Natural Wines 101

Natural Wines 101

Over the last few years, we’ve seen ‘natural wines’ popping up everywhere. Whether it’s a new natural wine bar, or orange wines debuting on your favorite restaurant’s menu, it seems like the natural wine movement is gaining popularity, at least in Southern California. But here’s the thing: what does natural wine even mean? You’ve likely even seen buzz words like ‘biodynamic,’ or ‘organic’ glossing wine labels. That verbiage can be confusing to some, so we’re here to help you out and simplify it all. With a little help from our friend, Ty Steidle, founder of Fiky Fiky Wines, we’re getting the scoop on all things natural wine. Whether you love natural wines and want to be more knowledgeable on the subject or want to learn something new today, keep reading for our interview with Ty…

What is your experience working in wine?

My experience with winemaking is limited, my wine drinking on the other hand… well you get it. Fiky Fiky Wines was born out of a true love for wine and its ability to bring people together. My partner in the project, Brock Larson, had worked harvest before so there was some hands-on experience we could build off of. We also are fortunate to have a few mentors guiding us through the learning process. Our first vintage wine was 2020, which for those who may not remember, was a particularly bad year for fires in Northern California. We got super lucky to harvest our fruit before the smoke could penetrate the skins. The added heat caused the fruit to ripen super fast so we lost some of the acidity we were after. It was our first lesson in natural winemaking—listen to the fruit and adapt. 

What exactly is natural wine? How does it differ from a regular bottle you’d normally see in a grocery store?

Natural wine is sort of an umbrella term to {unofficially} classify wines that are true, unadulterated expressions of terroir [aka] the soil composition, the weather and the elevation. Those ‘normal’ bottles you see in most grocery stores and shops are likely still great wines, however a lot of them are products with control and consistency at the core of their ethos. They will control the fruit in the vineyard by spraying pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and insecticides, and control the wine before, during, and after ferment with additives to assist with things like kick-starting the ferment {inoculation by adding non-native yeasts}, acid correction, fining, filtering, and blasting the wine with sulfur dioxide to act as a preservative against microbial spoilage and oxidation. Their goal is to create a consistent, low-risk, product every year. On the flip, natural winemakers set out to allow the fruit and the terroir to express whatever it so chooses, by setting up an environment for the ferment to run its course with as little intervention as possible. 

How is natural wine processed?

We typically use hand-picked fruit grown at minimum certified sustainably, but preferably organically or biodynamically. All Fiky Fiky Wines are wild ferments—so we let the ferment begin on its own with only yeasts already existing on the grapes. We allow the ferment to run its course [and] adding tiny amounts of sulfur dioxide only if/when absolutely needed. 

Biodynamic, sustainable, organic—what’s the difference?

Sustainable farming is a certification [which means] you are consciously taking measures to minimize your ecological footprint {i.e. reusing rainwater, not watering as much, minimizing chemical adds, etc.}.

Organic farming disallows the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers in the vineyard. Unfortunately, this certification is prohibitively expensive for most farmers, enough so that they would rather farm organically under the Certified Sustainable designation, than risk going bankrupt trying to get the Certified Organic designation. 

Biodynamic farming is inherently organic farming, but goes a step further to acknowledge and respect the land as a living, breathing entity capable of regenerating itself. The soil would be fertilized with compost, cover crops planted between the vines would replenish the nitrogen, pests would be handled with meticulous pruning and a little neem oil; everything is based on the lunar calendar, and the vineyard should theoretically be self-sustaining. Rudolph Steiner, a scientist and philosopher, developed this approach to agriculture in the 1920s. 

How does this affect the flavor of the wine?

This is a tough question, because there are a lot of factors that can affect the flavor of the wine. I would say, if we’re talking specifically about farming affecting the flavor of the wine, I would point to the nutrient levels in the soil. Healthy, nutrient-rich soil will likely produce healthy and happy grapes. Happy grapes tend to make happy wine. With that said, organically farmed soil requires much more work and investment to keep the nutrient levels at a desirable range. 

Are there types of natural wines or categories?

Pét nat wines and orange wines, for example, are just methods for vinifying grapes, so these are not inherently “natural.” Although, it seems that these methods have gained popularity mostly within the natural wine community, which is likely why they get lumped together. I would say the ‘categories’ within natural wine have more to do with the farming practices {sustainable, organic, biodynamic} and whether or not sulfur dioxide is added. Biodynamically farmed, zero/zero wines—which refers to absolutely nothing added to wine and absolutely nothing taken away—are at one end of the spectrum, and sustainably farmed, low sulfur dioxide wines are at the other. 

Is an orange wine always a natural wine?

No. Orange wine is simply referring to a white wine, made by crushing the grapes and letting the skins and the juice macerate for an extended period of time. This process pulls color, flavor, and tannin from the skins. 

Can any type of grape in winemaking be used when making natural wines?

YES, and what I love about natural wine is that you tend to run into a lot of forgotten-about grape varietals out there. Back in the ‘80s, farmers were ripping out anything that wasn’t a big-ticket grape and replanting Cab and Pinot and Chardonnay…Now we have this new generation of passionate farmers and winemakers using some really unique fruit because it’s a fifth of the price of a Sonoma Pinot or a Napa Cab.

What variations will you usually see in a natural wine versus  a regular wine?

You will see a few ‘faults’ in natural wines, and they will likely be more pronounced than a conventionally made wine. You may see:

  • VA (Volatile Acidity)- a light vinegar smell
  • ‘Mousy’ness – a flavor or scent similar to a barnyard
  • Reduction (lack of oxygen exposure) –a match-stick scent
  • Oxidation (over exposure to oxygen) – can result in a cider-y, nutty aroma.

While these are technically imperfections in winemaking, they can be quite intriguing in small doses. The tradeoff to preventing these faults with additives is that you tend to lose touch with the true expression of the fruit.

Does it affect the shelf life of the wine?

Yes. While you may find unicorn producers making natural wines that are so stable that they can age for decades, it is usually wise to drink them earlier than your conventional wine that has a lot of sulfur dioxide added to protect the wine for longer. With that said, aging natural wines can yield some truly unique and mind-blowing results, and unlike a conventional wine, those evolutions don’t take decades.

Have you tried natural wines before? If so, what’d you think of them?

Thanks for the incredibly insightful information, Ty! You can learn all about Fiky Fiky wines on their website and Instagram page here and here.

XO Team LC

Photos: Yoni Goldberg

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