A slightly shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times. See also Natural v industrial wine, which puts the topic in historical perspective.
The whole thing about natural wine, the increasingly popular ‘lo-fi’ wine made with minimal intervention, was supposed to be that it was made by a band of brothers, and the odd sister, all of them united by a common philosophy but not one they wanted to be strictly defined.
Not for them the multi-clause strictures of the appellation contrôlée regulations, for example. Many of them have resorted instead to selling their wines without any more specific geographical clues than the name of the country in which they were made. Vin de France and Vino de España, for instance.
But last week an official definition of natural wine emerged from under the cloak of French officialdom, in the form of the INAO that administers French appellations. The new designation is the work of a union of natural wine producers led by two in the Loire, Jacques Carroget of La Paonnerie in Muscadet country and Sébastien David, fifteenth-generation St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil vigneron.
Over the last few years they have been driven to devise the designation Vin Méthode Nature (EU regulations forbid use of the term ‘natural’ after a yogurt labelling brouhaha), partly because some producers, even quite big ones, have been jumping on the natural bandwagon. The genuine naturalistas want to distinguish their wines, to be signalled to the consumer by a Vin Méthode Nature logo, from those that would not meet the stringent new criteria.
To qualify as a Vin Méthode Nature a wine has to be made from hand-picked grapes that are certified as having been grown organically by one of the major certifying organisations. The yeast necessary for fermentation must be that found in the vineyard and/or winery, not bought in. All additions such as acid, sugar, tannin, water and colouring matter that are sometimes used to make up for the shortfalls of Nature in meeting the expectations of consumers, or producers, are forbidden.
And the wine must not have been treated with any of the interventionist physical procedures that are more common than many wine drinkers probably realise. In California, for instance, it has been quite common to leave grapes on the vine so long that tannins are eventually deemed ripe enough for what are perceived as drinkers’ desires – but with the result that, once fermented, the sugar-stuffed grapes yield wines with unacceptably high alcohol levels. Decidedly interventionist techniques such as reverse osmosis, spinning cone technology and various sorts of filtration can reduce a wine’s alcoholic strength without necessarily affecting flavour, but would never be tolerated (nor, probably, afforded) by a typical natural wine producer.
Some non-natural producers in cooler regions heat red wine grape must to make deeper-coloured wines – although this is presumably declining in an era when deep colour is no longer seen as a sign of quality. Others in the past have subjected their wine to a sudden blast of heat to stabilise them (a treatment that is, incidentally, one of the requirements for kosher mevushal wines). But this too is forbidden for Vins Méthode Nature.
If heating grapes and wine is forbidden, I assume cooling is allowed. A massive, and, in this era of global warming, increasing, proportion of all winemaking operations include cooling to keep flavours fresh. Furthermore, because they have not been subjected to conventional stabilisation processes such as filtration or fining, finished natural wines may re-ferment if they get too warm when stored or transported. An inconvenient truth is that it can take quite a bit of energy to keep a natural wine in perfect condition.
Another major requirement for a wine to qualify as a Vin Méthode Nature is that sulphites, the all-round wine and grape antioxidant and disinfectant, are either not added at all, or added only, and modestly, just before bottling so that the wine’s final level of sulphites does not exceed 30 mg/l. The natural wine promulgator and my fellow Master of Wine Isabelle Legeron sets a maximum of 70 mg/l for the wines shown at her RAW wine fairs, so 30 mg/l is pretty strict.
There are two versions of the Vin Méthode Nature logo, one for no added sulphites (sulphites are produced naturally, but to a very low level, during fermentation) and one for wines whose level of sulphites is guaranteed to be less than 30 mg/l.
The other major reason for going to the trouble of getting this new designation recognised – apart from distinguishing the genuinely natural wines from more commercial imitations – is to reduce the likelihood of natural wines being rejected by the local tasting panels that have, until now, too often dismissed them as ‘atypical’. The Vin Méthode Nature logo should provide some armour.
Already about 50 wines produced from the 2019 vintage have been designed to be sold with the first batch of Vin Méthode Nature logos, with many more in the wings. According to Sébastien David, almost 140 people (including consumers) have signed up to the Syndicat de Défense des Vins Naturels by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. The French union is already in talks with similar organisations in Spain and Italy and expect that similar schemes will be rolled out there.
But the big question is: how is this new designation to be policed? David reports that, once they have 400 producer members, the French authorities will take over the policing. But even they will have difficulty. It would be impossible to monitor all relevant vineyards to check no machine harvesters were seen there. And how on earth do you check that no commercial cultured yeast was involved? Especially as it is common for wine producers to store yeast cultures of their own from one vintage to the next. How to tell their origin?
I suppose for the moment we will have to rely on the forest of forms that producers of Vins Méthode Nature are required to fill in, backed up by the odd random inspection, together with the admirably co-operative spirit of genuine producers of natural wine.
New York’s queen of natural wine Alice Feiring, author of several books on the subject and a natural wine website The Feiring Line, is watching this development with interest. She approves of much of it, although agreed with me by email that, ‘It's not well thought out. With only 50 to certify it's easy. But if it grows there's a lot more involved.’
Her final word: ‘In my heart of hearts, I just don't think natural wine is certifiable.’
Recommended natural wines
Although sulphur has been widely used to preserve wine (and fruit juice and dried fruit) for centuries, sulphite levels in wine have generally declined enormously in the last two or three decades in recognition of the fact that asthmatics react badly to them.
An increasing proportion of the world’s finest wines would qualify as Vins Méthode Nature (though may use slightly more sulphites than 30 mg/l). They would probably be far too grand to apply for the logo anyway, but it is noticeable that many conventional producers are trying their hand at a more natural approach – especially as a younger generation takes over.
UK retailers specialising in natural wine include Les Caves de Pyrène, Buon Vino, Gergovie Wines and Passione Vino.
Los Clos Perdus, Mire la Mer 2013 Corbières Rouge
£65 for six bottles in bond Justerini & Brooks
Mother Rock White Blend 2018 Swartland
£19 Highbury Vintners, Selfridges
$18.99 Wine Library, Springfield NJ and Pinnacle, Rochester NY
Accadia, Evelyn Macerato Bianco 2017 Marche
£17.95 Buon Vino, Lancashire
Empire of Dirt Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 Yarra Valley
£18.50 St Andrews Wine Co
Marcel Lapierre 2017 and 2018 Morgon
£21–£29 from a wide range of retailers
Ch Musar red 2011 Bekaa Valley
From £26.50 various stockists, £55 a magnum Waitrose Cellar
Niepoort, Poeirinho 2015 Bairrada
£44 Handford Wines, Theatre of Wine, Drinkmonger, Corks of Cotham, Harrogate Fine Wine
Leclerc Briant Réserve Brut NV Champagne
£51 Berry Bros & Rudd