For years I was one of the sommeliers that rolled my eyes every time someone mentioned the word “natural” when describing a wine. Only because there is a lack of definition for this category and it could mean a variety of different things to different people depending on your interpretation. I was constantly seeking a better term for describing natural wine and like others in the industry I often resorted to using terms like; “low intervention, raw wine, and naked wine,” as an alternative. This confusing situation has been further compounded by journalists subjectively writing about the popularity of natural wines or sommeliers and wine buyers promoting their personal interests in the natural wine movement. Often these efforts are not particularly focused or clear, especially as it pertains to the general consumer seeking a better understanding of natural wine. This is not to place blame on writers or sommeliers, the fact is, they are doing their best to educate and promote natural wine with no official standard or definition for wines in this category. As a retailer, I am often asked about natural wines and where they can be found in our store. Before I can properly direct someone to find the wine they are looking for, I need to establish exactly what they mean by natural wine. Some customers are simply looking for a wine that is organic or biodynamic, others want something with no sulfur added, or perhaps it’s a macerated wine with skin contact and darker color that they had in mind. Regardless, it requires a bit of probing before finding out what the customer is actually looking for with a natural wine – and therein lies the problem. Up until recently, Natural wine has had no clear standard definition. However, there is exciting news on the horizon for natural wine. Non-profit organization, Clean Label Project has released a new code of practice for natural wine that will help legitimize and revolutionize the Natural Wine Certification standard in the US Market. I will touch more on this later, but first it is important to understand what is Natural wine, its history, production methods and what countries are enforcing their own standards.
What is Natural Wine? Well, in its purest form, natural wine is simply unadulterated fermented grape juice with no additives in the winemaking process. That said, it goes a bit deeper than this definition which has led to confusion and even fraud with certain wines and producers. For the natural wine purists, there is certainly a romantic philosophy associated with natural wine that reflects how wine was made historically, before conventional techniques took over. For many, this is a way of life and a commitment to the respect for life – without compromise. The term “Double Zero” is often used to describe zero chemical additives and zero parts removed. I’ve also seen it aptly described as nothing added and nothing taken away. Interestingly, natural wine is not a new methodology and is based on practices that predated the use of pesticides and herbicides, commercial yeasts, and the popularity of ripe and concentrated wine styles. Natural wines are generally produced with less stability and meant to be consumed within a year of release. Many of these wines require refrigeration and staying away from intense light to keep fresh. The French term Glou-Glou (similar to the English Glug-Glug) is used to describe these lighter wines that are lower in alcohol and generally fresh and easy to drink. The natural wine style has been embraced by a variety of small wine bars in cosmopolitan cities like Paris and New York and is gaining in popularity among the sommelier community worldwide.
Natural Wine Definition (The Oxford Companion to Wine)
- Grapes are typically grown by small-scale, independent producers.
- Grapes are hand-picked from sustainable, organic, or biodynamic vineyards.
- Wine is fermented with no added yeast (ie. native yeasts).
- No additives are included in fermentation (yeast nutrients, etc).
- Little or no sulfites are added. (generally 10-35 mg/l at bottling)
History of Natural Wine:
For many, the history of natural wine can be pinned to the French region Beaujolais in the 1960’s and the “Gang of Four,” a name dubbed by importer Kermit Lynch. Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, Charly Thevenet, and Guy Breton, sought a return to the way their grandparents made wine, before the incursion of pesticides and synthetic chemicals that had become so prevalent in agriculture after the end of World War II. Their inspiration, techniques, and philosophy came from the teachings of Jules Chauvet and Jacques Nequport – two enologists that studied making wine using fewer additives. Beyond the town of Villié-Morgon, there are many regions of France that are responsible for helping define the current natural wine movement. The Loire Valley, Rhône Valley, and even Champagne are all home to thoughtful producers who are contributing to the natural wine mission. Consider Nicolas Joly (and now his daughter Virginie) in Savennières, Hervé Souhaut in the Rhône Valley, Bertrand Gautherot of Vouette et Sorbée and Jean-Sébastien Fleury in Champagne, Arianna Occhipinti and Frank Cornelissen in Sicily, Josko Gravner in Friuli, Stella di Campalto in Montalcino, Nate Ready at Hiyu Wine Farm or Hardy Wallace and his wife Kate Graham at Dirty and Rowdy winery in the United States. All of these producers are leaders in the natural wine movement in their own way. Each represent different ideas, values, and styles, but all are considered part of natural wine. This pursuit is further supported and influenced by industry leaders like: Pascaline Lepeltier (Sommelier, Racines NYC), Alice Fering (Author of Natural Wine for the People), and US Importers like Joe Dressner and Jenny & François.
Production Method and Wine Style:
It is important to understand the difference between production methods of natural wines compared to the taste and style of so many natural wines in the market today. I believe that most supporters of natural wine would agree that organic or biodynamic farming should serve as the foundation for producing a natural wine. In the cellar, there are many producers that believe in a hands-off approach to making natural wine, often resulting in “funky” aromatics and style. Others believe making wine in this style requires greater skill, awareness, and sensitivity in order to make delicious wine while avoiding flaws. One major topic of debate with natural wine enthusiasts is the flavor of “mouse” in natural wine. This chemical compound is called tetrahydropyridine (THP) and is responsible for making wines taste the way the inside of a mouse cage smells. Natural wine author, Alice Feiring also refers to this flavor as “puppy’s breath.” Regardless, it is a flaw that people either enjoy or despise in their wine. The mouse flavor in wine has become more prevalent in recent years and many professionals in the industry are considering climate change as a reason for the development. Essentially, bacteria and yeast are more active in warmer temperatures and with the riper (higher pH) grapes that are being harvested around the world which have less protection from microbial issues as result of lower bacteria-neutralizing acids. For this reason, the producers that are striving to make clean smelling natural wines are targeting lower pH to allow for lower or no sulfur additions at bottling and cleaner smelling wines in the end. Additional issues can occur in the cellar from not topping up barrels, problematic fermentation temperatures, and wine produced using Carbonic maceration. There is a correlation between certain decisions and techniques used in the cellar and whether or not a wine will develop higher levels of THP. Similar to the natural wine industry, the style of natural wines will likely develop with the future global conditions and more experience.
Natural Wine Standards – What is Still Missing?
Currently, there are many small producer groups in France, Italy, and Spain that are supporting and promoting natural wines. For instance, the French group, The Syndicat de Defense des Vins Naturels uses a system called Vin Méthode Nature. There are two tiers of certification: those with no added sulfites, and those that add less than 30 mg/L sulfites. Perhaps the strictest standards as those producers who use the Syndicat’s official “natural wine” logo have legal obligations. , In fact, people can go to prison for wine fraud in France.
In Italy, Vin Natur runs a similar operation to France’s Vin Methode Nature, but allows for 50 mg/l of sulfur across the board. These groups are valuable and provide the foundation for natural wine to be meaningful in our industry, but they are not generally reaching beyond a small demographic or geographic region. I believe the industry and consumers seeking more natural wine options would benefit from more industry guidelines and a certification to help with identifying wines that are produced according to a universal natural wine standard. Of course this standard, like politics, will never please everyone, but it can serve as the information roadmap for growers, producers, importers, distributors, sommeliers, buyers, and most importantly customers. Furthermore, I strongly believe that we are missing a key component to making sure that the wines we are promoting as natural are truly pure. Analytic testing is the only way to ensure that there are no pesticides/herbicides (Glyphosate found in Roundup and linked to cancers and other health concerns), heavy metals (arsenic, lead), or plastic residues in the wines. Testing is the only way to truly ensure this quality component. Consider a wine that is certified organic or biodynamic and was produced in a vineyard that was contaminated from a previous industry. If the soils are contaminated with large amounts of pesticides, heavy metals, or plastics these elements will leech into the wines and will likely go undetected without testing. Ultimately there are wines in the market that are labeled as organic, biodynamic, and natural that are polluted with arsenic, glyphosate, or plastics – all of which are harmful to our health. It is time to educate consumers and our industry on the hazards that exist without more responsible regulation, testing and transparency.
What is Next for Natural Wine? As natural wine’s evolution continues to press forward, the opportunity exists for the industry to provide greater clarity and context around the term ‘natural’ and developing this category into a meaningful standard that goes beyond the small grower groups and associations that currently drive the production regulations.
The Clean Label Project non-profit organization has developed a Code of Practice for natural wine that will help legitimize the Natural Wine Certification standard.
Clean Label Project Natural certification provides two levels of certification for wine brands electing to have a third party evaluation of ‘natural.’ Clean Label Project Natural Wine Certification captures traditional natural wine best practices including but not limited to the exclusive use of organic grapes, indigenous yeasts, and minimal additives. Clean Label Project Natural Path Certification utilizes elements of traditional natural wine production while allowing for some modern wine production techniques including but not limited to the exclusive use of glyphosate and neonicotinoid-free grapes, allowance of minimal cultured bacteria, and minimal use of added sulfites for shelf-life.
I am in support of Clean Label Project establishing an official natural wine and natural path production certification standards that can help regulate the way natural wine is produced and marketed in the wine industry. Aside from putting in place a standard for an otherwise undefined category, a natural wine certification is also the first step to helping educate consumers on the importance of protecting the earth and ultimately providing more transparency around the products they consume.