‘Why would I buy wine that destroys nature?’

Eco-chef and author Tom Hunt explores the rise of natural wines – the counter movement to big business and overuse of chemicals – which is growing fast in Britain.

Recently I got chatting with a barman at 40 Maltby St – an archway, restaurant and wine cellar on Rope Walk in Bermondsey London. I’d just heard about a controversial movement in the wine world called ‘natural wine’ that had been the cause for much debate and a divide in the wine industry. Most of the wine sold in the UK contains a variety of unnatural chemicals that are added early on in the winemaking process. I was intrigued by the restaurant’s wine list which seemed to consist of only ‘natural wine’.

After some conversing, I asked the barman why he thinks natural wine stands out from conventional wine. He replied with a blunt statement that acted as a conversation stopper: “Why would I buy wine that destroys nature”. I agreed, taken aback by his powerful remark and returned to my table with a recommended glass of wine to continue our meal and ponder our conversation.

We drank a collection of wines which all – without exception – sung with flavour, vibrancy and aliveness. I later learnt that some of the wines we drank were made by great winemakers at the forefront of the natural wine movement: Francis Boulard who makes sparkling wines and Philippe Bornard who makes incredible red and white wines in Jura.

UK wine importer David Harvey says that while there are naturally made examples of almost every genre of wine, certain types are unique to the natural world. One is orange wine – which Harvey named while working for renowned Italian winemaker Frank Cornelissen. You can see this ‘orange’ wine now popping up in wine menu’s throughout Britain.

Overuse of chemicals

I believe the natural wine movement came about as a reaction to the conventional wine industries generification or homogenization of the mass wine market. Today, over 99% of commercial wines contain added sulfites. Natural wine is a counter movement to big business and the overuse of chemicals in the growing and maintenance of vineyards and within the wine itself. Like conventionally made wine, natural wine can be good or bad, rough or refined, showstopping or leave-me-well-alone. But often natural wine doesn’t follow the same rules as a conventional wine production and aims to speak of the terroir first and foremost.

Enjoying natural wine, therefore, on occasion needs an extra open mindedness beyond the conventional characteristics we look for in a good wine – a statement I’m sure that would make many a connoisseur shudder. This, of course, means some of the more outlandish natural wine is not for everyone. My advice would be to judge each wine you try on its own merits without preconceptions. Think about the taste and the enjoyment you get from the wine and prepare to be pleasantly surprised or at worst challenged.

Natural is not new 

Just like organic food, or you could say, food in its ‘natural’ state – the truth is natural wine is not new and has always existed. In fact, before the industrialisation of agriculture, all wine would have come under this heading. In recent years, much of global wine production has focused on the stability, clarity and consistency of wine while prioritising profit over product. This has led to a winemaking process relying on additives and heavy manipulation that leaves wine lacking integrity and local ecological characteristics or terroir. Terroir refers to the ecology of the vineyard and surrounding area, including the type of soil, weather, flora and forna. All things that can affect the flavour of the wine.

A great wine focuses on the viticulture and vineyard ensuring the land, ecology and grape are alive and healthy. Not everyone would agree with this statement, but in my mind, both conventional and natural winemakers can be guilty of masking the condition of the wine for the polar opposite reasons – either too much or not enough intervention, as a badly handled grape will speak no more of the terroir than a heavy manipulated wine.

Differences between organic, natural & biodynamic

Natural wine is usually made with grapes farmed using organic, biodynamic and or agroecological farming practices; in combination with a low intervention winemaking process.

Natural wine shouldn’t be confused with organic wine. Organic wine by its simplest definition means that little to no pesticides or fertilisers have been used on the soil for growing the grapes. Organic wine is a good environmental choice and is hugely beneficial for good soil production.

Biodynamic farming is a belief system that goes beyond organic farming similar to permaculture. Biodynamic farming is a methodology that focuses particularly on biodiversity and working in partnership with nature to increase fertility of the soil and the ecology of the farm. Biodynamics has a spiritual element to it and focuses on ancient technologies that are not all proved scientifically. This leads to some people distrusting it as a farming practice.

I personally think that farming consciously while considering the environment and ecology is a positive approach to farming and the way forward to create food security and a future for the planet. Bringing an element of spirituality into farming strengthens our connection with the land and nature and our sensitivities to it. If you find the idea of spirituality in farming off putting or unnecessary, I would suggest you don’t let it taint your opinion of biodynamic farming – as it has a hugely practical and environmentally positive side too.

Sulphites in wine

Other factors that help distinguish a natural wine are the low-to-no use of added sulphites. Sulphites naturally occur in wine and act as an antioxidant, antibacterial and anti-yeast that stabilises and preserves the wine. In conventional wine production, added sulfites can be overused to make sure the wine is definitely stable and will not have a secondary fermentation. An overuse of sulphites flattens a wine’s complex flavors holding back the aromas and terroir, preventing the wine from maximum flavour expression. It can also have adverse health effects – it is thought that sulfites cause headaches, blushing and worsen hangovers. A natural wine contains minimal added sulfites – only added if absolutely necessary.

Importantly, I think we should remember that natural wine is just a label and does not necessarily mean it is good or bad or even of a particular recognisable style. Some incredibly respected vineyards sit well within both sides of the wine market. I also believe that as natural wine has become more established, it is more widely accepted. At the end of the day, the important thing is that the wine we are drinking is pleasurable and has benefitted the environment it was grown in and the people’s hands it has passed through. And in the words of the barman “Why would I buy wine that destroys nature”. Which is the same way I feel about the ingredients I use in my kitchen.


Tom Hunt

Tom Hunt

Tom Hunt is an eco-chef, director of Poco restaurant in Bristol and author of The Natural Cook.