A group of naturalistas embrace certification

It wasn’t so long ago that natural winemakers were the rebels of the wine world. Now, says Simon J. Woolf, a significant group is embracing the strictest of standards.

Bianka and Daniel Schmitt, winemakers, Rheinhessen
Bianka and Daniel Schmitt, winemakers, Rheinhessen

The recent announcement of an official Vin Méthode Nature label in France stirred up a familiar hornet’s nest — should natural wine be regulated or not? Doug Wregg, sales director of UK importer Les Caves de Pyrene, is uncomfortable with the attempt at codification, saying: “For me, natural wine is much wider than organic farming plus less than 30 ppm of SO2. It is about this thing called ‘spirit’.” But many of natural wine’s detractors have long argued that its vague definition, frequent spurning of existing certification schemes and acceptance of colleagues largely on an honour system lay it open to ridicule. 

Natural winemaker and president of the VinNatur association Angiolino Maule wouldn’t disagree. “For too long, the natural wine world has been based on self-declaration or self-certification but that’s never been a sustainable, valid approach,” he says. “It leaves the possibility for abuse wide open.”

Analysis and regulation

Maule created VinNatur in 2006, splitting off from the ViniVeri association. Both groups are voluntary member organisations for natural winemakers, both are headquartered in northern Italy and both have members across Europe. But VinNatur has taken a very different path than its parent, or any comparable organisation worldwide. Following the introduction of its charter in 2016, VinNatur now undertakes stringent checks on its members’ wines, winemaking and farming methods, working with three specialist partners who provide analytical and regulatory expertise. 

It hasn’t been a universally popular move. The association’s administrator and international press officer Emma Bentley confirms that although membership, with more than 180 wineries, is at an all-time high, VinNatur has lost some 80 members along the way. Some jumped, while others were pushed after their wines were found to have overly high levels of pesticide residues. Can a regime based on laboratory analysis and regulation ever coexist comfortably in the world of minimal intervention winemaking?

VinNatur’s members clearly believe that it can. Strong willed, if softly spoken, Maule rules his domain with an iron rod, but also commands respect. Since the split, VinNatur’s member numbers and international reach have increased significantly beyond those of ViniVeri, despite the fact that members outside Italy only receive a fraction of the benefits of their domestic colleagues.

Erik Gabrielson, owner/winemaker of Mas Zenitude in the Languedoc explains that he chose VinNatur in preference to similar French organisations such as L’Association des Vins Naturels (AVN) or Les Vins S.A.I.N.S. because he was “impressed with their professionalism when I first visited Vila Favorita [its then annual tasting venue]”. He adds that there are no comparable organisations that are as diligent. “Angiolino is a very, very strong person and some people don’t like the way he runs the organisation. But if people don’t like it, just get out of it.” Daniel and Bianka Schmitt’s winery in Rheinhessen, which joined in 2015, selected VinNatur specifically for its rigour: “We wanted to join an association which makes an analysis [of members’ wines] and controls the ingredients in the wine,” the young winemakers explained.

The charter

VinNatur’s decisive moment was the voting in of its new charter in 2016, which strictly regulates how members make their wine. As well as specifying that only spontaneous fermentation is allowed, filtration below five microns for white and rosé wines or 10 microns for red wines is forbidden. Fining of any sort is also not permitted. There are detailed regulations for vineyard practice, which broadly correspond with organic certification, albeit with a stricter limit on total copper usage.

The introduction of the charter prompted a number of high-profile members to leave — notably, Foradori, Frank Cornelissen and COS. Cornelissen had issues with the rules for filtration, as he prefers to filter white wines down to one micron, but adds that “many natural wine people are very sensitive to freedom of speech. They like to work in a very intuitive way.” In his opinion, the charter went too far in the opposite direction: “The principle of introducing a protocol just didn’t fit any more.”

The Foradori family decided to leave for a number of reasons, including doubt about the “quality of newly joining wineries”, and specific issues with the strict limits on total SO2; VinNatur imposes limits of 50mg/L for white, rosé and sparkling wines and 30mg/L for reds. Theo Zierock, Elisabetta Foradori’s youngest son, adds that “ideology was getting to a peak that somehow started to get in the way of the concept of quality”.
Any potential new member has to submit two bottles of their wine to the association, which are then analysed by Vassanelli Lab. The lab tests for residues of more than 200 different pesticides, including some banned many years ago. Total SO2 levels are also analysed.

The laboratory’s director Giuseppe Vassanelli confirms the high accuracy of the tests and explains that the lab cross-checks its results by participating “in various interlaboratory comparisons which are then also evaluated by certification bodies that set much more stringent data acceptability criteria than those provided by the method itself”. Certification bodies include QS Qualität und Sicherheit GmbH in Germany.
The association also conducts random tests on existing members. Bottles are collected at the annual April tasting, or the annual natural wine workshop, with the aim to test around 40 percent of the total membership. “We will select bottles of producers that we’re concerned about, or producers that we know we didn’t test the previous year,” says Bentley. In 2019, 84 bottles were analysed and four were found to contain pesticide residues. Bentley explains that producers who have been “caught out” are given a second — and sometimes even a third — chance to explain why residues have been found in their wines.

No excuses

A common response to a positive residue test is that the producer bought grapes due to an inadequate harvest, or that there has been contamination via a neighbour “who is not organic”. In all such cases, VinNatur follows up with further tests from leaf or fruit samples taken at the property. Bentley notes that in some cases where pesticide residues have been found, the producer in question will not necessarily make a big fuss about leaving VinNatur but often “just disappears”.

VinNatur also conducts annual inspections at members’ properties, although this is only feasible for Italian members, who make up more than 60 percent of the membership. Here, the association collaborates with Valoritalia, one of several agencies in Italy that conduct inspections for organic certification. VinNatur trains Valoritalia’s inspectors specifically. “We want to move away from just checking paperwork to more of an interview process,” says Bentley. “We try to understand the mentality of the producer and make sure that their mindset is natural.” This is achieved by having the inspectors ask winemakers questions such as what they would do in the event of a stuck fermentation, or how they might use sulphite additions.

Leaf cuttings or bunches of grapes, depending on the season, are taken from the properties and sent off for analysis. Some producers will be inspected just after harvest; in these cases tank samples are taken and analysed by FoodMicroTeam SRL. This laboratory is a spin-off from the University of Florence and specialises in analysis of unfinished beverage and fermented products. In this case, VinNatur looks for evidence that selected yeasts or enzymes — both forbidden by the charter — were used, as these can only be detected with any level of reliability during fermentation.

VinNatur’s stated aim to test around 40 percent of its members each year makes it considerably more rigorous than the newly minted French labelling scheme. For Vin Méthode Nature wines certified in France, the Syndicat de défense du vin naturel has stated that only 10 percent of producers will be inspected or have their wines analysed.

VinNatur has achieved much more than just running its annual tasting and regulating its members. It also co-funds, coordinates and participates in pioneering research programmes. Maule says that at the beginning, “the research projects were mainly focused on how to finish fermentation without additives or corrections” but he notes that the research needs have changed and evolved. “Now our focus in the cellar has turned towards learning how to make consistently good natural wines.”

In recent years VinNatur has collaborated with the consultancy Vitenova Vine Wellness on innovative projects, including a comparative test on vineyard DNA to see whether it is affected by the passage of tractors through the row or by the application of sprays. In 2019, 25 members participated in a project to establish each vineyard’s bio-index: the predator to prey insect ratio was analysed, along with soil quality at both 20cm and 100cm depths. Bentley notes that this became competitive in a positive way, with winemakers joking about “who has the best vineyard”.

The welcoming of scientists and consultants to the table sits in stark counterpart to the hands-off stance of many in the natural wine sector. Maule acknowledges that there are certainly “extreme natural winemakers who believe that answers can be found on the moon or with laissez-faire winemaking”. He adds: “The problems we face are not up there on the moon but very much here on earth. Not always, but frequently, scientists are able to provide some answers.”

While acknowledging that the direction he’s chosen for VinNatur has caused friction, and even resulted in lost friends, Maule remains resolute. He would also support a nationwide regulatory scheme, such as that introduced in France. However, he’s pessimistic about its feasibility: “In Italy, we are very fragmented so government-wide support is unlikely, but what we would like to see is the other natural wine associations carrying out random pesticide analysis on their members’ wines.” 

Pre-empting the likely response, he adds: “If you’ve got nothing to hide, why do you run away?” 

Simon J. Woolf

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

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