The natural wine movement has been around in various forms for over a century. At its core, natural wine proponents advocate making a wine with the least amount of human intervention possible. Wine will not just make itself; it requires at least some human intervention to plant the vineyard, pick the grapes and have them ferment. How much intervention beyond that is acceptable to the natural wine movement? Perhaps the biggest criticism of the movement has been that there has never been a single accepted definition or set of criteria that distinguishes a natural wine from one that is not. Until now.
What Qualifies as a Natural Wine?
In March of this year the National Institute of Origin and Quality (INAO) and the General Directorate for Competition, Consumption and Fraud Prevention (DGCCRF), two French regulatory bodies together with Le Syndicat de defenses de Vin Nature’l, an independent union of likeminded winemakers from the Loire, invoked a 12-point Charter stipulating the requirements to use the term “Vin methode nature”, French for natural wine. Agree with the points in the Charter or not, the development is important because it sets out the rules, at least for France (No similar Charter has been adopted elsewhere in the world). The first 7 points deal with winemaking techniques, the last 5 with labeling.
In order to comply with the Charter, your wine must be made:
- With certified organic grapes (biodynamic will qualify)
- With harvests done entirely by hand (no mechanical harvesters)
- Fermented with indigenous yeasts (no commercial yeasts)
- Without any additives (no acid modification, sugars, etc.)
- Without voluntary modification of the constitution of the grape
- No “brutal” techniques (referring to reverse osmosis, cone spinning, fining or filtering, thermovinification, flash pasteurization, etc.)
- Without adding sulphites beyond a permitted 30 milligrams per litre, but only after fermentation
This goes beyond previous definitions such as “nothing added, nothing taken away”, probably the most commonly used definition as it conveys the sentiment though is generally thought of as overly simplistic. Condition 1 of the Charter, organic or biodynamic grapes, is a key component. This eliminates the use of any pesticides or herbicides and, though not the only methods to do so, it does promote sustainability and environmental sensitivity. Eliminating mechanical harvesters reduces soil compaction, another environmentally good thing.
Enforcing the use of indigenous yeasts, yeasts that occur naturally in the vineyard and in the winery, means the resulting wine speaks of that particular place, the advocates say. The alternative is to buy a commercial yeast, which can be a way to manipulate flavour. We think the latter objective is a worthy one when trying to create meaning for the term Natural Wine. But to have the wine only originate from that single place becomes much more tricky. Does that stipulation eliminate a blend of vineyards from being a natural wine? Bringing in oak barrels from outside your property (or country) would also violate that tenet. How about buying grapes from other vineyards? No négociant natural wines?
We are perplexed by condition 5: just what is modification of a grape’s constitution? Crossing different species to create a new one (such as Pinotage)? We presume that is what is meant, and that seems fair enough for a definition of natural. Condition 6 is pretty easy to stand behind as all of those mechanical manipulations would have to be forbidden in any product referred to as natural.
Sulphur has always been a big one for the natural wine movement. Adding sulphor dioxide is manipulating the wine through an additive. So why permit this one addition and not any others? Because sulphur is nearly essential to stabilize the wine and not have it spoil over time. By keeping the sulphur additions small (under 30 mg/l) the manipulation is minimal. By doing it after fermentation it acts only as a preservative, not as a wine enhancer.
The list seems to cover most of the major “interventions” that can occur in the winemaking process. A few are not addressed, however. What about pumps? These are used in many wineries to move wine or must around the winery. Gravity fed wineries allow the wine to flow naturally which is thought to be a gentler and better way of handling. Could pumps be used and still call the wine natural? Or how about pump overs or punch downs? These are techniques which are used to keep the cap of grape skins moist while they rest in the fermenter and these actions serve to extract a bit more colour and flavour in the resulting wine. These are good winemaking techniques and almost universally practiced, but hardly “natural”.
What about temperature-controlled tanks? In most modern wineries you will see gleaming stainless-steel tanks with a dimpled sheath around them that allows the winemaker to manipulate the temperature of the juice and thereby control fermentation.
Not a natural process but a mechanical intervention. What about malolactic fermentation? Many white wines and most red wines go through this secondary fermentation which converts tart malic acid into softer lactic acid. Inducing this would appear to be an intervention. Sometimes malolactic fermentation occurs spontaneously. Would blocking it intentionally be a manipulation of the wine? These are all activities that are used to make good wine. Not to say that this present charter is a poor charter, but it does not address every facet of good winemaking and is not a complete set of rules. No charter will ever be able to do that.
This is a fundamental problem with the natural wine movement: it attempts to take a process that involves both man and nature and set out rules as to what man can and cannot do. It is a difficult task, and who and by what authority has the right to set out these rules?
But Does it Matter?
We think the answer to that question is both yes and no.
It matters because the natural wine movement are trying to build a brand. They are producing wines that adhere to the tenets of the Charter. They do not want some other winemaker who is not as fastidious as they are to use the term Vin methode nature if it does not conform. Fair enough. The consumer benefits in that they know what they are getting if that term appears on the label. Similar regulations in different areas are likely to result now that France has set the standard.
But in other ways it does not matter. We have now interviewed over 150 different winemakers from North America, South America, Europe, Africa and Australia. Most, if not all of the premium winemakers we have met with largely follow most of these tenets without wanting to use the term natural wine or obtain certification. These top winemakers follow sustainable, environmentally sensitive farming practices (though not necessarily certified organic or biodynamic), avoid “brutal” mechanical processes in their winery, and avoid additives. Sulphur is probably the area where we would see the most difference. The use of indigenous yeasts over commercial yeasts would not be universal.
While perhaps not strict adherents to this Charter, the premium winemakers end up with similar practices and share the common attribute of caring greatly about making a low intervention wine. If there is a big difference between winemakers generally following this Charter and those who do not, it is with the non-premium winemakers. At the quality end of the spectrum, the practices of all these winemakers tend to converge more than they separate.
The real way to make the natural wine movement matter is to make really great wine. We are wine drinkers, as are most of our readers, not fervent followers of any ideology or cause. We want our wine first and foremost to taste good. The natural wine movement has much it needs to do in this regard. There is little evidence that following these tenets results in making a better tasting wine.
The top wineries that we have visited around the world all practice sustainable, environmentally sensitive, low intervention terroir-driven viticulture and viniculture. None call themselves natural wines. Really, the thing that matters most in the wine world is to make a wine that delights its consumer. If creating and adhering to the natural wine tenets can be demonstrated to make a better tasting wine, then great, their efforts are to be applauded. Until then, it does not matter.