The stone walls in the wine cellar are cool to the touch. I have goosebumps even as the mid-August Hungarian sun scorches the grass 10 feet above us. We're in Etyek, 30 minutes east of Budapest, sipping wine under a bare lightbulb hanging from the low arched ceiling. The translator explains that the winery has failed to produce a single bottle in four of the last 10 years because the winemaker refuses to intervene with his wines, even when things are going catastrophically wrong.
Zarandok Pince is one of the numerous wineries in Hungary—and one of thousands worldwide—growing and making natural wine. Natural wine is often called "low-intervention," meaning it receives no additives or chemical inputs between vine and bottle. Instead, it is guided by the hand of the winegrower who facilitates the process rather than controls it. The grapes, yeast, temperature, and fermentation are determined by location, environment, and fate.
And while Hungarian natural wine might not be on most wine enthusiasts' radar, it is closer to the source of global wine-making than the most famous French vineyards. Humans first fermented grapes for wine production nearly 6,000 years ago in the Caucasus Region, now present-day Georgia and Armenia. The next evidence of wine-making showed up in the Middle East. Both regions used techniques that we would now consider "natural." The grew grapes without synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides. They fermented wine with indigenous yeasts growing on the grape or in the cellar The final product contained no sulfites or additives.
Why Go Natural? Unlike with most food or drink we consume, wine labels do not require nutrition facts or a list of ingredients. If they did, you might expect them to list only a few ingredients: grapes, yeast, possibly sulfites. Instead, the contents of a bottle of wine are left to the drinker's imagination—imaginations that the wine industry has expertly manipulated with labels featuring all manner of pastoral images of undulating seaside vineyards and ancient oak barrels.
The truth, however, is much, much different. As a winemaker friend opined years ago, it might be possible to produce a bottle of wine using no grapes at all, just a combination of the enumerable yeasts, chemicals, and other additives employed in the production of today's conventional wines.
In most grocery stores, the bottom few rows of wine are likely to be the most manipulated in the vineyard and winery. The cheapest wines available are usually made with a specific taste in mind. The wineries conduct consumer testing panels to determine what wines are on-trend that year and manipulate the wine to match those parameters. This can be done most easily with strains of yeast that produce specific flavors while simultaneously killing off any natural or native yeasts that may have been present on the grapes or in the winery. To mimic the taste of oak barrel fermentation, some producers will dump buckets of oak chips into their wines. Temperatures are controlled with extreme precision to ensure that fermentation stops and starts precisely when the winemaker wants it. Fining agents—whether chemical or organic such as egg whites—are used to clarify the wine and remove any grape or yeast particles still lingering in the tank at bottling.
On the other hand, natural wines avoid all such manipulation. Wines taste different from year to year because the natural environments of the vineyard and the winery fluctuate, affecting grape maturation and fermentation time. Wineries such as Zarandok Pince and other natural winemakers are at the mercy of nature's normal (and, more recently, abnormal) cycles and irregularities. Instead of using chemical herbicides or pesticides, natural winegrowers often rely on biodynamic methods. This process grows diverse plants in the vineyard to build soil health and attract pollinators.
Rose bushes may be visible at the end of a row of grapes because they tend to succumb to diseases faster than grape vines, thereby acting as the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Native yeast populations can vary from year to year based on climate, pollinator activity, and even the number of human hands that touch the grapes during harvest and fermentation. The consequences of all those variables are left to chance. However, that is not to say that making natural wine is as easy as planting grape seeds and pressing the resulting fruit into a barrel to ferment. Natural wine growing is more intimate than conventional wine-making because the growers and winemakers must be more personal with the grape growing and fermenting process without the safety net of chemical fixes or additives.
What Does Natural Wine Taste Like? Natural wines can range from the familiar to the funky. While many natural wines may be familiar to the casual wine-drinker's palate, different wine-making techniques can produce flavors not typically found in today's conventional wines. Carbonic maceration, for instance, is a technique that allows the grapes to ferment inside their skins, creating a light, effervescent, and almost electric wine. Grapes fermented in qvevri or amphora, the Georgian and Italian clay vessels often buried underground, can become cloudy and cider-like. White grapes, such as chardonnay or pinot gris fermented with their skins create orange wines full of tannins that can taste like a fuzzy, thick-skinned peach. Even the tamest of natural wines still tend to have a bit of a spark, and they should because they're alive. Scientists have tested 200-year-old wines and found dormant but still-living microbes such as lactic acid bacteria.
Where to Find Natural Wine The lack of consistent wine labeling can make it incredibly difficult to differentiate between natural and conventional wine. Organic and biodynamic certification is expensive and can be cost-prohibitive for small vineyards, so even wineries using those methods often cannot put that label on their bottles. Natural wine doesn’t have any official certification, which means that the language used on labels can be misleading and false. While an official certification would help identify natural wine, many argue that any rules or regulations would stifle the wines' experimental and often anarchic nature, and that of the winemakers themselves.
It can be difficult, if not impossible, to find natural wines in a typical grocery store; even those wines labeled organic may have used additives in the wine-making process. The best way to find real natural wine is to talk to your local wine shop. They will be able to point you in the right direction and may even know of a few natural wines sold at your co-op or neighborhood grocery store. Several online natural wine retailers will ship wines directly to your home. If you are unsure of what to buy, ask the wine seller or choose a variety shipment from the online retailer. You may not love every bottle you taste, but if you have an open mind and an experimental palate, you'll likely come across a bottle that opens an entire universe of flavors, places, people, and stories that will forever change the way you drink wine.