Autumn is the time of the Foire Aux Vins in France, supermarkets and other large stores discounting their wines. One advert stood out and that was Carrefour’s, offering 10 wines which they called «Nature». Interesting to see that they feel there is a demand for such wines (something UK supermarkets clearly don’t see) and that natural wines have a market. However, on closer examination it turned out that the ten wines on offer were «Nature» only in the sense that they were «sans sulfites ajoutés» (no added SO2). Only three of the ten were produced organically, so are they truly natural wines?
There are, of course, some pedantics (including one well known British wine writer on Twitter on Nov 7th) who would argue that no wine is natural, that it does not make itself. The word natural has indeed become something of a millstone around the bottle neck. So, what do we understand by the term?
One definition which carries some weight is that of Doug Wregg, a director of the UK’s biggest natural wine importer Les Caves De Pyrene:
1. Vineyards farmed organically or biodynamically (with or without certification)
2. Hand-harvested fruit
3. Fermentation with indigenous yeasts
4. No enzymes
5. No additives (like acid, tannin, colouring) other than SO2, used in moderation if at all
6. Light or no filtration
7. Preferably no fining
8. Preferably no new oak
The RAW Wine Fair of Isabelle Legeron adds two other qualifications, a limit of 70mg/l of added sulphites and “no heavy manipulation” such as micro oxygenation or flash pasteurisation. (see more here)
I think those definitions hit the main points though perhaps are a little too broad themselves, points 6-8 are especially vague and Legeron’s 70mg/l seems very high. They would, however, exclude the Carrefour wines which have seen flash pasteurisation.
At Mas Coutelou Jeff adds nothing to the wines, does not filter or fine and the only oak used is from old barrels. There are NO added sulphites. Is he an extremist? Are his wines unclean or unstable? The answer to both is no. They are sent in bottle around the world, to Japan, Australia and all parts of Europe. And then there is the USA.
The Americans have much tighter rules and restrictions for their certification. Wines which are classed as organic have to be recognised as such by regulating bodies such as Ecocert. In addition, in the USA, organic wines must be sulphite free. Wines which have sulphites added can be described as grown with organic grapes but not organic. (see more here)
Jeff’s wines can be classified as organic in the USA, the back labels from two cuvées are shown here. In effect they are being identified as natural wines by the USA. This is not a costly process, Jeff’s importer, Camille Riviėre, pays a fee of around $250 to be able to use the title “organic wine”.
Other people have started to campaign for certification of natural wines to help consumers make informed choices of just how “natural” are the wines they drink. Writers such as Antonin Iommi-Amunategui have set out the arguments for such certification however many are still reluctant to head down that route. Some, for example, fear that rules and regulations fly in the face of the outsider role and rebellious reputation of natural producers.
In my opinion perhaps the time has come for certification. Consumers should be able to buy with confidence. Look at this article from the newspaper “Liberation” describing some of the many processes and additives which can legitimately be put into wines.
Should the consumer not be more protected? I do understand the desire of winemakers to be left free to make wine in the manner they choose but standards need to be established.
The US Department of Agriculture shows the way, natural wine must be organic and then interfered with as little as possible. The SO2 regulation there deters some producers from organics as they feel it is not worth their while to be organic at all if they intend to add sulphites thus preventing their wines from being classed as organic. Some, like Jeff, might insist upon that restriction, others would be more liberal. In addition, Wregg’s list forms the basis for rules, if tightened up a little.
Natural wine is often completely dismissed by some on the experience of one or two bottles not being correct, a level of criticism not applied to more conventional wines. Not all natural wines are good, I personally like some more than others. In my view, it does need to be clear about what it is and that certain standards are being met, otherwise it risks being an easy target for many, however unfairly. And wines which are not natural (as most would understand the term) will continue to be sold as the same as those of Jeff, Barral, Texier, Foillard and many others.
November 7, 2016 at 5:24 pm
Well said, Alan. Wish I’d written that myself. I think there may be too many rebels for certification to be universal though. It is often we who call the wines “natural”, not the producers, who just say openly what they do, or don’t do, to their wine.
There lies the problem. It’s not that bunch of artisans we wine obsessives need to worry about, but those who wish to profit from what, for some commercial producers and vendors, is a fashion or a trend.
Thus we have a hypermarket chain marketing a batch of wines in a way that might potentially mislead a section of the wine buying public- I say potentially, as I am sure there is no intention to deceive.
The wines at Carrefour may well be good, but are they “naturel”. There you have your argument for certification. But I still argue that ingredient labelling for wine is needed as well.
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November 7, 2016 at 5:51 pm
Indeed. I worry about some producers who would have to use magnums to get their back labels on with all the ingredients!
The Carrefour issue brought the topic to a head though I had discussed it a lot with Jeff and Camille. I think a lot of producers (of all sorts) have a lot to hide. I go along with the idea of the rebel group not conforming to rules, that’s how things started but I do wonder what some get up to and also that consumers shouldn’t just accept that everything is organic or natural or whatever
November 7, 2016 at 7:30 pm
Umm. First a question Alan – you say 7 of the 10 Carrefour wines were not organic so wondered how you established that the grapes weren’t grown to organic standards?
As David says the term Natural Wine is not really used by the growers. In France I see the term Vins Vivants used more than Vin Naturel. On certification I think it would do more damage than good. Certification has to be paid for and that would hit consumers and small producers. I’ve hear many a winemaker say that certifying Organic is a way to add €2 to the price of a bottle and some of that would just line inspectors pockets.
This of course is a bit of a selfish viewpoint. I do favour labelling as a worthwhile way forward to cover the wine making process.
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November 7, 2016 at 7:45 pm
The wines were researched by some people in France Graham, one of the 3 was Bertrand’s Naturae. The others were not organic. Flash pasteurisation is a common theme.
I don’t agree about the terminology, I know many do call them vivants, sans intrants etc but the commonly used term is naturel / nature. By public, media and I’d say most producers. It is a convenience thing and as I said I think it has become something of a millstone.
I get your point about cost, I have see sawed between yes and no on this issue but when big business moves in and starts to profiteer then I get worried. If wine is vivant or natural then surely it must be organic etc, I know one or two producers make claims to it without actually being it. At the end of the day we are looking for quality and reasonable prices, but we are asked for 10 euros a bottle (often more) and if I’m spending that I want to know that the wine in the bottle is living up to the ethics and standards I expect.
November 8, 2016 at 2:52 pm
“In addition, in the USA, organic wines must be sulphite free. Wines which have sulphites added can be described as grown with organic grapes but not organic. ”
I’ve rarely seen wines in the US called organic, as opposed to made with organic grapes (I still haven’t found Jeff’s wines here). I’ve discussed this with the man who was the first major importer of organic wines into the US, who happens to live in my state, when I first noticed that wines of his that formerly said “Organic” now said “Made with organic grapes.” Before that conversation I didn’t know why the change in labeling had occurred.
As to certification for “natural,” I don’t like the idea for a number of reasons. One is the criteria; I find a number of ones on that list to be suspect. I also feel that the term will get co-opted by big outfits. In the US, that’s happened with “organic” for fruits and vegetables. I buy mots of my produce from local producers, some of whom are organic but have given up the certification, others of whom as very close to organic. I much prefer buying from them than from huge California farms that have the “organic” certification but probably spray huge quantities of (approved) pesticides on their crops.
As to “natural” in France, I have visited hundreds of producers over the years, including many in the “hotbeds” of the natural wine movement (e.g., Loire, Jura), and have rarely if ever encountered one that used the term “natural,” Organic, yes, and biodynamic yes, but not natural.
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November 8, 2016 at 9:16 pm
Thanks for the reply Bob, interesting to hear your comments about the States. I read the other day about someone who has abandoned the organic certification because of his use of sulfites, yet his wine probably is purer than many natural producers. It does seem the certification may be too strong. However, those who do have the label can be relied upon to deliver additive free wines and minimal vineyard intervention.
You seem to have met the same producers as Graham, (above) 🙂 I accept what you say, perhaps they tend to use the term less on an individual basis whilst they do when they work collectively at salons etc.
I understand the opposition, I am worried that there are some riding a bandwagon for commercial rather than ethical reasons, that is my major concern.
November 14, 2016 at 6:46 pm
Nice piece, Alan. I’m a fan of natural wines, but I’m not a perfectionist. What I appreciate most is full disclosure, either on the bottle or on the website for the winery. Tell me what you did and what you didn’t do, and I can decide from there. Ridge in the US has been a leader in this area.
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November 14, 2016 at 8:07 pm
Thanks Jeff, that’s true praise and much appreciated. Yes, I think that is exactly my view, let the consumer know, be open. There is a very good website in France which shows technical details for many natural winemakers, more of that would be welcome.