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The industry and consumers want a definition of natural wine, but a voluntary charter may not clarify anything.

France defines natural wine, but is that enough?

Apr 24, 2020 5:50 AM

NATURAL wine is healthy and pure; natural wine is wretched and horrible. It is the future of wine; it is the death of wine.

For 15 years, natural wine has been a contentious time bomb that has divided many in the wine community, creating conflicts.

Since 2003, when I first encountered what has come to be called natural wine at the restaurant 360 in Red Hook, Brooklyn, I have been a fan - though a clear-eyed one, I hope. I believe in the promise and beauty of natural wines, while acknowledging that many examples are not good, as is true with all genres of wine. The truth is that natural wines have made all of wine better.

Natural wines could not have offered a more luminous contrast to the industrial practices of the wine industry, a business that marketed itself as pastoral. Many mainstream wines are made from chemically farmed grapes, then produced like processed foods, with the help of technological manipulations and artificial ingredients, to achieve a preconceived aroma and flavour profile.

Natural wines, made from organic grapes or the equivalent, and fermented and aged without additions, are unpredictable but alive, energetic, vibrant and surprising.

The wine-making spectrum offers many shades and degrees. Not all conventional wines are processed wines. Not all wines called natural adhere to a strict "nothing added, nothing taken away" protocol, but the appearance around 20 years ago of natural wines challenged an industry dominated by a post-war promise of better living through chemistry and technology.

Back then, the prevailing wine culture was marked by increasing homogeneity. Wine became a luxury good, and grapes were placed in a caste system and ranked by "nobility".

Natural wine, on the other hand, promoted a diversity of styles. It resurrected and celebrated indigenous grapes and local traditions that had been forgotten or dismissed by wine authorities. It sought to knock wine off its pedestal with irreverence, presenting it as a delicious, fun drink that nonetheless packed emotional and cultural power.

Most of all, it reconnected wine to classic farming, as it had been practiced for centuries before industry and technology. Wine as a product of the earth resonated with young people concerned with the environment, with health and wellness in its full, and now fashionable, sense.

This new popularity has forced the sort of reckoning that natural wine producers have for so long successfully avoided - namely, what exactly is natural wine and who is permitted to use the term?

In the past, it was the wine mainstream demanding a definition for natural wine, an entreaty that most producers blithely ignored. Definitions smacked of authority, orthodoxy and bureaucracy, exactly the binding forces that many natural wine producers have long viewed as inhibiting their freedom.

I always saw this refusal to be pinned down as a strength. Allowing natural wine to be strictly defined would set it up to be co-opted, the way many organic food companies are now largely profit-making subdivisions of Big Ag.

But the notion of natural wine producers as independent bohemian artisans is tough to maintain when the genre's popular breakthrough radiates dollar signs, not only to corporate bean counters but also to small-business poseurs.

Jacques Carroget, of Domaine de la Paonnerie in the Loire Valley, led a group of natural wine producers that after a decade of work won approval last year for an official, though voluntary, certification of natural wine in France. Wines that join the approved trade syndicate and follow its rules governing viticulture and winemaking could label their wines Vin Méthode Nature.

Mr Carroget said the group was motivated by the discovery that some small producers purporting to make natural wines had in fact used grapes sprayed with chemical pesticides.

"We analysed 34 natural wines and found two had residues, including a wine which came from a famous natural wine-maker," he said in an e-mail. "We do not want synthetic chemistry in natural wines." As long as natural wines were the province of a small number of producers, he said, he saw no reason for an official definition. "Alas, the business, the greed - when we see natural wine emerge from its niche, we find unacceptable abuses."

The Vin Méthode Nature charter requires its members to use only grapes that have been certified organic and harvested by hand. They must be spontaneously fermented with yeast found naturally in vineyards and wine cellars, and made without what the charter calls "brutal" technologies like reverse osmosis or cross-flow filtration.

Only small amounts of sulfur dioxide, an antioxidant and preservative, may be used, and two labels will distinguish between wines made with or without even this low level of sulfites.

The use of sulfur dioxide has been a difficult issue in the natural wine world. Some producers and consumers adamantly oppose additions, while others are more tolerant of minimal use. The effort to accept both viewpoints is unlikely to satisfy all.

Neither will the requirement that grapes be certified organic at a minimum. Many producers avoid certification because of the expense and the paperwork - which is unlikely to change.

Some leading figures in natural wine like Isabelle Legeron, author of the book Natural Wine and founder of the Raw Wine fairs, which bring consumers and producers together, generally favour the charter, though not without reservations: "I understand people's concerns around stifling creativity and freedom by applying rules," she wrote in an e-mail, "but ... I don't think this is something to worry about as a definition won't kill the spirit of natural wine."

But she added that practical hurdles, like the difficulty of determining what sort of yeast was used for fermentation, might make it difficult to enforce a definition. In addition, she said, big companies might be able to make wines that conform to the letter of the law even if they do not reflect the spirit of natural wine.

Aaron Ayscough, a blogger and wine director at Table restaurant in Paris and is writing a book on natural wine, says labelling like "Vin Méthode Nature" asks a lot of small producers and nothing of bigger ones.

"It's fundamentally regressive, because it puts the financial and administrative burden of proof on small-scale, artisanal natural wine-makers rather than on industrial wine producers," he wrote in an e-mail. "It is way more effective to mandate that all wine producers list the ingredients and processes used, and let consumers make the verdict about what's natural enough for them."

Ultimately, nothing is wrong with the French label, which is voluntary and available only to producers in France. But for people who have not educated themselves, it may merely provide the illusion of discernment. They may be buying wines that are made naturally according to a set of rules, but that are not in the end natural wines. NYTIMES