amarchinthevines

Learning about wine, vines and vignerons whilst living in the Languedoc


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To certify or not to certify (Part 2)

In the last article I described the new, INAO approved, certification plan for natural wines in France. Building on previous efforts to certify and define natural wine this initiative seems to have support based on the popularity of and respect for the leaders of Le Syndicat de défense des Vins Nature’l. In this article I want to set out arguments for and against certification.

I found a recent podcast by Real Business of Wine very useful in helping me and recommend it to you. The first 50 minutes or so deal with the certification issue including contributions from Jacques Carroget of La Paonnerie in the Loire, one of the leaders of this Syndicat. Robert Joseph introduced the broadcast with contributions from Alice Feiring, Simon Woolf, Emma Bentley and Eric Asimov, an excellent line up. The discussion moved on to other issues around natural wine in the last half hour. Well worth a watch or listen.

Arguments against certification revolve around the philosophy of natural wine. The movement began as a reaction to the ways in which modern winemaking had developed with techniques to homogenise wine. Natural producers wanted a return to the simple wines of the past from ancient Georgia to the beginning of the 20th century where the wine was simply fermented grape juice. This revolt against industrialisation is an idea and philosophy, not something which can be certified. Those who led the new wave of producers were rebelling against the strictures of the very government bodies which are now seeking to regulate them. Moreover those bodies have made life difficult for some natural producers, rejecting wines from AOP status, for example those of Sebastian David, one of the leaders of the Syndicat.

I could also add an example I am familiar with when Jeff Coutelou was forced to alter the name of the domaine from Mas Coutelou by authorities who said the word Mas was not permissible in Vin De France. Though Jeff pointed out that it was his mother’s family name and that Mas Coutelou was, therefore, the product of two families coming together, he was forced to change something which had become his trademark. This happened at large expense for packaging etc. Why would producers then seek approval from such heavy handed bureaucracy? *

Another issue is one of probity. The Syndicat offers two marks one for wines without added SO2, the other for wines with up to 30mg of SO2 (ie 30 parts per million in the wine). For the latter how would it be proved when the SO2 was added? The rules say it can only be added at bottling but how would analyses of bottles prove that, the addition could have been used on grape must which is prohibited in the rules?

Emma Bentley raised the question of inspections and whether they would be required as happens now when authenticating organic status for example. (Described here at Coutelou). Carroget explained that 1% of cuvées will be selected at random and analysed (indeed 3% in the early years) and the winemaker will be asked to provide traceability and provenance of those cuvées to guarantee that methods conform to the rules. Is this enough to satisfy those who are suspicious of natural wines? If not then certification is meaningless.

Arguments in favour were well set out by Carroget. The aim is to protect producers who are working within the philosophy of natural wine. Those who do not produce grapes organically for example will not be recognised. He explained that last year an analysis of 34 natural wines was done by a wine magazine and 2 of those were found to be based on non organic production, thus undermining the other 32 in the eyes of consumers. If the wine was certified then the consumer knows that there have been no shortcuts in the vineyard or cellar, the wine is what the label and certificate says.

In this way imitations of natural wine, simply sticking the word natural on a label of any old wine for example, can be avoided. This might also stop carpetbaggers (the word used in the podcast), large commercial producers who are trying to muscle into the popularity of natural wine. On the other hand any move to organic production by any producer, no matter how large, is to be welcomed.

One point I thought worthy of consideration is that wines sold as organic in the USA have to be sulphite free. If producers sell there then their wines have to be certified organic, is this initiative any different?

USA label for organic wine

After listening to Carroget my initial scepticism was somewhat alleviated. I tended to side with Alice Feiring who said that whilst in her heart she remained a rebel she believed that the best natural producers are being undermined by bandwagon jumpers and imitators who are making lower quality wines. Certification might add authenticity to those working cleanly and prove its worth, a point supported by Woolf. Having spent much of the last six years immersed in natural wine I know many of the best producers who are authentic. However, for those who just want to buy a bottle of natural wine without knowing much about it the certificates and logos of the Syndicat might be a welcome guide.

* I have related this story before on the blog, but it is my own question I ask here I am not citing Jeff himself who has made no decision or even thought about the certification.


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To certify or not to certify

During the current lockdown I have bought a few cases of wine, including a fascinating dozen from Westwell Wines in Kent. However, a bottle from a different case brought to mind an issue which has been much discussed in the wine media recently (the current situation meaning that people have more time to discuss such issues).

The Niepoort Redoma Branco 2018 was very enjoyable with fresh, citric flavours from old vines in the Douro. The grapes were from typically unusual Portuguese grapes such as Rabigato and Codega and aged in barrel for a short time. The oak was subtle and added complexity. Overall, a good wine in my opinion, one I would be happy to purchase again.

The wine was described as natural by the merchant and the informative, detailed technical data from Niepoort allows me to examine that description. In doing so I see a total of 87mg of total SO2 which is very high for a ‘natural’ wine, for example the RAW charter allows up to 70mg. In addition though I have scoured the Niepoort website I can’t see any evidence that this was made with organically grown grapes, to be fair the bottle did not claim it to be and Niepport are gradually moving towards organics. For me those two things mean this cannot be described as natural. But there lies the problem. What is natural wine?

The natural wine movement began in the Beaujolais and Loire as a rebellion against the modernisation of winemaking with its techniques to filter, pasteurise and homogenise. Over the last 30 years the natural wine world has expanded exponentially with like minded producers across the world. And yet there is no agreed definition of what constitutes a natural wine. This frustrates many wine drinkers, I know some myself. They would like to know what is in the bottle, how it was produced.

Are the grapes organic for example? How do we know? Some producers say they are working organically but have no certification to prove it. Jeff Coutelou for example goes through rigorous testing every year by Ecocert to guarantee his organic methods, as I described here. Jeff goes much, much further in his vineyards as readers will know, working to ensure biodiversity and better soils without synthetic products, use of sulfur and copper (allowed under organic production) is way below the levels permitted and only in extremis. However, how do I know that a bottle without certification is produced organically? How do I know that a producer claiming to make natural wines does not add more SO2 than expected unless there is analysis?

Frustration with these blurred lines has persuaded some producers to attempt to draw up a certification for natural wine on a number of occasions. The breakthrough recently however is French government support for the work of the Syndicat de défense des Vins Nature’l. With names like producers Carroget, David and Binner and the wine writer Antonin Iommi-Amunategui the Syndicat has heft and credibility for its work. So what are their rules?

  • Grapes from certified organic vines (from 2nd year of conversion)
  • Hand harvesting
  • Natural, native yeasts only
  • No additives
  • No manipulation of the natural grapes
  • No techniques such as reverse osmosis, flash pasteurisation (described as brutal and traumatic in the charter)
  • No SO2 added before fermentation, though up to 30mg may be added before bottling
  • A separate logo for wines with no added SO2 is available
The logos for certified wines

One hundred natural producers have so far signed up to the Syndicat, ot will be fascinating to see how this develops. Many have welcomed the move, for example Simon J Woolf a writer whose opinions I greatly respect wrote an article in favour in his Morning Claret website. Others such as Jamie Goode, another writer I respect greatly, have generally argued against it. I shall set out these arguments and opinions in the next article.