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
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.