How to sell the natural wine trend

13 May 2024, 14:00 PM
  • Experts tell Speciality Food what makes natural wine different from 'normal' wine and share their tips for stocking and selling
How to sell the natural wine trend

Big changes have swept through consumers’ wine drinking habits in recent years. Not only are they more open to the idea of boxed and canned wine and keen to try lower-ABV options, but they are also increasingly interested in natural wine.

While natural, low-intervention wine has been on the radar for a while in some circles of connoisseurs, today wine drinkers of all stripes are keen to seek out this unique product, which promises sustainable production methods, less processing and funky new flavours.

What is natural wine?

Natural wine is, essentially, “wine that is made with fewer additives and less processing,” explains Tom Loudon, director of Substrata Wines, which sells wines from natural vineyards made by small independent producers

It’s important to note that there is currently no legal classification for natural wine, so pinning down an exact definition can be tricky.

Natural wine “doesn’t yet have a certification body in the same way that organic food and wine has to comply with particular production standards to become recognised as organic,” says Laura Kent, the owner and founder of the Yorkshire Wine School.

However, there are a few key principles that most natural winemakers follow, she says. “Minimum chemical additions in the vineyard, minimal chemical intervention in the winemaking process, and the use of wild yeasts rather than cultured ones, which are bred and added to grape must by winemakers.”

Indeed, the definition of natural wine could be better explained by what it doesn’t contain, according to Charlie Taylor, owner of award-winning natural wine bar KASK in Bedminster, Bristol. “The back label on the wines from one of our favourite producers, Fabio Bartolome of Vinos Ambiz, says, ‘This wine contained the following INGREDIENT: Fermented grape juice,’ and then has a very detailed explanation about all the additives it doesn’t contain (including industrial yeasts, industrial bacteria, colorants, preservatives, stabilisers, acids, sugars, water – and lots more besides); and all the things he didn’t do during production, including spraying pesticides, filtering the wine, adding products for clarifying and fining and much much more.”

EU legislation permits up to 60 chemical substances and compounds to be added to wine, Charlie says. “So, for example, if your wine is not crisp enough, you can add acid. If the wine needs more body, add sugar. If the wine is too alcoholic, add water.” He prefers a definition by master of wine Isabelle Legeron: “Natural wine is from vineyards that have been farmed organically and which is produced without adding or removing anything during vinification apart from a dash of sulfites (at most) at bottling.”

Tom defines natural wines as those that are fermented with the yeasts that occur naturally in the vineyard. They are unrefined and unfiltered, which means you’ll find more sediment in your bottle, but the wine will retain a funkier flavour and its natural microbes. They are also bottled with only small additions of sulphites, if any. In conventional wines, sulphites are added to preserve the wine’s freshness or minimise oxidation.

Is natural wine the same as biodynamic wine?

Natural wine and biodynamic wines might overlap, but the labels don’t mean the same thing. Organic wine, too, has its own definition. “Organic and biodynamic wines have certification bodies and legal definitions, which are focused on the growing of the grapes in the vineyard, but allows more intervention in the winery,” Tom says. “Natural wine is made with as little intervention as possible.”

While organic and biodynamic both relate to how the land and the soil is treated, the term natural wine stipulates how the wine is actually made, Laura says. “It’s the minimal addition of chemicals in the winemaking process which really differentiates natural wines from organic or biodynamic wines.”

Is natural wine better for you?

Natural wine itself hasn’t been scientifically proven to be better for your health, but natural wine producers who follow organic farming principles boast fewer pesticides and more antioxidants in their grapes. Natural wine also has fewer sulphites, although whether this leads to better health outcomes is not proven.

Despite a lack of scientific evidence, retailers may find that health-conscious customers still lean towards natural wines. “Wine drinkers young and old are keen to enjoy a purer, healthier beverage,” Tom says. “Because the product is less processed, it can feel more authentic to a lot of wine drinkers.”

Will natural wine still give you a headache/hangover?

There’s no scientific proof that drinking natural wine will lead to a hangover-free morning, but some industry insiders do claim to feel better after drinking natural wine. When consumed in sensible amounts, Tom says, “some people find natural wine more forgiving the morning after”. That may be due to the alcohol content, which is typically lower than that of conventional wine.

Is natural wine better than ‘normal’ wine?

It depends on how you define ‘better’ – and your personal tastes and preferences. 

For those who want to support sustainable farming, natural wine is a good choice because of its nature-friendly farming practices. “We are all aware of the damage being done to the earth because of human industry and pollution, so anything which seeks to minimise that is all part of futureproofing the wine industry,” Laura says.

Natural wine also makes for an exciting choice for those who are keen to explore lesser-known flavours in their drinks. “The flavour profiles are varied, bold and less homogenous,” Tom says.

And while vegetarians and vegans might be surprised to find that conventional wines can contain animal products, like isinglass (the dried swim bladders of fish), gelatine, casein from milk and albumin from eggs, natural wine tends to avoid all additives, making it more likely to be vegetarian and vegan friendly.

Is natural wine more expensive?

Because natural wine is typically made by small independent producers and with organically grown grapes, you might find that the prices are higher than conventional, mass-produced wine. However, the higher price tag reflects the expertise of the makers and the uniqueness of the wine they produce.

A guide to stocking and selling natural wine

Natural wine is known for its unusual flavours, which arise because of the use of wild yeast and the absence of chemicals added during the winemaking process. 

Laura has seen a distinct rise in the number of people who are interested in these off-the-beaten-path flavours – and these curious explorers are the people retailers should look to target with their natural wine selection. “It’s often people who are cider or beer drinkers who find the flavour profile of natural wines really appeals to them, so natural wines are really broadening out the audience into people who previously might not have thought of themselves as wine lovers,” Laura says.

These days, she adds, there are “so many great companies that specialise in natural wine”. In Yorkshire, she points to Wayward Wines and Bottle Chop, whose shops double up as wine bars or tasting rooms. For those who are new to the world of natural wine, these are the perfect places to pop by and try some samples before deciding what’s right for your shop and customers.

Charlie agrees that as more wine bars and shops appear specialising in natural and organic wine, customers are beginning to understand the difference “between a wine that’s made ‘well’ and a wine that’s made with lots of intervention and chemicals. The organic food movement took some time to take hold, and I think we are just at the beginning of a similar movement in wine – a lot of people still don’t realise the number of chemicals and toxins they’re gulping down when drinking an ‘industrial wine’.”

It’s worthwhile establishing whether the wine you’re looking to stock has a more conventional flavour profile, or whether you want products that sit at the funkier end of the spectrum. “I find that a lot of people are asking to try natural wines but aren’t so prepared for the strong flavours these yeasts can impart,” Laura says. Before you go wild sourcing dozens of bold new flavours, ask your customers whether they have tried natural wine before, offer them a choice of a few varieties that conform to natural principles but taste more ‘normal’, and then try a wine that will introduce them to the funkier side of things, Laura advises. 

“And, as usual, when you are trying to sell something a little different, it’s definitely worth opening a bottle for tasting – it helps to establish what the customer can expect from these low-intervention wines.”

The best natural wines to try

While some flavours are certainly funkier than your average Pinot Grigio or Merlot, you can reassure customers that natural wines aren’t only for the culinary risk-takers. “Like all things, it’s a bit of a spectrum,” Laura says. “Many wines which are made with minimal intervention actually taste very conventional.”

Tom agrees, “Some natural wines have very unusual flavour profiles, but many are fruit-forward and easy to drink.” Finding a specialist in your area or even taking an online course can be a good place to start.

Substrata Wines imports its selection directly from a handful of small independent producers. “We have a range of orange wines (macerated white wines) from Gardunha Sul in Beira Baixa, ranging from fruity and easy-going flavour profiles to saline and savoury,” Tom says. He recommends Gatafunho, an easy-drinking summertime orange wine.

Charlie has many favourites and suggests the aforementioned Vinos Ambiz, “although for newcomers to the category, some of these may be a little too wild,” he adds.

“We’re currently loving the wines of MarvlaTindo from Slovakia; Lenuzza and Ferlat from Friuli in Italy; Judith Beck and Austrian Wine Mafia from Austria; COS from Sicily; and Matic from Slovenia. You should also seek out England’s very own Offbeat Wines and Westwell – and local to us in Bristol, Limeburn Hill (a biodynamic vineyard on the edge of the city). And one of our all-time favourite winemakers is Craig Hawkins of Testalonga in South Africa,” he continues.

And don’t forget the importance of a good pairing. “I find a lot of wines which initially seem quite funky are actually much less weird when paired with food,” Laura says. “A plate of cheese or charcuterie might be all you need to understand these wines better!”

more like this
close stay up-to-date with our free newsletter | expert intel | tailored industry news | new-to-know trend analysis | sign up | speciality food daily briefing