Natural Wine has gone official in France. The government has approved a charter, trade syndicate and label for the low-intervention wines. But is the free-spirited community of natural winemakers eager to follow a formal set of rules?
"It was important to create a real framework for this type of wine, so that when a consumer opens a bottle of so-called 'natural' wine, that's what's in the bottle," said Isabelle Perraud, member of the natural wine syndicate's administrative council, as well as a biodynamic grower and négociant in Beaujolais. "It's also important for winemakers to receive recognition for what they do."
The charter and label have the support of the INAO, which oversees French appellations, as well as the French Ministry of Agriculture and France's consumer protection inspectors at the DGCCRF. The label will read "Vin Méthode Nature" rather than "natural wine," a moniker that was popular with some but a lightning rod for criticism by others—not to mention illegal under France's strict labeling laws.
The official designation applies to French wine only, but advocates hope other European countries will adopt similar regulations.
"Hopefully it will be the beginning of natural wine certification more generally," said Isabelle Legeron, an author and founder of Raw Wine, a series of international wine fairs. "I imagine now that the INAO has adopted this charter, it will make it easier for other countries to follow suit, although it may well be with their own label versions. What we really need is an E.U.-wide scheme, similar to the E.U.'s green leaf for organics."
What's in the bottle?
While natural wine has been growing in popularity in recent years, there has not been a concrete definition. Even natural wine advocates don't always agree on an acceptable definition. So what does this new label mean for consumers?
Wines packaged with the logo are made from certified organic grapes, handpicked and fermented with ambient (aka native) yeast strains. The winemaker cannot use any additives or several modern techniques, including reverse osmosis, filtration and flash pasteurization.
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Growers are allowed to add a small amount of sulfur dioxide (SO2) prior to bottling, as long as the final wine contains less than 30 milligrams per liter. If they do add sulfur, they must use the "Vin Méthode Nature" logo that indicates added sulfites. There is a separate one for no added sulfites. The grapes can be AOP, IGP or table wine (Vin de France).
"What I sincerely hope is that by having the category officially recognized by the INAO, it will enable natural wine producers to be part of the [formal appellation system] once again, rather than being forced into the Vin de France category as has so often been the case," said Legeron. "That would really solve a lot of injustices that have taken place over recent years."
She's referring to natural wines running afoul of existing appellation rules. French winegrowers were galvanized into action when Sébastien David, a biodynamic vintner in St.-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil in the Loire, was forced to destroy more than 2,000 bottles of his 2016 Coef cuvée after a DGCCRF audit found that three bottles had excessive levels of volatile acidity, possibly a result of low sulfur levels.
"Several times natural winemakers faced similar situations, their wines put in question," said Perraud.
For many in the movement, what the appellation authorities see as flaws are part and parcel of natural wine. "I like wines that have personality … that are not filtered. I like the reduction, I like the imperfection, I like to hear the vintage speak," said Perraud. To others, they're off-putting. But the label will make that a matter of taste rather than legal status.
"The biggest challenge was to get the DGCCRF to accept the existence of this type of wine, and agree to validate the specifications," said Perraud. "We had to make compromises." French authorities balked at the use of "natural," leading to the term Vin Méthode Nature.
And within the natural wine community, there was resistance to joining the establishment. "Some do not want to hear about a legal framework because often they have left the framework of the controlled appellations and no longer want to answer to anyone—which is understandable," said Perraud, who has made low-intervention wine for 18 years. "But we must above all think of consumers. They get lost and no longer know what to trust. I have seen too many so-called natural wines which were not even certified organic. I don't force anyone to make natural wine, but don't say it's natural when it's not."
An important step toward the label was the creation of the natural wine syndicate last October. Membership is open to the community of growers, merchants, sommeliers and consumers, all passionate about natural wine. The syndicate defends the designation against infringement, and will audit growers and award accreditation.
"Overall the criteria set out for the Vin Méthode Nature label seem sound to me," Legeron told Wine Spectator. "My only reservation is that some are extremely tricky to verify. This is something we know from firsthand experience at Raw Wine, since we check the SO2 analyses of every wine submitted, I taste them and we do background checks on the growers and wines as well. But unfortunately things like wild fermentation, or whether or not SO2 was only added at bottling (and not during fermentation), for example, can be extremely difficult to confirm."
As the movement gains fans, the increased attention and regulation could be vital for commercial growth. COVID-19 has hit the sector hard, reports Legeron. "Some growers are even worried about being able to harvest all their grapes, given that they have had to let go of some of their team and cashflow is tight, and some are even worried about what this will mean for stocks in 2021."