Is it possible to certify natural wine?

There have been many calls for a certified definition of natural wine. Aaron Ayscough thinks people are asking for the impossible.

Jacques Carroget, president of  Le Syndicat de  défense des vins  naturel
Jacques Carroget, president of Le Syndicat de défense des vins naturel

Efforts to certify natural wine saw progress in early March when French wine authorities officially recognised the label Vin Méthode Nature. The wine world was soon abuzz with commentary on whether certification for natural wine was a good thing, with everyone from Jancis Robinson to New York Times’ senior wine critic Eric Asimov offering thoughtful takes.

Omitted from the discussion so far, however, have been the mechanisms for enforcing natural wine certification. A closer look at them reveals the project’s practical impossibility — and the limits of verifying winemaking methodology. 

What’s proposed

The group behind France’s new labels, Le Syndicat de défense des vins naturel, is the latest in a succession of groups attempting to define natural wine, which include France’s Association des Vins Naturels and V.I.N.S.  S.A.I.N.S., as well as Italy’s VinNatur and Vite Vini. These associations’ natural wine definitions vary, but they all rely on criteria that cannot be verified by cellar inspection or chemical analyses. Such criteria include the rejection of commercial yeasts, lactic bacteria and filtration, and the timing of sulphite addition. 

“We focused ourselves on what was, for us, the commonly understood definition of natural wine, says Loire-Atlantique vigneron Jacques Carroget, president of Le Syndicat de défense des vins naturel. “The goal is to defend a mode of vinification, issued from organic grapes, and nothing more. We really limited ourselves to that.” 

The syndicate’s charter mandates organic agriculture, manual harvesting, native yeast fermentation and a ban on what they term “brutal and traumatising techniques”, including reverse osmosis, thermovinification, fining and filtration. The charter also stipulates an absence of additives with the exception of sulphites, with final sulphite totals not to exceed 30mg/L. Carroget concedes that chemical analysis cannot determine the timing of sulphite addition, which his group’s charter says must occur at bottling, rather than during fermentation or ageing. 

“Otherwise, we feel the wine isn’t within the category of natural wine,” he says. “But if there are people who cheat, I’m not there looking over their shoulder, of course.”

Additions of commercial yeast and lactic bacteria are also undetectable by chemical analysis.

“The problem is not analytical, but rather concerns the moment of sampling,” says oenologist Giacomo Buscioni, of the Florence-based laboratory FoodMicroTeam. “To verify whether a producer uses commercial yeasts or commercial lactic bacteria, the fermenting must has to be analysed, not the finished wine.”

Analyses of fermenting must also fall well short of proof, since a winemaker could simply employ these additives after inspection. Filtration, too, is often more perceptible in subjective tasting than in objective analysis. A light filtration of anything over 0.45 microns, Buscioni explains, allows all bacteria and practically all yeasts to pass. “Therefore the presence or absence of micro-organisms doesn’t give certainty of the absence of filtration.” 

An inspector calls

Cellar inspections, meanwhile, are even more fallible than analysis. “It’s a weak point in our control system,” says Emma Bentley, an administrator of Italy’s VinNatur, which has tried to enforce its own natural wine charter since 2016. “We’ve had some criticism because inspectors call wineries in advance to make their appointment. Effectively, you can burn paperwork if you want to remove an invoice for something you’ve bought, or you can hide things in your cellar.” 

But, she continues, having inspectors showing up impromptu doesn’t work either, because it’s impossible to check every tank at all stages of fermentation, or whenever commercial yeast, lactic bacteria or sulfites could be added. 

In 2019, VinNatur conducted 70 cellar inspections and more than 100 analyses on the wines of its 140 participating Italian wineries. By contrast, the Syndicat de défense des vins naturel will rely on cellar inspections by the French organic certification boards. Carroget says he intends to randomly select three percent of wines bearing the new Vin Méthode Nature labels for analysis. For the roughly 70 cuvées that will hit the market in 2020 from the syndicate’s 50 participating wineries, it will amount to just two or three analyses. For now, he’s confident in the existing system of inspections and in the honour of the syndicate’s members. “The world is not entirely made up of cheaters, you know,” he says. “We can’t do this any other way.” 

The category of natural wine has historically been based on trust between individual wineries and consumers. It seems it will remain so, new labels notwithstanding. 

Aaron Ayscough

This article first appeared in Issue 3, 2020 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine, available in print or online by subscription.

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