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?
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.