Natural Wine

What is meant by the term ‘natural wine?’

Natural wine has no ‘legal’ definition and the use of the term is not managed by any regulatory body. It is a trend (general direction in which something is developing or changing) as well as a concept (an idea or invention to help sell or publicize a commodity), a return to your roots movement in viticulture and winemaking, with no absolute definition or collection of agreed upon attributes that define it (Bull, 2019). What follows is a brief history of what chemical, viticultural and winemaking practices prompted the trend for natural wine as well as information from several experts outlining common approaches most producers of natural wine take when crafting their wine.

After World War II, the United States and Europe scrambled to refocus efforts on growing food rather than on the production of munitions.  As bomb making factories were already producing nitrogen and other chemicals, it was a relatively easy task to refocus production to chemical fertilizers and pesticides (Hergert, 2015). The wine world was thus transformed by these forces of industrialization providing technical solutions for every enological issue.  With the soldiers returning home and their desire to move into urban areas rather than return to the farm, this would allow crops to be raised and wine produced with less manpower.  It began the age of science in winemaking which served to give people the illusion that everything could be controlled, and perfect wines could be crafted.  That is, until the realization that using a lot of chemicals for any type of food production was not a good thing, for the health of the people or for the environment.

Today, ‘natural wine’ is, in fact, trendy, but it is not new.  Grapes have been made into wine for thousands of years but the ‘natural wine movement’ began in Beaujolais around the 1950s.  Jules Chauvet, a researcher, chemist and viticulturalist first spoke out for ‘natural wine’ harkening back to the traditional methods of the Beaujolais and discouraging the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.  Marcel Lapierre, Guy Breton, Jean-Paul Thevenet and Jean Foillard, dubbed the Gang of Four, took up the torch of the natural wine movement in the 1970s (Editors of Grape Collective, 2018). Beaujolais is considered to be the cradle of natural winemaking, where old vines are prized, synthetic herbicides and pesticides are not used, harvest is late, grapes are sorted rigorously to remove all but the healthiest grapes, with minimal additions of sulfur dioxide (or none at all) and disdaining chaptalization (Holthausen, 2016).

Then, in 2002, Alice Feiring, a freelance writer, was hired to write a wine guide for Food and Wine.  “I had to do so much tasting for that book, and I realized the wine world was in deep shit.”  She placed the blame largely on one man: Robert Parker, the critic behind the influential newsletter The Wine Advocate.  His notable innovation was ‘grading’ wines on a 100-point scale which was enormously effective.  Consumers, intimidated by the mystifying language of wine labels, now had an easy way to decide what to buy.  Wineries were financially rewarded and incented by sales of the jammy, oaky, high alcohol wines that appealed to Parker’s palate (Monroe, 2019). Around the world, wineries adjusted their processes creating a homogenizing effect with the wines showing no sense of place (Feiring, 2019).

By 2005, consumers’ tastes were changing, and organic products entered the marketplace.  People shopped at farmers’ markets, drank craft beer, ate heirloom tomatoes at farm-to-table restaurants and were concerned with the reports of lab created yeasts, grapes doused in weed killer and huge conglomerates being in charge of the products and produce they were eating.  The natural wine movement fit in with the urban appetite for movements that evoked a slower, more earthbound past (Monroe, 2015).

For natural winemaking, the grapes must be organically or biodynamically farmed which requires following a long list of rules and paying for costly certification.  If lab created chemicals are not utilized, there is an expectation that this is natural, pure and the end-product superior. This vagueness is part of what has allowed natural wine to become a cultural phenomenon (Mercer, 2020).

Absent a strict definition, there are common approaches that most producers of natural wine take (Goode and Harrop, 2011).  Wines made with grapes that come from organically/biodynamically farmed vineyards, are carefully harvested by hand, and fermented with their own yeasts and the transformation process subsequently achieved without chemical intervention and nothing added until bottling – other than minimal Sulphur (or no Sulphur if not needed). It is admittedly a broad definition and one that does not address the nature or the spirit of what it means to be (really) natural (Wregg, 2020).

Also, while there is no ‘international’ standard for natural wine, in March of 2020 as reported in the March 26, 2020 edition of the Drinks Business, ‘natural wine’ has been formally recognized by the French authorities.  The wines must come from hand-picked grapes from certified organic vines and be made with indigenous yeast.  Wines that fall within the new denomination will be marketed using the term, ‘vin methode nature’ as existing European regulations prohibit the use of the term ‘natural’ on wine label (Shaw, 2020).

A Natural Wines Union has been created in collaboration with the French Ministry for Agriculture and the French National Institute for Origins and Quality.  Headed up by Loire Valley vintner Jacques Carroget, the union has established a list of criteria dedicated to the new designation.  Wines that qualify will be able to use this logo on their bottles.  The denomination will be subject to a three-year trial period (Shaw, 2020).

Here are the rules:  to use the term ‘vin methode nature’ on labels, the wine must be produced from handpicked grapes from certified organic vines and made with indigenous yeast.  The following practices are prohibited during the winemaking process:  crossflow filtration, flash pasteurization, thermovinification and reverse osmosis.  Up to 30 mg/l of sulfites are allowed in all types of wine.  To differentiate between natural wines that contain sulfites and those that are sulphite-free, two logos have been created indicating whether the product contains sulfites.  Every year an external entity will control the bottled wine applying for the designation.  If the wine has not conformed to the regulations, it must be marketed as a different brand so as not to mislead consumers.  Over 100 French brands are expected to be marketed as ‘vin methode nature’ in the coming months, with Spanish and Italian wineries expected to follow suit (Shaw, 2020).

Again, while no legal definition of natural wine currently exists, various official-ish ones do, set by groups of growers in various countries, including France, Italy, and Spain.  These self-regulated charters of quality are far stricter than regulations imposed by official organic or biodynamic certification bodies. While it may seem good to have groups trying to monitor the natural wine classification, with so many different organizations with varying ideas and rules, it only helps to further divide rather than unite the movement and confuse the consumer (Legeron, 2020).

Describe the typical practices in vineyard.

Farming can fall into one of five categories:  conventional, sustainable, organic, biodynamic, and natural.  As we are evaluating natural winemaking, we will look at the practices for the two most called for farming methods: organic and biodynamic (Feiring, 2019).

  • To make a natural wine, you need impeccable grapes that have their fruit in balance with their acid and tannin.  Soil nitrogen is essential to vine health and it also impacts aromatics
  • Fertilizers used are composts or additives derived from animals, vegetable, or minerals.  (However, as with herbal supplements, just because it is organic does not mean the treatment is not toxic)
  • Organic farming uses co-planting of beneficial plants such as leeks, clover and horsetail for cover crops which bring potent and important nutrients to the soil in addition to antibacterial properties
  • it is a general practice that organic farmers tend to mechanically remove the high grass and weeds so that workers can get to the vines
  • Increasingly, you cannot claim to be organic without certification which does add costs to the bottom line
  • Biodynamic is spiritual and homeopathic farming with the object to heal and not harm and is proactive rather than reactive.  While there are governmental regulating bodies for organic, certification for biodynamic is through organizations like Demeter
  • Dry farming is preferred for the natural winemaker, but water is required until after the initial planting is established.  Climate change is bringing challenges to farming, but it is considered best to work with nature instead of defiantly trying to control it
  • The use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides is prohibited

Natural wine is always handpicked (because if there is some rot present in the clusters, you cannot fall back on antibacterial applications).  For carbonic maceration, for example, the bunches must be especially perfect.  Once the grapes are picked, the fruit heads to the winery (Goode and Harrop, 2011).

Describe typical practices in winery associated with production:

While what happens in the vineyard is crucial, once the grapes arrive in the winery, the winemaker must be careful to follow accepted practices when crafting natural wine.  These practices are as follows:

  • Fermentation is with indigenous yeasts as natural yeasts are part of the terroir; use of lab created yeast products are frowned upon
  • No water additions to dilute the sugars which result in high alcohol wines (Note: the practice is legal in California for commercial production)
  • No enzymes (commercial enzymes are commonly used to improve extraction and the aromatic profile of a wine while also accelerating the winemaking process)
  • No additives such as acid, tannin, coloring (Mega Purple), yeast nutrients
  • No chaptalization or addition of grape juice concentrate (or the use of dosage for sparkling wine production)
  • Sulfur Dioxide is not used or is used in moderation
  • Light or no filtration
  • Preferably no fining
  • Malolactic fermentation that happens naturally rather than the addition of bacteria, the process is not arrested by cold stabilization, filtration, or the addition of sulfur dioxide
  • Many natural winemakers leave the wine on the lees
  • Preferably no oak is used as it masks the flavor of the wine and is considered an added ingredient (this includes the use of barrels, chips, staves, and powders)
  • Use of fermentation vessels that will least impact the wine (currently there is a love affair with clay vessels although stainless steel is generally utilized)
  • Careful hand bottling is essential to natural wine

While this list is not comprehensive in its entirety, it does cover the most common decisions by winemakers but does not address the more than 72 official, perfectly legal, completely unnecessary, possible additives (Feiring, 2019) (Goode and Harrop, 2011).

Assess challenges facing producers of natural wine:

  • In France, for example, for a wine to be labelled from a particular region, it must adhere to strict guidelines about which grapes and production techniques can be used and how the resulting wine should taste which is enforced by inspectors and blind tasting panels; otherwise, the wine must be labeled ‘vin de France’ which is a generic designation suggesting low quality and makes the wine less attractive to buyers (Buranyi, The Guardian).
  • The call for less intervention in the vineyard and in winemaking when intervention is needed (for example, when a fermentation sticks, is lab yeast used or does the winemaker steal from a fermentation that is going strong and put in five times the amount to restart it and hope for the best)
  • The added cost of certification (organic or biodynamic) and the challenge that each organization has different rules and different nations have different certification criteria
  • Maintaining a sufficient level of nitrogen in the soil (avoiding reduction among other issues) is a challenge as chemical intervention is not allowable.  Using nitrogen fixing cover crops are not as easy for producers to employ and the effects on the vine are less predictable.
  • geographic isolation
  • lack of consumer awareness and understanding of natural wine (consumer believes natural wines are too faulty = oxidation, Brettanomyces, volatile acidity, mousy character), too niche
  • high farming costs/high labor costs/limited resources which results in higher prices for the product
  • difficult growing conditions: frost, fungal disease, bacteria, viruses, rainfall or drought, climate change challenges
  • wine exposure to oxygen, control of fermentation temperature, fermentation speed, wine stability
  • shelf life of the wine due to low or no sulfur dioxide
  • inconsistency of final product as using natural yeast for fermentation

Again, while this is not all inclusive, it does detail many of the challenges facing producers of natural wines, although these will vary by country and region due to laws and acceptable industry practices (Barker, 2020) (Legeron, 2017).

Identify key selling points and evaluate their market potential:

Looking at the market for natural wine, it is clear natural wine’s strength lies in the uniqueness of the wines and the allure of a ‘return to your roots’ style of winemaking, but its weakness is high production costs (small, niche producers, no economies of scale) and the reality that natural wine has a poor brand image (cloudy, faulty, mousy). There is market potential in the makers’ veneration of tradition, their rejection of the high-tech methods, wine made with organic grapes, no added yeast, no filtration, no chemical additives, no new oak barrels, no mechanical manipulations. This resonates with the ideal of preserving the planet for the next generation.

The largest consumer group of natural wines are people between the ages of 20 – 45, the generation who do not pay attention to wine critics, to medal or marks.  Instead this group surveys their friends or looks to wine apps such as Vinvino or Wine-Searcher for wine recommendations.  They shop and buy locally, travel and are driven by social media.  They are the Instagram generation.  They want to consume additive-free products.  Their first contact would normally be wine bars and restaurants, then specialist retailers, then the wine fairs that are open to the public.   The rise in interest in natural wines is said to be fueled by the lack of accessibility/affordability of Bordeaux/Burgundy wines and the idea that the sustainable character resonated with them much like the farm-to-table movement and the emphasis on origin and the ideal of saving the planet for the next generation (Newhart, 2019).

According to Doug Wregg (2020), ’the key selling points for natural wine include the following: provenance, singularity, flawed beauty, the story behind the grower and the wine, purity, wholesomeness, deliciousness, surprise, mutability.  And value for the money – they are real products – you cannot put a value on something truly original.’ Obviously, this is looking at natural wine from an esoteric perspective. Borrowing from Isabelle Legeron MW on her RAW WINE fair webpage, the following are the tenants that are listed as some of the perceived key selling points. 

(Note that RAW WINE is a totally independent wine fair created and organized by Isabelle Legeron MW (2020). ‘It celebrates wines with emotion. Wines that have a humanlike, or living, presence. They are also wines that are an authentic expression of a place. They are the opposite of industrialized, big-brand, manufactured, nothing-but-alcoholic-grape-juice wines, that use imagery and suggestion to sell a product. They are natural, artisan products.’)

Key selling points include:

  • Organic grapes, grown without the use of artificial chemicals.  The market for anything organic is exploding and while standards vary worldwide, organic farming features practices that cycle resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity 
  • Wine prepared by hand using artisanal techniques.  In a world increasingly dominated by large, often international brands, there are still thousands of small family wineries. These boutique, or artisanal, wineries harken back to an earlier era, when producers were more likely to check every barrel and take chances with unfamiliar varietals or let grapes hang on the vine longer to achieve extra ripeness—risks the larger outfits tend to avoid
  • Made using traditional winemaking processes that enable balance.  Imagine the story: Our third-generation vintner, from a small town in Northern Italy, grew up helping in his family’s winery from the time he could walk and it is here that he acquired his relentless passion for quality winemaking and balance in the wines he crafts
  • Creating a living wine, with low intervention in the cellar. Wines that are made with less additives or manipulations than permitted by their certified bodies, such as those with lower levels of sulphites added only at bottling
  • Promoting wellbeing in individuals and communities. Consumers are in search for a balanced life. While seeking personal pleasure they are also interested in their own well-being, and thus the well-being of the whole local community and the environment that surrounds them. A product today must give the consumer a good, positive feeling – the feeling that their purchase contributes to something or/and someone

While these key selling points have merit, packaging them under the umbrella of ‘natural wine’ (which has no legal definition and with the term unregulated and no defined geographical area), dilutes the message and, in my opinion, provides little market potential because there is no identifiable brand. 

In order for ‘natural wine’ to have an impact that is meaningful to the producers, it would seem that connecting these wineries through area defined organizations much like Cotes du Bordeaux organization (which combined four separate communes into one area which increased their marketing potential).  Another ploy would be to create a marketing organization for natural wine that would allow producers to pool marketing resources and even share information.

Today, marketing is more about joining a conversation and telling your story than simply crafting traditional marketing messages (Oggenfuss, 2014). The changing attitudes of millennials, the target market segment for natural wines, make them less receptive to old marketing approaches while looking for that story to share and for that story to play a large part in their actual perception of the wine.   Working naturally, respecting the environment, and showing awareness of issues of social capital and carbon footprints are also compelling stories.  The environmental aspect is an important story and the changes in public sentiment about the environment is real.  Consumers have a heightened awareness of environmental responsibility and working in sustainable ways means that people are increasingly willing to let these issues guide their purchasing and even to pay more for products that have credentials.

Even with the lack of organized marketing to promote natural wine as an actual product, much good is being derived from the movement in promoting sustainable farming, reduction in usage of harmful chemicals, less additives to the wine produced and an increased focus on preserving the environment for future generations.  It is a niche market that will continue to survive until the next new thing (which may be ‘clean’ wine).