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.