Home Wine Business Editorial Expert Editorial Expert Editorial: Peeling Back the Layers on Natural Wine

Expert Editorial: Peeling Back the Layers on Natural Wine

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For the consumer looking for an absolutely natural wine,
it’s a roll of the dice for each bottle consumed.

By Bertil Jean-Chronberg 

 

Natural wine is widely debated. 

The problem is that natural wine, though a viticultural and winemaking practice for more than 70 years, has never been legislated. Its existence and practice are, therefore, based on a philosophy that each winegrower can interpret in their own way. For the consumer, there is no set standard that guarantees an intersection of the growing practices and conduct of the winemaker. There is no ethical promise of wine that will be consumed under the label “natural wine.” 

Most followers of the movement believe “natural wine” is a wine without synthetic chemicals or oenological inputs, made from organic grapes that are harvested by hand.

This very broad definition does not contain words such as “organic certification” or “Demeter” (biodynamic). In addition, no legislation regulates the level of sulfites (SO2) existing in wine, the addition of sugar during fermentation, nor the analytical control of good or harmful bacteria existing in the wine.

That means, for the consumer looking for an absolutely natural wine — without chemistry — it’s a roll of the dice for each bottle consumed. But now, a great current movement in global winemaking, and the uncontrollable expansion of natural wine production and distribution on the market, must force us to question its fundamentals.

Real Natural Wine

Wine of organic, biodynamic and sulfite-free origins should not be confused with natural wine.

A high-quality grape that’s the product of winemakers practicing organic farming (including biodynamic methods) guarantees grapes without chemicals that ripen as naturally and organically as possible —but with a very important human presence and intervention in the vineyard. This can include not only spreading manure or organic compost, monitoring bud break, addition of grass seeds and plants (flowers) on the soil and watering with preventive or corrective organic herbal teas, but also the leading of the vine, pruning, leaf stripping, green harvest and such.

In the cellar, treading grapes by foot does not come from the natural wine movement but rather from the extremist philosophy of biodynamic movement founder Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), which demands the abandonment of all mechanical machines. In reality, many “natural wine” winemakers use mechanical presses, pumps and bottling lines; they also add sulfites (SO2) and use synthetic closures. So where does the purism and integrity of “natural wine” begin for the consumer?

The Farm to Glass Conundrum

The demand for purity of product comes directly from the consumer wanting to find a real sense of taste and a need to consume fresh, healthy and living products that are justifiable and honorable. The problem is, the consumer no longer differentiates between a living, fresh product (the grape) and a processed product, the wine.

Compare it to the “farm to table” approach: a restaurant that promotes itself “farm to table” does not guarantee you a transformation of the food product with a minimalist, natural, organic approach and without external inputs during cooking and processing. Conversely, you hope the chef is talented, masters with precision the art of cooking and transformation to exalt the taste of the product on the plate.

Producing a wine in a minimalistic way requires great talent as well as in-depth knowledge of oenology, wine chemistry and agronomy. The problem, as with the craft beer wave of the early 2000s, is that the simplicity of producing a wine without intervention has opened the door to a generation of pseudo-winemakers who justify their lack of mastery of quality by promoting less-than-palatable wine. They insist that the notes of bitterness, sourness, glue, nail polish, wet old newspaper, rotten egg, vinegar, sulfide, onion, cauliflower or horse sweat are “funky,” “cool” and “acceptable.” In truth, these aromas are the result of unprocessed bacteria that can be dangerous to the consumers’ health —and certainly not acceptable in a quality and consumable wine.

Today, the movement has grown enough to catch the attention of public health regulators and awaken among professional winegrowers the demand for a quality standard and international legislation of practice. More and more winegrowers from so-called “classic” viniculture are beginning to rigorously practice this winemaking approach and finally offer the chance to consume quality “natural wine.”

The progression and natural elimination of extremes gives us hope to see — and be able to consume — more and more very good “natural” wines. The question, therefore, is not in the definition of natural wine but in the definition of international standards of taste: good taste.

_______________________________________________________________________
Bertil Jean-Chronberg

In 1995, French-born Canadian Bertil Jean-Chronberg was recognized as a pioneer in Quebec’s “farm to table” and “sustainability farming” movements. Honored in 1996 as one of the best sommeliers in the world during the Canadian International Sommelier Competition (SOPEXA), he was awarded for his work to the Honorary Title “Oenophile Emeritus and Gastronome” by the Canadian Journalist Top Food Critics Guild (Club of 16). Bertil also taught at a variety of Canadian colleges until he moved to Boston in 2000. In 2007, he opened The Beehive; in 2013, opened the Beat Hotel, where he was nominated in 2013 by ZAGAT one of the 12 “Boston Power Players to Watch” and in 2014 by the Boston Business Journal. In 2021, he opened Bonde Fine Wine Shop, bringing a disrupted, unique concept to the Harvard Square neighborhood.  

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Bertil,
    The US government has defined natural wine for many decades. By the legal definition at least 90% of American wines qualify.
    If the grapes are treated with pesticides, are the wines natural? To my knowledge there is only one wine estate on Earth producing wines from grapes grown without pesticides of any sort.
    Every other Organic and Biodynamic estate I’m aware of uses pesticides. Sulfur is a pesticide, copper compounds are pesticides, soap is a pesticide.
    If there is any folks out there that qualify as Zero Pesticide vineyards, I’d love to know and connect with them.
    Paul Vandenberg
    Paradisos del Sol Winery and Organic Vineyard

  2. Dear Paul,
    Thank you for your email in reaction to my analysis of the misunderstanding of the word “Natural” used on the labels of some wines, which in no way reflects the expectation and understanding of its definition by consumers of “Natural wine.”
    I am not a chemist and even less a certified oenologist. My expertise is based on my research and years of practice.
    Here are some of the excerpts from articles I used in my research.

    Natural Wine:
    The government has defined the word Natural Wine to define the natural source of the product WINE. But this does not describe or legislate, the practices and attributes of the word “Natural Wine.

    26. U.S. Code § 5381 – Natural Wine
    Natural wine is the product of the juice or must of sound, ripe grapes or other sound, ripe fruit, made with such cellar treatment as may be authorized under section 5382 and containing not more than 21 percent by weight of total solids. Any wine conforming to such definition except for having become substandard by reason of its condition shall be deemed not to be natural wine unless the condition is corrected.
    (Added Pub. L. 85–859, title II, § 201, Sept. 2, 1958, 72 Stat. 1383; amended Pub. L. 96–39, title VIII, § 807(a)(48), July 26, 1979, 93 Stat. 288.)

    When has the very respectful Jancis Robinson. Here’s what she writes in a 2020 article

    Natural wine, defined by Jancis Robinson
    “.. New York’s queen of natural wine Alice Feiring, author of several books on the subject and a natural wine website The Feiring Line, is watching this development with interest. She approves of much of it, although agreed with me by email that, ‘It’s not well thought out. With only 50 to certify it’s easy. But if it grows there’s a lot more involved.’
    Her final word: ‘In my heart of hearts, I just don’t think natural wine is certifiable.'”
    Natural Wine publication, 11 Apr 2020

    When has your question:
    If the grapes are treated with pesticides, are the wines natural?
    I need to elaborate on the definition of Pesticides.

    United States EPA (environment Protection Agency)
    Pesticide law defines a “pesticide” (with certain minor exceptions) as:
    Any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling, or mitigating any pest.
    Any substance or mixture of substances intended for use as a plant regulator, defoliant, or desiccant.
    Any nitrogen stabilizer

    And therefore, universal acceptance of Natural Chemical (are not Synthetic manipulation or transformation) including natural pesticides

    “Naturally occurring chemicals can be either: an unprocessed chemical that is found in nature, such as chemicals from plants, micro-organisms, animals, the earth, and the sea. a chemical that is found in nature and extracted using a process that does not change its chemical composition.”

    So, thank you, Paul, for pointing out my mistake of failing to add the word “Synthetic” before the word “Pesticide.”
    So when it comes to the “Zero” use of Natural or Synthetic Pesticides in the vineyard or in the cellar, if they exist, I want to meet them too.

    My question to you, Paul;
    I can’t find a definition or explanation of “Zero Pesticide Vineyard™” on your Web if you. Could you send me some information? I am curious to understand how it is possible to have a “Zero” intervention on the vine or in the cellar.
    Thank you
    Very respectfully
    Bertil

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