Talk to any passionate beer fan and, sooner rather than later, you’ll hear a complaint about the way giant brewers have co-opted the craft beer market for themselves – either by buying the small producers or by launching faux craft brands of their own.
Until now, the notion of this happening to the natural wine sector was merely a cloud on the horizon. Natural wine people have been famously unwilling to embrace any kind of certification. For them, naturally-fermented, unfined, unfiltered, unsulphored winemaking is a philosophy, an item of faith rather than anything that needed an official stamp. They’re like Joni Mitchell in her great song, My Old Man, singing
“We don't need no piece of paper from the city hall
Keeping us tied and true”
One of the philosophical tenets they held was that natural wine should be produced by small, ideally family-owned, estates from vines grown and hand-tended on their own land. But with no ‘piece of paper’ to require this, it was only a matter of time before larger concerns decided to park their tanks on the natural lawn.
First of these was Philip Cox at Cramele Recas, Romania’s biggest exporter, producing over 23m bottles of wine, every year. In recent years, Cox has also been making natural orange and red wines that tick all of the wild-yeast, zero-SO2, unfined, unfiltered boxes, and selling them to supermarkets.
Naturalistas like Simon J Woolf, author of The Morning Claret blog have been won over by Cox and his wines, saying of the Recas 2020 Orange that it was “an attractive style. It does feel very mainstream but I like the fruit." Some New York-based purists might take more convincing.
Naturally fermented for extra freshness and swagger
However big his winery, Cox is an affable, approachable man who has little in common with the suits and been-counters behind the multinational industrial concerns that are so hated by the real ale and natural wine fans. Now however, it looks as though one of these - the devil incarnate - has just arrived with its Sherman tank. Treasury Wine Estates, the Australian giant behind the Snoop Dogg-promoted 19 Crimes range of decidedly UNnatural wines is, it seems, launching an eye-catchingly-labeled set of wines called Second Glance, including an ‘Amber Wine, ‘Chillable Grenache’ and a ‘Pet Nat’. The red is described – by Treasury - as “picked early and naturally fermented for extra freshness and swagger. Brimming with juicy raspberries and whiffs of berry-sour confection and herbal notes, it’s lightweight, zippy & made for chilling on those warm days.”
All three are widely available in Australia through the Vintage Cellars chain at a fairly premium AU$30 – a little more than the same retailer charges for their Beaujolais Villages.
Will they sell? We’ll see, but if they do, there’s a good chance, both that other big Australian wine companies will follow their example (that $30 probably includes a very decent margin), and that Treasury will try its luck at selling their new baby in natural wine-friendly spots in the US.
This could be the move that takes natural wine out of the niche into the mainstream, introducing huge numbers of people to styles they’ve never encountered. Just as the big brewer’s broadly-distributed IPA arguably did for beer. Quite what the naturalista purists will have to say about it, though, remains to be seen.