Does natural wine need official regulation?
Simon looks into France's new charter for natural wines, and gets clarification from Jaques Carroget, its instigator.
Natural wine decryers have long held that the lack of official definition or regulation is its major Achilles heel - it's just too easy for bandwagon-jumpers, weekend warriors and the organic-when-I-feel-like-it brigade to join the club. Robert Parker famously talked of natural wine being exposed as a "fraud" in 2014 for this reason. Outposken blogger and marketeer Tom Wark has also frequently taken a hard line.
Now, for the first time in France, a natural wine label has gained recognition and regulation at government level. Step forward, Le Syndicat de défense des Vins Nature’l - a union created in 2019 by Loire winemakers Jacques Carroget (La Paonnerie), Sébastien David and colleagues. The syndicat will have its 12-point charter enforced by the French anti-fraud agency DGCCRF - the final approval was the result of a ten year process of discussion between Carroget, the INAO and the DGCCRF.
I asked Carroget how he felt about reaching this point. He said "We actually worked for 10 years which was positive, to be able to have multiple discussions to refine the charter. I am anxious for success with winegrowers, drinkers and wine merchants".
It is important to note that the labelling scheme is entirely voluntary. Winemakers working within the natural wine oeuvre are not under any obligation to apply for the label, or to change the ways that they currently produce or label their wines.
Some wine commentators (notably Jamie Goode and to a lesser extent Doug Wregg of Les Caves de Pyrene) have suggested that the natural wine world doesn't need certification of this kind. I don't agree. One of the biggest bugbears in natural wine is the lack of organic certification amongst growers - an honour system is all well and good if one is on first-name terms with the grower, but it doesn't help the end consumer very much. Your wine might have zero added sulphites and a funky label, but how do I know what goes on in your vineyard during a rainy year, if you decided that getting organic certification was just too much hassle?
This issue is point number one on the new charter (read on below for full details of the certification, and a photo of the full charter document).
Furthermore, as long as there is no regulation, wine consumers are going to be subjected to stuff like this - abuses of the term, in other words, which are likely to confuse and potentially disappointment wine drinkers. Doug Wregg posits in his typically erudite article that he has "an idea of how a natural wine is made and also what it tastes like" - thus implying that any kind of official stamp is redundant.
But he, I and others like us represent a small niche in the greater global wine world. A whole new generation of wine lovers has discovered natural wines, without necessarily having a full understanding of the production process or the cryptic nuances behind the labelling.
The biggest clue that a scheme like this is required is that it's been instigated and hard-fought over by winemakers themselves - not distributors, activists or journalists, but those who are at the sharp end. Sébastien David has a particular axe to grind - his Coëf 2016 Cabernet Franc was famously confiscated and destroyed by the Bureau d’Investigation des Enquêtes Vinicoles (BIEV)—the Bureau of Investigation of Wine Surveys in France. The issue was a level of volatile acidity deemed to be too high under EU wine laws, however the lab results were disputed by David.
The new charter would not necessarily have saved David's wine, but one can understand him wanting to have at least one system which is on his side.
What does the charter enforce? The very first item of business is that 100% of the grapes must be certified organic, or in the second year of the three year conversion to organic process. Hallelujah. This is probably the most important part of the whole document.
The following requirements are: manual harvesting, only indigenous yeasts, no filtration or fining, no other "brutale" manipulations such as thermovinification or reverse osmosis. There are also conditions to do with labelling and provision of the entire charter document at tasting events. It's all eminently sensible, and in line with what any natural wine fan would expect and want.
The charter does have some wobbles. The wording about sulphites is confusing to say the least. Many have interpreted it as meaning that up to 30mg/L SO2 can be added (but only after fermentation).
I checked this detail with Jacques. The actual (intended) meaning is that the total level of sulphites (including naturally occurring sulphites due to fermentation and any additions) must not be higher than 30mg/L. This puts the charter in line with one of the most respected private natural wine organisations in France, L'Association des Vins Naturels.
As some have commented, there's a surprising reference to sulphuric acid (H2SO4) when talking about the total level of sulphites. This appears to be a throwback to the French habit of using H2SO4 to measure the total level of sulphites in wine.
I asked Jacques why he had chosen to create a brand new institution, rather than working with one of the established growers associations such as the aforementioned AVN or Vins S.A.I.N.S. He pointed out that "we are a union, everyone who respects the statutes has the possibility of becoming a member, we are not in competition [with these associations] - we defend them!"
Two subtly different labels are provided for growers to put on their bottles - the basic label is the "Vin Méthode Nature", then there's the "Vin Méthode Nature Sans Sulfites Ajoutes" which is pretty self explanatory. I like this approach. There are many situations where a wine might benefit from a minute dose at bottling, especially if it's going to be drunk within the first year or two of its life.
As someone who is exceptionally sensitive to mousiness, I'd rather have a stable wine with 30mg/L total sulphites that remains drinkable for more than the first hour after opening, than indulge the winemaker's religious dogma that no sulphites shall pass.
Around 100 winemakers are set to use the labelling scheme for their 2019 vintages. Carroget himself confirmed that he will be labelling a wide selection of his wines: Prologue rouge and rosé, Simplement gamay, Voilà le gros lot, Veighes and Rien que melon. Whilst initially limited to French winemakers, the scheme is set to include Italian and Spanish growers in the short-term. Currently, it will run for a trial period of three years before being re-evaluated.
Whilst the reach of the scheme may initially look small, it has the potential to become a watershed. For the first time, growers working with minimal intervention have the option of having their work validated by a third party - and thus their standards enforced.
This doesn't mean that everyone will use it. There are plenty of rebellious winemakers working under the natural wine banner who will take a Groucho Marx type stance - "I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member." And there are plenty of growers who don't need this or any other kind of labelling scheme to be able to sell their wine.
It is worth reflecting on what this charter doesn't tackle. It doesn't help those growers who continue to find their wines refused for regional appellations, on the basis of invented stylistic guidelines, cloudiness or wine with the wrong hue. It doesn't help consumers who, because of this, will still be faced with countless bottles that just say "Vin de France", with no clue as to the exact origin of the wine Yet, it signifies that the INAO is listening.
The approval of this charter is a massive step towards more general acceptance of natural wines, as a valid segment of French wine. They are no longer just something just to be legislated against, but now have a seat at the table.