In fact I'm opposed to the idea of constructing a definition of natural wine. I believe that 'natural wine' is not in any way a conceptual idea with clear boundaries and definitions that include or exclude specific wines. Natural wine is not a concept really; it's just wine that is not manipulated too much. It's somewhat against the spirit of natural wines to propose a definition.
Furthermore the American Joe Dressner has already perpetrated a remarkable 14-point manifesto which cannot be surpassed in entertainment value or one-liners:
You can also follow Cory Cartwright's two blog serials on the subject:
Finally there's the Association des Vins Naturels, whose official charter can be found here: http://www.lesvinsnaturels.org/charte-signee-par-les-vignerons/ . Here you'll find specific instructions of what is allowed and what is not.
Nevertheless, when – despite all the reservations – I attempt to outline a definition, I do it because I hope to give an explanation of some of the intentions and ideas in the making of natural wines that goes beyond a specific set of rules. And perhaps initiate a debate that could be something else and more than a trench warfare for and against natural wines.
1. Natural wines are made from a wish of conveying an experience which has a concrete physical origin in an area or a vineyard.
It's the ambition that the wine shall tell a little story from out there; to one who's sensitive enough to listen. Wine can recount a place and a time bygone. Thus wine can be an experience that extends beyond the specific situation of 'man drinking wine'. Wine is first of all committed to taste good, but in happy cases the pleasure-oriented logic can be exceeded.
2. Natural wine is not goal-oriented and has no teleological approach. There's no desired direction, but a wide range of possibilities for succeeding.
First of all the wine must reflect the possibilities offered by the correlation between nature and the work with the vine and the wine. It is not necessarily made to please. That doesn't mean that one should drink all kinds of things that don't taste good, but a natural wine is only succesful if isn't forced in a specific direction. The winedrinker must always remain open and critical to whatever she pours down the drain. Furthermore, it is our concept of normality that decides what we perceive as succesful, and if one has lived a whole life with wines that are levelled off and predetermined in terms of taste, some natural wines can seem bizarre or even faulty.
3. Natural wine embraces a broad definition of what can be perceived as succesful.
In any case, wine is an acquired taste, and not all winedrinkers can embrace the same. Differences and diversity, however, must in this case - as in most cases - be considered an unconditional good. In practice it means that a lot of winedrinkers eventually change their perception of what wine is, and how it should and can taste. Natural wine demands a broad and spacious - but not uncritical! - definition of succesful wine.
4. Natural wine basically has to taste good and be nice to drink.
A lot of winemakers started to make natural wines, simply because they could drink more of it. In practice natural wine is always accompanied by a certain unrestrained hedonism and a great generosity. This is not a theoretical misrepresentation, but simply an empirical establishment(even though I shall refrain from declaring it statisticcaly significant, a quick survey showed a 100% approval, since all of the asked persons (my wife and myself, to be exact]) agreed totally with that conclusion).
5. Natural wine is basically grown without the use of chemical aids.
Wine must draw minerality and nutrition from the soil it grows in. In order for this to happen the soil must be full of flora and fauna. Soil work is a prerequisite for making natural wine, and the harvested grapes must be healthy and hold a vital yeast population. One chemical aid leads to the next as the natural balance of the plants and the soil is upset. Ideally the vineyard can be taken care of totally without the use of any chemicals. In practice, however, it is by no means all natural wines that are made totally without chemical aids, and sulphur and copper sulphate (also known as bordeaux mixture) are widely accepted preparations (and also allowed when making organic and biodynamic wine), but they are not desirable, and should be avoided as far as possible.
6. Natural wine is basically vinified without the use of cultured yeast, filtering, clarification, enzyme treatments or reversed osmosis. Sulphur is only employed in the lowest possible doses if at all.
Actually, large parts of the serious wine world will probably agree that they advocate as little intervention in the making of the wine as possible. However, there are big differences between the various forms of this (somewhat) reluctant interference and also between the degrees of tha actual reluctance. Maceration of white wines or long time maturing on the lees can produce notes which can make drinkers of conventional wines sneer. Filtering and clarification can make drinkers of natural wine shrug dispairingly and pour the wine straight out. The limits are fluid, and the answer is blowin' in the wine. Cultured yeast, enzymes and reversed osmosis, however, out of place in connection with natural wine.
7. A minimal addition of sulphur at the bottling is acceptable, but not desirable.
In recent years sulphur has been the great subject of discussion. Everybody agrees that too much sulphur is a fault; however, exactly when too much is too much, is a point of contention in many quarters]. The AVN lays down limit values for the contents of sulphur in wine that I can subscribe to, but I would like to stress that wines which keep respect these limits in my view can be too heavily sulphured, just as wines which do not respect/keep within these limits in some (rare) cases can comply with the definition of natural wine. The answer is in the wine.
8. Natural wines must be free and alive.
The fine thing about the natural wines is their life and twinkle. They must be free, unforced and uncontrolled. You cannot decide to make a wine that tastes like a 'natural wine'.
9. Natural wine doesn't have a static definition, but is an idea to pursue.
Of course it's not without problems to place the definition of natural wine outside the wine itself, but it's nevertheless the only way. There's no way to measure if a wine is natural or not. The answer is in the wine, but must be formulated by the winedrinker. The grapes don't harvest themselves and they don't crawl into the casks a year or so before the wine itself runs into the bottles. Wine is a cultural interaction between man and vineyard, exposed to wind and weather. There'll be a long row of borderline cases of wines where the definition 'natural' can and must be discussed, just as natural wines must be defined within a sliding scale of naturalness.