduate to Trader Joe’s “Two-Buck Chuck,” and then onto more ~elevated~ varietals that would make the glorified grape juice at your local corner store pack up and go home.
During lockdown, New York deemed wine shops essential businesses (and honestly, where is the lie?), so I was a regular at my neighborhood spot last spring. I’m a Pisces who lets bottles speak to me and chooses accordingly (call it water sign booze telepathy), but my boyfriend is big on recommendations, and we fell in love with this cloudy, slightly sour orange wine a staffer recommended to us one Sunday in Brooklyn. It was love at first sip of the Rodica Malvasia, which was my foray into the wonderful world of funky, sometimes fizzy (a.k.a. pét-nat or naturally sparkling), always interesting natural wine.
Just like the Rodica’s herbaceous blend of jasmine, elderflower, and peach, which appears murky in the bottle, the definition of “natural wine” isn’t 100% clear. Natural wine is a concept that industry professionals are constantly debating, so I went to a handful of experts to find out what it is, what benefits it offers (relative to other wines), and what to keep in mind when shopping for it. Ahead, the lowdown on natural wine, the trendy drink (which dates back to the 15th century), plus the best options to shop online.
What is natural wine?
First things first: What even is it? Whitney Pope, CMS certified sommelier and natural wine educator, breaks it down: “I’ve personally settled on the belief that natural wine is made from organically or biodynamically grown grapes and fermented using native yeast, and without additives or excessive sulfur.” Since there’s no government-regulated definition, there isn’t a clear-cut answer, but experts agree there needs to be minimal intervention, and as Jordan Salcito, founder of Ramona, points out, no “bizarre things you probably never imagined could be added to wine: de-foaming agents, oak ‘essence’ to make wine smell of oak, MegaPurple, etc.”
When I went down the winding rabbit hole of natural wine, I learned how many shocking ingredients I’ve probably consumed through the beverage in the past—from isinglass (a substance obtained from fish bladders) to egg whites and preservatives that require a literal hazmat suit for the initial distribution, according to Salcito. Aside from the long list of questionable ingredients, sulfite levels (which prevent wine from reacting with oxygen and inhibit the growth of unwanted bacteria) are another important aspect of natural wine, which experts agree should be limited. The preservative isn’t so black-and-white, though. Salcito says it “occurs naturally in wine and many other things like egg yolks and volcanoes, and has also been used in winemaking since the Roman Empire.”
That said, less is more. Conventional winemakers can use upwards of 10 times the amount of sulfur found in natural wine, which leaves wine tasting predictable and lacking nuance. “Wines with no added or low [10ppm–100ppm] added sulfur are raw and alive,” says Pope. “I view wine similarly to how I view food: If a winemaker needs to add a small amount of additional sulfur at bottling to stabilize the wine for sale, that’s okay with me.”
Is natural wine the same as organic wine?
While natural wine is always organic, organic wine isn’t always natural. Be wary of “clean” wine brands leaning on their use of organic grapes to position themselves as natural-adjacent, warns Pope. “The term ‘clean wine’ is a marketing gimmick directed toward the wellness-obsessed consumer and makes dubious claims,” she says. While organic grapes are the bare minimum for natural wine, winemakers can still add synthetic ingredients later on in the process—so no, the terms are not synonymous.
What about biodynamic wine?
Natural wine answers to those aiming to be more mindful about what they drink, while biodynamic wine answers to those concerned with how the entire winemaking process—from the vine to the bottle—affects the ecosystem in which it operates. The planet- and animal-friendly practice, “a holistic, ecological, and ethical approach to farming, gardening, food, and nutrition,” provides for glowed-up consumer consciousness, aiming to “leave the land in better condition for future generations,” as Pope puts it. “Cows might live on the land to make compost, which is used to fertilize the vines; rather than machinery, sheep prune the vineyard. Biodynamics goes a step beyond organic farming and takes a spiritual and ethical approach, utilizing the lunar calendar to dictate when to plant, prune, and harvest,” she says. It’s very much in line with the growing desire to comprehensively improve the social and environmental impact of what one buys and consumes.
What should you look for when shopping for natural wines?
If you’re new to the natty-wine life, it’s easy to feel lost in the Wild West category. Before you get to the shop, prepare questions and have a general idea of your palate, like preferred flavor profiles and dryness level, and let the shopkeepers lead you in the right direction. Bonus points if you can get on a first-name basis with a sommelier. “I recommend befriending a retailer or sommelier whom you trust or even send a note to a winemaker you admire directly,” suggests Salcito. “There is no guarantee they’ll write you back but it’s certainly possible.”
Or once you find a bottle you like, explore other offerings from the same importer. “If you’re flying solo, shop by the importer,” says Pope. “A wine importer will carry wines that meet their quality standard, style, and point of view. If you like one or two wines from an importer, you’re likely to enjoy others from their portfolio. Look for ‘imported by’ on the back label and start taking note of who is importing your favorite bottles.” Do your research online, have conversations, and pay attention to the information available on labels.
Again, the technicalities can be murky, and while organic and biodynamic certifications exist, they’re not cheap, so smaller natural winemakers often don’t shell out the cash to get certified. This brings us to the issue of accessibility in the wine industry, which is a crucial topic of its own—but while women and people of color might not be at the forefront of the industry, they’re certainly there.
Michael Brooks, co-owner of Bed-Vyne Wine and Spirits, a Black-owned shop in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, is all about uplifting his community to make better decisions when choosing wine. “Bed-Vyne’s collection is carefully curated to bring small-batch makers of premium products to the fore, while keeping the resources present in the neighborhood so that everyone can enjoy a vibrant local economy,” he says.
So what are the best natural wines?
When it comes to deciding on the best natural wine for you, opt for a small batch, follow your palate, and use Salcito’s mentality as a compass: “The wines I purchase, drink, and promote are the ones made with soul from winemakers who express themselves through wine, made with low to no sulfites, organically and biodynamically grown, and thought of as an agricultural product.” With all that in mind, you can kick off your natural wine journey with some of the expert-approved recommendations below.