What is natural wine? A glossary of wine terms to know [Part 1]

By Dave Schavone

Natural wine is becoming a topic of conversation accessible to more and more people. No longer restricted to the fine-dining table conversations of sommeliers and wine connoisseurs, just about everyone [of age, that is] can learn about the nuanced ins and outs of natural winemaking. In wine though, I found that the more I learned, the more questions I had. Sure, I may remember something about pH from sophomore science, but how exactly does it relate to what’s in my glass? Someone recently asked me if “glou-glou” was an actual term and not just “glug glug” misspelled.

There’s a lot of information out there that can be confusing coming from so many different sources. We’ve gathered the basic facts and terms about wine you may have picked up on socials or learned from our own blogs and condensed it into an easy [two part] glossary. Breeze over it before your next work dinner or fancy friend night and impress [yourself and] others by knowing what native yeast refers to—or maybe just use your knowledge to select the make-the-table-happy wine for the evening.

  • Natural wine: wine produced with little to no additives and bottled in its most natural state. Just grapes, native yeast, and either no sulfur or just the least amount to maintain flavor. [The true definition is a hot debate in the wine world, with the addition of sulfur being the main point of contention.]
  • Orange wine: wine made from white grapes with extended skin contact. The extended skin contact tends to lead to more complex and full-bodied wines with higher tannins, as well as the notable orange color.
  • Clean wine: basically, a huge myth. Sorry to burst your bubble here, but anyone touting clean wine is more or less natural wine marketed as “healthy.” Dig into the dirty details here.
  • Organic wine: wine produced without added chemicals, such as pesticides and herbicides, or even sulfur. (In the EU, wines with added sulfur are considered organic, but the US considers any wine with added sulfur to be non-organic.)
  • Skin contact: white wines that are created by allowing the juice from grapes to soak in the grape skins. It results in a wine high in tannins as well as an orange color. This process is performed for all red wines, which is where the red hue originates from.
  • Fermentation: yeast present in the grapes [or added during the winemaking process] converts the sugar within the grapes into alcohol [aka “the fun stuff”], contributing to the overall appearance, aroma, and flavor of the wine.
  • ABV: alcohol by volume, represented as a percentage of the total. For example, a wine with an ABV of 10% would have 75ml of alcohol in a 750ml bottle. It can be increased by adding sugar to a wine before fermentation.
  • Biodynamic farming: a natural, holistic approach to farming of any produce. It was first developed by Rudolf Steiner in the early 20th Century and is considered an ecological alternative to traditional farming. It considers the farm or, in this case, vineyard as one whole organism with farmers nurturing all aspects of the land equally to facilitate growth.
  • Dry farming: the practice of utilizing rainwater and groundwater, rather than irrigation, to produce grapes with concentrated flavor. Great for both the grapes and the environment.
  • Native yeast: yeast that occurs naturally in the winemaking environment, rather than using added yeast that is not native to the soil to complete fermentation. Using native yeast means the wine will [desirably] express more of the terrior, or soil from which the grapes are grown, in its taste.
  • Sulfites: a naturally occurring chemical compound that is found in all wines. Some winemakers choose to add additional sulfites in order to stabilize the flavor of wine and maintain consistency over years when bottles sit on shelves or in cellars. Spoiler alert: this does not cause your hangovers, so look for scapegoats elsewhere.
  • pH: the measure of acidity in a wine. The lower the pH, the higher the perceived acidity. Lower pH levels in wine often lend to a sharper, more tart flavor, while higher pH leads to a more flavorful, full-bodied wine.

Even with all this info it can still be difficult to actually know what’s in the bottle. Transparency is hard to come by in the wine world [really in the alcoholic beverage world in general], and a lot of brands don’t include the helpful data we’ve come to expect from food… things like “ingredients list” or “nutrition facts.” Every bottle of RedThumb not only lists all [three] ingredients, and nutritional info, but also how the farming methods of the vineyard, yeast used in fermentation, and the [relative lack of] preservatives used in each varietal’s creation so you know what goes into the production of our wines. And therefore what goes into your body.

Looking for a bit more in depth information? Part two of two will dive into the finer details of the winemaking process.