When something becomes a trend (or a thing, as is increasingly the term), we, humans, like to name this thing—to categorize and quantify it. And that’s exactly the case with "natural wine," a vague winemaking style that has exploded in popularity across the U.S. in the past year or so. In France, where the current natural wine movement began during the 1980s, bureaucratic organization INAO (France's National Institute of Origin and Quality)—which governs the country's creation of wine appellations—is making serious efforts to turn "natural wine" into a regulated category, potentially verified by a third-party, as are labels "organic" and "biodynamic."
The natural wine movement is reaching new heights, both in terms of production and consumption. Young, upstart natural winemakers have made their careers in the last ten years throughout France, Italy, and the U.S., thanks in part to high-profile restaurants and bars focusing bottle lists on less manipulated juice. All of which begs the question: Is it time to define these wines so consumers know that what they're drinking is to—some extent—natural?
Presently, France recognizes wine as organic (Agriculture Biologique, Nature&Progrès) and biodynamic (Demeter—two levels, and Biodyvin). While here in the U.S. we have our own organic (USDA Organic, Made With Organic Grapes, Organic Vineyards) and biodynamic (Biodynamic Wines, Biodynamic Vineyard) wine tags.
"Three or four years ago I would have used this term, 'natural wine,' very easily," says Martin Texier of forthcoming wine label L'indigène, and whose father, Eric Texier, makes low-intervention wine in the Rhône Valley on an eponymous label. "It just meant thoughtful, crafty winemaking, mostly organic, but not necessarily ... Natural wine was the opposite of industrial wine, that was it." Now, Texier says that as the chatter around natural wine gets louder, and the style continues to grow, "everybody has his own idea" about defining the style, and sometimes it’s extreme. By some interpretations, "[s]ome of the founders of the movement wouldn’t even be considered natural wine" producers, he adds, in reference to the "Gang of Four" winemakers from Beaujolais.
According to Loire Valley-based winemaker Laurent Saillard, who previously owned a restaurant in Brooklyn, New York, the idea to make natural wine a category "comes from the people outside of the natural wine world. It doesn’t come from us. And what the fuck is natural wine anyway? I could not say." Saillard feels that any kind of official label—whether organic, biodynamic, or natural—is restrictive. "I don’t want to be kept in a box," he states. "One of the reasons why I’m doing wine now is to be free and do whatever I want to do." Saillard has no organic certification, although he practices biodynamics in his vineyards. He simply does not care to pursue the designation.
"The other guys should put on their label, 'poison,'" adds Saillard. "Wine is the only food product where you don’t have to list any ingredients. It doesn’t make any sense to me. People would be shocked to see the ingredients in a bottle of wine."
And Saillard is not only referring to sulfur, a preservative that stabilizes wine, which is used in very large amounts by most wineries. (Saillard, and many winemakers who identify as "natural" producers, do add small amounts of sulfur to their wines for stabilization when they see fit.) What he's referencing is the myriad of other additives that mainstream brands incorporate into their juice: chemical pesticides in the vineyards; artificial yeasts for jump-starting fermentation; wood chips to lend an oaky flavor; artificial tannins in white powdered form; color compounds; even plain white sugar. Of course, a natural winemaker would never touch these ingredients.
"We don’t need rules for vin naturel—it’s just about not using chemicals that cause harm, and using organic grapes. It’s not about an administration giving us rules, tasting the wines, and saying whether they are good or not," explains René Mosse, who makes ethereal chenin blanc and red blends in Anjou, in the Loire Valley. "For me, natural wine is wine made without any added yeast, or chemicals. We put just grapes and very, very little sulfur, and that’s it."
From the perspective of a sommelier, however, could a natural wine distinction help sales? Caleb Ganzer, head sommelier at New York's Compagnie des vins Surnaturel, says that a defined category is the wrong move. "Definitions and classifications will never guarantee quality. Just as not all certified organic wines are good, all certified natural wines, whatever that may mean, won't all be good either," he explains, adding, "It may help some people sell their wines easier, sure." But Ganzer prefers to judge a wine by its quality, based on knowledge about how it is made. "This will always take more work, but it will help me find the absolute best wines for my guest, and that's priority number one for me," he concludes.
On the retail side, an official "natural wine" category could help introduce customers to some of the world’s greatest, but lesser-known wines, which also happen to be natural, says Mitch Einhorn, owner of Chicago’s Lush Wine & Spirits. "We hand-sell wines, and try to expose people to regions they’ve never experienced before," he explains. "So, we have spent years trying to show people the joys of cru Beaujolais, grower Champagne, the Jura," he continues, naming French appellations where organic and natural production has been established for several decades or longer.
But many natural winemakers are emphatically against the idea of a natural wine label—and even protective of the somewhat exclusive culture around the wine they make. Scott Frank, who makes his Bow & Arrow wines from top biodynamic vineyards in a Portland, Oregon warehouse, says, "That’s like saying you’re going to make a category for punk rock, and some panel is going to adjudicate whether your band qualifies as punk rock."
Some of the skepticism toward the prospect of a natural wine category is related to the idea that France's appellation system itself, which is meant to distinguish high and low quality wines and protect tradition, is faulty. "Ninety percent of wine within the appellations, it’s disgusting. But, they are in the appellation," opines René Mosse. "If we trust in the same person who decides what goes into the appellation, to taste our wine, that’s not good."
As natural wine’s popularity continues to grow across the U.S., it will be interesting to see whether the movement to categorize it grows beyond France—although it seems that, for winemakers at least, labels are unnecessary.