The term “natural wine” raises controversy. It polarizes. And it is gaining significance. Some advocates speak of “the only way to authentic wine”; opponents often speak of an umbrella term for romanticizing faulty wines and pushing them on gullible consumers.
There is no established certification body for “natural wine” and the term has no legal status. In fact, in the EU and many countries outside the EU, labelling and/or selling wine as “natural wine” is considered misleading to the consumer and fraudulent. Some would like to call “natural wine” a category, but categories are ways of defining things, differentiating them from one another. Without a distinct definition or rules, that is not possible. Where does natural wine begin and where does it end? What is the difference between “natural” and “non-natural” or “unnatural” wine? “Natural wine” is not a physical entity; it is a goal, an idea shared by like-minded wine producers.
If one is to count the growing number of vintner associations, wine fairs and presentations promoting or addressing the “natural wine” philosophy, one can perceive a growing movement. The roots of the movement originate in the criticism of the growing industrialization of agriculture and human nutrition in the early 20th Century. Instrumental leaders were the Austrian philosopher, Rudolf Steiner, and the Japanese farmer and philosopher, Masanobu Fukuoka. The wine producer and négociant Jules Chauvet from Burgundy is considered the father of the “natural wine” movement. Chauvet was a chemist and a talented taster who argued for the authenticity of wine from a viewpoint that combined a scientific background and a lot of practical experience. Many of the techniques he employed are considered visionary. Chauvet’s philosophy was followed by many other wineries around the globe: Joly in the Loire, Gravner in Friuli, Gauby in Roussillon, Foradori in Trentino; Laughton in Australia.
Today, a growing number of wineries are becoming certified organic and many are also taking a more critical approach to additives and processing agents as well as technical manipulations in the cellar. The techniques that they employ in the vineyard and cellar are as diverse as the wines they produce.
At the extreme end of the “natural wine” philosophy, there are vintners who practice an ancient vinification process originating in the Caucasas. Clay amphorae filled with crushed grapes are sealed without any additions, including sulphur dioxide, and buried in the ground where they ferment and mature for months. Fermentation takes place largely in the absence of oxygen, as the amphorae are sealed with beeswax or resin. Bernhard Ott of the Wagram region in Austria produces a wine named “Qvevre” after the Georgian amphora. Ott says “In modern white wine production, the grapes are conventionally pressed immediately after harvest and only the juice is fermented. In the ancient method, white wines are fermented with the skins. The tannins in the skins and seeds offer some degree of protection from oxidation.”
Vinification philosophies for the amphora wines vary greatly. Some ferment whole grapes without first crushing them. Others first tread the grapes with the feet. Others, like Bernhard Ott, de-stem the grapes and sort them by hand before putting them into into clay pots. The fermentation begins inside the intact berries and tannins and flavours are gently extracted over a period of several months. Bernhard Ott waits six months, until Easter, before unearthing the amphorae. The skins and seeds have settled to the pointed bottoms of the amphorae and only the clear wine is withdrawn. Bernhard Ott’s Qvevre is cloudy, pale and greenish-yellow in colour. Other wines made from white grapes are crushed and often ferment with some stems and yield wines with an orange colour. Both versions are usually unfined, unfiltered and thus cloudy.
No Wine without Sulphur
Other wines made with the “natural” philosophy are fermented more conventionally in used oak barrels. What is considered minimal, necessary intervention is interpreted differently from vintner to vintner. A goal for most is to get by with as little sulphur dioxide as possible. The total sulphur restrictions for the EU are 160 mg/l for dry red wine and 210 mg/l for dry white wine. According to the Association des Vins Naturels, the average “natural red wine” has under 30 mg/l total sulphur and “natural white wine” under 40 mg/l, but there are no regulations or controls. Whether sulphur dioxide is added or not, there is no wine completely without sulphur as it is a natural by-product of alcoholic fermentation.
Sulphur dioxide can be viewed as a custodian for wine. It kills bacteria and other microorganisms and protects wine from oxidation and spoilage. Penetrating odours of browned apple or apple cider vinegar, nail polish remover, sauerkraut or sweaty horse are perceived by most wine consumers as unpleasant. These can be avoided with the right dose of sulphur dioxide at the right time. Eduard Tscheppe of Gut Oggau in Burgenland says: “I generally get through fermentation and malo all the way to bottling without sulphur dioxide with my wines. It is necessary to select grapes carefully by hand, omitting damaged or overripe berries, and work very hygienically. I like to add a handful of fresh grapes to the must to help protect it from oxidation during fermentation and maturation.”
Flirting with Faults
The good news is that due to the acidity and alcoholic content of wine, whatever bacteria and micro-organisms that may attack it, they will never render the wine fatally poisonous for humans.
At lower threshold limits, volatile acidity, Brettanomyces and other “off-flavours” can lend pleasant complexity and the impression of minerality. In wines with very little sulphites, it may happen that flavour and colour variations are large from bottle to bottle, especially if the wines are not stored cool. But as Robert Josef stated at the EWBC 2012, “There are a few consumers that accept cloudy apple juice and smelly cheese, but there are even fewer consumers that want their wine to be anything other than bright, clean and consistent.”
“Natural wine” sparks discussions among winemakers. How much intervention is justified and what is its price? What is the price of non-intervention? Rainer Loacker from Bioweinhof in western Styria says: “I accompany every single vine throughout the year. I employ only homeopathy to strengthen them – no chemical pesticides and no copper.” In 2011, he lost most of his crop, first to fungal diseases, then to wasps. “I allow my white wines to go through malolactic fermentation. They don’t fit into the usual fruity image of Styrian wines and are bottled as table wine.” All the wines I tasted lacked fruit and freshness and either exhibited aromas reminiscent of caged mice or mushrooms. Maybe it is possible that these wines didn’t make it through the strict sensory and chemical analysis required to be labelled as Austrian Qualitätswein.
Some producers seem to be more interested in their “natural wine” philosophy than in the hedonistic attributes of their wine. Indeed some display a high acceptance of oxidative notes, volatile acidity, Brettanomyces, geosmin and the like in the name of authenticity. Other “natural wine” producers are horrified and shake their finger at what they call plain and simple bad winemaking.
“Natural wine” can cause confusion for consumers. What is perceived by one wine lover as pleasant or fascinating, is perceived by another as repulsive. Some of the wines produced with a “natural wine” philosophy are funky and cloudy – they are challenging wines that require a “hand-sell” and an engaged consumer.
At last week’s EWBC conference in Izmir, Turkey, Elin McCoy told me an anecdote about her friend, Kermit Lynch, who has peen a proponent and merchant of authentic terroir wines made with minimal intervention long before anyone was even talking about natural wine. As told by Elin McCoy, Mr. Lynch ordered a bottle of one of his favourite wines (one that happens to be included in his portfolio) at a well-known New York restaurant. When the sommelier poured for him to taste, Mr. Lynch replied that the wine was oxidized and could the sommelier please bring him another bottle. The sommelier explained to Mr. Lynch that it was a “natural wine” and that was part of the style. Mr. Lynch said that he believed he knew the wine well and that he thought it wasn’t showing as it should. He would gladly pay for both bottles, but would the sommelier please bring him a second bottle. The sommelier reluctantly did so and the second bottle was pristine.
We as an industry have a problem. We still act as if the wine market is production driven. Instead of listening to what consumers want, we wine professionals are still preaching to consumers what they should like. When wine professionals that are proponents of “natural wine” tell wine consumers that faults are part of a new avant garde category – they are not doing the movement a favour.
An environmentally and health conscious consumer might be inspired to purchase a varietal wine labelled “Badger Mountain organic no added sulphite”. The wines are pasteurized, fault-free, and packaged in recyclable tetra paks that can be shipped with a much with a much lower carbon footprint than bottled wines. If the consumer finds one that he or she likes, they can stick to it and purchase it again the next week knowing that they will get the very same flavours. It’s all “natural” right?
Another choice, for the locavore in the California bay area is wine from the Natural Process Alliance. Consumers purchase 0.75l stainless steel flasks that they can refill weekly with low sulphite wines directly from the barrel. There are consumers that appear to like the element of serendipity; the wines offered differ in not only in variety and origin, but in their degree of cloudy funkiness each week. The wines require refridgeration and are destined for immediate consumption only.
Do a fine wine from the Kermit Lynch collection that has experienced unfortunate oxidation, the Badger Mountain organic no added sulphite wine and the funky cloudy wine from the Natural Process Alliance all fall under the “natural wine” umbrella?
Some legal stuff
During the EWBC 2012 Natural Wine discussion panel, Dr. Jamie Goode stated that “If we define natural wine, it kind of goes against the spirit of this exciting movement.” I disagree. I’d like the “natural wine” movement to come up with a true wine category (or categories) and to do that, it is going to have to come up with an official category definition. In the process it will probably have to come up with a less controversial name – one that does not insinuate that other wines are “unnatural”. A logical, and in my opinion, good route to becoming a category that can be understood and clearly communicated is as an organic certification body which goes beyond the minimum legal requirements for organic wine.
Until March 2012, there was no legal definition in the EU for “organic wine”. Only regulations for labelling “wine made from organic grapes” or “wine from organic agriculture” were provided. That has changed. From July 31st, 2012 there are stricter rules that also include oenological practices. As of 2012, wines that have been produced according to these guidelines, may be called “organic wine”. (Reference: (EU) No 203/2012 of 8 March 2012 amending Regulation (EC) No 889/2008 laying down detailed rules for the implementation of Regulation (EC) No 834/2007, as regards detailed rules on organic wine)
To qualify for the new EU organic logo, wines satisfy minimum requirements in the vineyard and in the winemaking process. These requirements must be controlled regularly by an independent certification authority. Organic wine producers may also choose organic certification bodies such as Demeter Austria, whose certification requirements are even more stringent than the EU organic regulations and stricter than those for Demeter International. (See Table below).
Wines containing more than 10 milligrams per litre of SO2 (which most stable wines will have) must state “contains sulphites” in the appropriate language/languages on the label. Wines labelled after June 30th, 2012 are subject to new allergen labelling laws. Wines which have used milk or egg products in the fining process and have not tested negative for residues using a technique with a detection limit of 0.25mg/l must state so on the label. An official pictogram has also been developed to aid in consumer understanding.
A way forward for “natural wine”
Demeter Austria offers an excellent example of a way forward for “natural wine”. As can be seen in the table below, wines certified organic by Demeter Austria will have no need for a pictogram, because all processing agents of animal origin such as insinglass, egg albumin, lysozyme, casein, skim milk, etc. are prohibited. Also prohibited are fractionation (spinning cone) and technical concentration methods (vacuum distillation, reverse osmosis, cryoextraction). Perhaps regulations for “natural wine” could go a step further and not even allow bentonite for fining, prohibit filtration, and increase the limits on sulphur dioxide additions.
EU Quality Wine
(EG) Nr. 889/2008
(EG) Nr. 203/2012
|Organic grapes not required||Organic grapes required||Organic grapes required|
|No organic requirements for production||Entire production must be organic||Entire production must be bio-dynamic|
|Chemical fertilizer allowed||Organic fertilizer allowed||Only biodynamic compost as fertilizer allowed|
|Herbicide allowed||No herbicides allowed||No herbicides allowed|
|Chemical-synthetic plant protection substances allowed within legal limitations||No chemical-synthetic plant protection substances allowed||No chemical-synthetic plant protection substances allowed|
|Total copper up to 6 kg per hectar per year allowed||Total copper up to 3 kg per hectar per year allowed||Total copper up to 3 kg per hectar per year allowed|
|Cover crops optional||Green cover required||Green cover required|
|Mechanical harvesting allowed||Mechanical harvesting allowed||Mechanical harvesting allowed|
|Genetically manipulated cultured yeasts allowed||Organic cultured yeast allowed||No cultured yeast allowed except for sparkling wine|
|Enrichment allowed||Enrichment allowed with organic products||Enrichment allowed with surgar from organic sugar beets allowed|
|Fractionation (spinning cone, distillation techniques) allowed||Fractionation (spinning cone, distillation techniques) allowed||Fractionation forbidden|
|Concentration techniques allowed (reverse osmosis, vacuum extraction, cryoextraction)||Limited use of concentration techniques allowed (no cryoextraction)||Concentration techniques forbidden|
|Processing agents of animal origin allowed||Processing agents of animal origin allowed||Processing agents of animal origin forbidden|
|Pasteurization allowed||No pasteurization allowed||No pasteurization allowed|
|Total sulphur dioxidewhite- & rosé wine <2g/l residual sugar: <200mg/lred wine < 2g/l residual sugar: < 150 mg/l||Total sulphur dioxidewhite- & rosé wine <2g/l residual sugar: <150mg/lred wine < 2g/l residual sugar: <100 mg/lFor all other wines, the SO2 limits are set at 30 mg/l lower than the normal legal limits.||Total sulphur dioxidewhite- & rosé wine <2g/l residual sugar: <150mg/lred wine < 2g/l residual sugar: <100 mg/lFor all other wines, the SO2 limits are set at 30 mg/l lower than the normal legal limits.|
The “natural wine” philosophy is quite production focussed and will not capture the bulk of consumers that are simply not interested in how wine is made. What the “natural wine” movement is doing is making the production side of the industry take a critical look at how wine is being produced and whether everything they are doing to their wine is really necessary or good.
Most consumers simply seek a wine in their comfort zone – an affordable wine that tastes good, is unintimidating and invokes trust. There is only a small niche that is looking for something more intriguing – a link between quality, origin, culture and taste.
We can discuss long about wine quality and taste. I like the way that the Austrian négociant and winemaker, Roland Velich, says it: “délicatesse has a lot to do with aesthetics. Your perception must be trained, as in music or the arts. You need some education of the palate to capture and recognise délicatesse. That is essential. “