- Natural wine is becoming more popular in France, thanks in part to the trend to healthy eating and drinking and a hunger for novelty among sommeliers and younger consumers
- No one knows the volumes of natural wine, because there is no official certification, and some producers focus on export. Direct-to-consumer sales are limited.
- Since March 2020, there have been a Vin Méthode Nature charter and logo
- Bigger producers within France and in other countries are moving towards and into the category
- This is not always welcome among natural wine producers
In France, where all wines have to fit into some kind of officially recognized category, legally, natural wine does not exist. The use of the composite names ‘vin nature’ or ‘vin naturel’ for wines is not allowed because it breaches article seven of the national regulations covering ‘Food Information for Consumers’ which state that “voluntary statements must not mislead the consumer and must be precise, clear and easily understandable". Article 53 of the 2019 ‘Delegated Regulation allows solely “the use of a descriptive statement referring to the method of production of the wine". The use of the terms ‘nature’ or ‘natural’ may only be authorised to describe a specific production method, i.e. a ‘method’.
Unlike organic wines (certified by one of the independent accredited bodies) or biodynamic wines (certified by Demeter or Biodyvin), there is no unanimously accepted definition of ’natural’ wines by the French wine industry. Nor does such a definition exist internationally.
However, for the first time, since March 2020, a Vin Méthode Nature logo and charter have been recognised by the National Institute for Origin and Quality (INAO) and the General Directorate for Consumer Affairs, Competition and Fraud Control (DGCCRF). Created by the initiative of Vin Méthode Nature, an association launched in 2019 with 109 winegrowers the following year and 156 in 2021. The new designation provides a number of guarantees: hand-picking, 100% organic grapes, indigenous yeasts, no oenological inputs, no fining or filtration, no added sulphites either before or during fermentation. A maximum amount of 30mg of sulphites per litre may be added before bottling but must be mentioned on the label.
Some natural wine producers take issue with these rules, allowing the addition of some SO2 and coarse filtering, but insisting on the use of estate-grown grapes, for example, a requirement that is not included in the Vin Méthode Nature charter.
All agree that grapes must be grown at least organically (if not biodynamically). In 2021, out of France’s 750,000 ha of vineyards, 90,298 ha had organic certification, 13% more than in 2020. Nearly another 70,000 hectares are currently in conversion, which means that 20% of France’s vines could be certified as organic by 2024.
In France, the godfather of natural wine was Jules Chauvet. Born in 1907, this Beaujolais winegrower and researcher at the Institute of Biological Chemistry in Lyon offered the philosophical definition of wine as fermented grape juice, and nothing else, saying "The less you manipulate the wine, the better it is". Chauvet was speaking before Emile Peynaud and Jean Ribéreau-Gayon founded the Bordeaux Institute of Oenology in 1949, one of the homes of what is now seen as ‘conventional’ winemaking, where human intervention produced a more predictably reliable product. It was Peynaud who said “In the past we made great wine by chance“.
Chauvet was not the only one opposed to the standardization of wine through the use of industrial chemicals in the vineyards and in the cellar. Along with Jacques Néauport, winemakers like Marcel Lapierre, Jean-Paul Thévenet, Yvon Métras, Jean Foillard and Guy Breton in Beaujolais, Thierry Puzelat in the Loire Valley, Didier Barral in Languedoc followed his path in the 1980s.
“People who think that making natural wine is just putting grapes in a tank and not touching it are crazy. You have to work a thousand times harder than for a conventional wine.”
Crucially, while producers wanted to eschew the use of additives, they were skilled vignerons who did not believe that wine made itself any more than a child could take responsibility for its own education. As Laurence Manya-Krief of Domaine Yoyo, in Banyuls, said in the 2018 documentary, Wine Calling, “People who think that making natural wine is just putting grapes in a tank and not touching it are crazy. You have to work a thousand times harder than for a conventional wine.”
Until the end if the 20th century, most winemakers producing natural wines were eccentric, isolated and ignored by the media. The first Association des Vins Naturels was founded in 2000. Soon the impact of top chefs return to terroir and authentic food and the emergence of wine blogs and social media made them trendy. Advocates like French-born but UK-based Isabelle Legeron MW with her RAW wine fairs or Alice Feiring in New York with her writing, gave them global visibility.
Unlike certified organic wines, it is impossible to find reliable data on production, consumption, export volumes, or even the number of French estates producing natural wines. The French organisations - AVN, Vins S.A.I.N.S,and Vin Méthode Nature - suggest there are a little fewer than 200, with a majority running small estates, with limited production. An unknown number probably goes unseen, however, exporting most of their production and seeing no need for a website to boost domestic sales. A growing number of conventional producers now have an experimental tank or two of wild-yeast, unsulphored wine they intend to bottle and sell without fining or filtering – or declaring as ‘natural’ to any kind of organization. The European Association of Wine Economists is about to launch a study to address this lack of information on the size of the natural wine phenomenon, but it will not be an easy task.
According to an app called Raisin that is dedicated to natural food and wine, if France and Italy are leading markets, the US, Japan, Belgium, and UK are also growing fast. One developing market in particular has proving very fruitful; French pioneers suggest that, without Japan, the natural wine movement might not have enjoyed its current success.
Direct to the Customer
While direct sales are seen as an increasingly important route to market in the US, in France the concept is surprisingly undeveloped. Only around 11% of all domestic sales are made in this way and natural wine producers seem no keener on this route to market than conventional ones. Pierre Lavaysse from Petit Domaine de Gimios, Languedoc, Minervois may speak for others when he says “We value our quality of life and other projects we are running. Sale at the estate is one of many wine fantasies, in reality, it is an economically catastrophic model”.
Lavaysse is typical of many independent-minded winemakers in the natural wine community in preferring to define their own model of the industry than to work towards a collective one. Despite the existence of organisations like AVN and Sains, the natural wine sector remains fragmented and marked by those who favour self-certification (I say what I do and I do what I say) rather than any kind of official stamp. Some openly oppose any legal definition of natural wines out of fear that it would be adopted by ‘industrial’ producers. Many, wanting to experiment, have abandoned PDO/AOC systems. Others, such as Ganevat or Overnoy in the Jura, De Moor or Derain in Burgundy, Breton in the Loire have, by contrast, become reference points within their appellation, helping to put regions such as Beaujolais, Jura, Savoie, and Auvergne back in the spotlight.
Whatever the number of producers, there is a growing range of places in which to drink natural wine. Raisin now lists 1,506 establishments in France, including 440 in Paris (a quarter in the ‘cool’ 11th arrondissement). This figure has grown by just under 150% over 5 years. There are currently 157 bars, 169 wine shops, and 282 restaurants in Paris where more than 30% of the stock is natural wines.
New Categories and Places
Helping the natural wine movement, categories in their own right, such as pet'nat' (natural sparkling wine) or skin-contact orange/amber wine have found their own niche in some of the world's top restaurants. Short distribution chains and a lack of familiarity and competition have also allowed wine shops and restaurants to make better margins.
On the other hand, for some merchants and restaurateurs, wines from ‘star’ natural producers have become an essential part of their range. The expansion of natural wines into restaurants has been driven by merchants and chefs but, most particularly by sommeliers. The latter, often young, take advantage of this opportunity to distinguish themselves from colleagues who may be more broadly experienced but less knowledgeable about this new category. With natural wines, sommeliers can achieve recognition for freeing themselves from established codes. Last year Vanessa Massé of Pure&V, in Nice became the first woman to be awarded best sommelier of the year by Michelin. All the wines she serves at are natural.
Consumers in any sector are divided between novices and those with confidence and knowledge; people who seek familiarity and those looking for new experiences. In wine, French supermarkets – especially with their seasonal Foires à Vin - supply all of these more or less successfully, except for the experience seekers. These, particularly younger, urban consumers tend to favour independent retailers and wine bars and restaurants with pioneering sommeliers. Other factors that have to be added to the mix include growing demands among some consumers for authenticity, more transparent processes, and a - supposedly - healthier, more environmentally friendly diet. All of these are associated with natural wine.
Alive or Dead?
Natural wine producers and enthusiasts claim that removing manipulation from the winemaking process helps to create a product that is ‘alive’ – a status that can imply high levels of reduction (H2S), oxidation, brettanomyces, volatile acidity and mousiness. These offbeat flavours are lumped together – approvingly – as ‘funky’, borrowing a US term with roots in music and less than immediately appealing aromas, and are seen as part of the wine’s individuality and character. Like a scar on a human face.
For their detractors, however, they are faults that are neither acceptable under traditional European and regional AOP rules, nor likely to be welcome among professional buyers for supermarket chains – and traditional critics.
As the French writer, and publisher of the Anthcyanes wine platform noted. “The journalists and bloggers who exasperate us by promoting natural wines not for their quality but simply for the philosophy they promote, would do well to reread Jules Chauvet and in particular his ‘Aesthetics of wine’ before explaining to us that fermentation and barnyard aromas are a mark of quality.”
Natural wines, by contrast, are unknown territory. Especially when they are cloudy in appearance and smell and taste unlike any wine the consumer has previously encountered.
For a relative novice or even the moderately well-informed shopper, buying a conventional wine in a supermarket from the range of well-known appellations and/or brands may be confusing, but once they have discovered a style they like, choosing a bottle will be more straightforward than negotiating natural wines. Brand-consistency and AOC rules should mean that they get something that resembles what they have bought before.
If the notion of natural wines that stand outside the appellation system may attract French consumers who are frightened by the complexity of the wine category, the same may apply to the packaging. The new aesthetics easily observable on most of the labels break familiar wine codes. Accessible, colorful labels, often employing naif illustrations and wordplay emphasise simplicity and a lack of pretension.
The vocabulary surrounding natural wine is also more accessible and simpler than for conventional wine. Easy-to-drink wines are described as ‘glou-glou’, an apparently babyish term that, like the Anglo Saxon ‘glug glug’, mimics the sound of the wine as it is drunk from the bottle.
A Surprise in Every Bottle
Natural wines might not only look, smell and taste quite unlike anything a conventional wine drinker is used to but, without the stability provided by SO2 and filtration, they have until now, been seen as being more sensitive to transport issues or temperature variations and subject to wild variations from one bottle of the same wine and vintage to the next.
For natural wine fans, this very unpredictability makes each purchase a voyage of exploration for novices. When each bottle can be approached as a surprise, there is no need for the kind of prior knowledge obtained from books and wine courses but, as with any excursion into the unknown, it is wise to take advice from a guide. This is perhaps one of the reasons why enthusiastic specialist wine merchants, bloggers and sommeliers are so important to natural wine.
Let's talk about the price
Low yields and high production costs – due mainly to labour - make for high ex-cellar prices. Limited production can also mean natural wines being on allocation and buyers having to pay high transport costs for small numbers of bottles. Few natural wines are available for retail prices lower than €10 per bottle. This, along with the character of the wines, has, until now, restricted expansion of the sector.
The picture is changing, however. The big, dynamic (and increasingly biodynamic) Languedoc producer, Gerard Bertrand, who has already been selling Zero-SO2 wines in large quantities under the Naturae brand to French supermarkets for several years, now has a premium brand called Orange Gold, and Villa Soleilla a single vineyard, amber wine that, at 149, may be the priciest natural wine in the world.
Outside France, the huge, 50m-bottle production, Cramele Recas winery in Romania began to make natural orange and red wine in 2016 using amphora, and respecting all natural wine rules. Current production is over 20,000 bottles. At the bulk wine fair in Amsterdam, the owners of the Hands Off and Djuce brands were, respectively, showing off cans of ‘Low Intervention’ Spanish Garnacha and Austrian Orange Wine. All of these producers believe that, even without SO2 and filtration, they can make significant volumes of wines that are stable enough to withstand shipping and cellaring.
How long before more French cooperatives, merchants and dynamic larger independent producers follow this trend, making natural wines that are less unpredictably funky and thus less shocking to the broader market of consumers?
Natural wine appears to be one of the wine industry's futures in its response to growing demand among some consumers for greater transparency, more locally-sourced and environmentally conscious, healthier products, with fewer inputs, especially SO2, and among a smaller but influential group, for fresh experiences. Even if it remains marginal, it is already having an impact on the way winemakers in France and elsewhere approach wine making.
As larger wineries see a commercial interest in building the natural sector – just as they have with organic viticulture - millions of consumers who were previously unaware of natural wine may be confronted with it. How some of the pioneers will react to the loss of their revolutionary, outsider, status remains to be seen. If the experiences of British-born Philip Cox, director of Cramele Recas in Romania are typical, they may not all welcome it.
As Cox told Jamie Goode in 2020, his experience as a high volume natural wine producer has not been entirely easy. “I get hate mail… I constantly get attacked and threatened by small natural wine producers for ruining their life.” Despite the wines fitting the natural wine criteria set by Legeron’s RAW Wine fairs, Cramele Recas was not allowed to exhibit its wines.
Perhaps, if and when producers like Cox are admitted to these events, those smaller producers will need to create a new breakaway group. Maybe, in a few years time, those Paris hipsters will all be drinking ‘supernatural’ wines.