The Great Debate: Natural Wine with Andrew Jefford and Simon J Woolf
Kevin Day Wine Education & Careers
Wine is full of spirited debates, but few can argue that any subject matter generates more intensity these days than natural wine. Should sulphur be allowed or not? Do natural wines reveal terroir better than conventional wines? Has natural wine changed our notion of flaws?
Perhaps most controversial of all is the definition of natural wine in the first place.
These questions are constantly challenging everyone from wine critics and sommeliers to casual students of wine. We decided to bridge the topic with Wine Scholar Guild’s Academic Advisor and long-time columnist for Decanter and World of Fine Wine, Andrew Jefford, as well as Simon J Woolf, the noted natural-wine writer and author of Amber Revolution: How the World Learned to Love Orange Wine.
Please note that the full conversation is now available for free!
Kevin Day: Let’s start with a foundation. Despite recent news of the Vin Méthode Nature charter in France, on a global level, there is still no definitive definition of what natural wine is, and one could even argue that the Vin Méthode Nature only goes so far. So, how do you define natural wine? Let’s start with Simon.
[Natural wine] is not a religion, a creed or a caste — at least it shouldn’t be.
– Simon Woolf
Simon Woolf: I’d actually like to start by defining what it’s not. “Natural” is not a style, a taste or a smell. It doesn’t mean a cloudy, cidery-smelling liquid brimming with volatility, neither does it represent a star-bright, manicured creation that feels polished to perfection. Paradoxically, it could be either of those things, or neither. It’s not a religion, a creed or a caste — at least it shouldn’t be.
The term “natural wine” for me is just a convenient short-form — a codeword to signify to consumers, retailers and other interested parties that the wine was made with the minimum possible intervention in both vineyard and cellar. It is indicative of an overarching philosophy or set of ideals that the winemaker/grower adheres to: to let nature rather than technology take center stage, and through doing so to reconnect with the idea of wine as an honest beverage, rather than status object, investment instrument or supermarket commodity.
What this means in practice is that farming will adhere (at minimum) to organic or biodynamic principles (so absolutely no synthetic inputs to the vineyard) and the fermentation will be spontaneous, without any corrections or additions at any stage. It will be unfiltered and unfined, with either very little or no added sulphites. Neutral ageing vessels will be preferred, and the wine won’t be manipulated in any other way that would dramatically change the raw material — so definitely no chaptalization, no reverse osmosis, no blocked malolactic fermentation, no aggressively controlled cold fermentation.
The aim of all this is to produce what Filipa Pato would call “a wine without makeup” — an honest wine which tries to reflect its terroir, in all its glory but also all its shortcomings. If it’s a lean vintage and the wine ferments to dryness with 10.5% ABV, so be it. If the soils and the planted grape varieties produce a wine with green pepper and mineral overtones, rather than abundant fruit, this is what we want to taste in the glass. Rough edges, idiosyncrasies and even a little “dirt” or “funk” are part of the proposition.
In terms of taste, natural wines for me often feel more alive and expressive in the glass than their mainstream counterparts. Common traits such as earlier harvesting, higher natural acidity levels and little or no oak influence translate into wines which are joyful, easy to drink and gentle on one’s system. This at least is why I love drinking them.
KD: And Andrew? What is your definition?
Anything which is not ‘natural’ must be ‘unnatural.’ This is clearly pejorative and misleading, and this implied assumption of moral superiority is one of the biggest problems with this wine category.
Andrew Jefford: I think what most people understand by “natural wine” is a wine “with nothing added.” So that is what I think the definition should be. No added yeast, no added sulphur, no added anything, at any stage.
But since we are at the beginning of the discussion, perhaps I could raise some terminology issues? Nature in French means plain, unflavoured, as it comes, “undressed;” a yaourt nature is the unflavoured sort, as opposed to raspberry, apricot or vanilla yogurts. A better English-language equivalent of vin nature would therefore, for me, be “plain wine” or “unadjusted wine.”
“Natural” in English is quite different and (as has been endlessly discussed elsewhere) problematic because of the implication that only this sort of wine is “natural” — meaning “existing in or derived from nature.” Anything which is not “natural” must be “unnatural.” This is clearly pejorative and misleading, and this implied assumption of moral superiority is one of the biggest problems with this wine category. It means that you can never adequately define “natural wine” because the term itself is a non-starter; it misleads.
In my view, it would be much better to call natural wine “no-additive wine” or “zero-additive wine.” Members of groupings or associations who wish to adhere to more stringent rules and practices (like outlawing cold fermentation or the blocking of malo) would then be free to do so, and use their own organizational logos on labels. But everyone could understand and get behind a “no-added-anything” definition.
We do need to define the term, and we have to remember that a definition is something that can be chewed over by administrators, then chewed over by politicians, then chewed over by lawyers, and then chewed over by judges — and that comes out at the other end in one piece. It has to be tough and durable and fit for purpose.
There is still a potential policing problem here in that I doubt you can analytically distinguish between added sulphur and that which might be spontaneously generated during the course of fermentation — though there is presumably an upper limit to what might be spontaneously generated.
I like what you’ve said, Simon, and I think you explain the attraction of the style for its adepts very well, but for me it adds up to a kind of motherhood-and-apple-pie overview, and I don’t see much of it coming unscathed through the mastication process.
SW: I agree it’s certainly logical to start with dictionary definitions. But in my opinion, the market understands something slightly different and more broad by the phrase “natural wine” in 2020.
Obviously, if one looks at the movement’s origins, they did indeed lie in making wine without added yeasts or sulphur — Chauvet, Neauport et al — but I think it has grown and broadened to encompass more than just the spurning of additives and must corrections.
My biggest issue with defining natural wine purely as “wine with nothing added” (which I do accept is the best translation of the French “vin nature”) is that it ignores a vital point — the farming. Pretty much all major proponents of natural wine agree that working in a conscious and sensitive way in the vineyards is vital for the production of balanced, terroir wines. Furthermore, I’d warrant that a very high proportion of natural wine drinkers equate this movement with sustainability and ecology — and expect that these wines are made with adherence to organic or biodynamic standards.
Perhaps we can say that vin nature should also mean “nothing added” in the vineyards as well as in the cellar. That gets us somewhat closer to what I’d consider to be a satisfactory definition.
I’ve seen plenty of major wineries roll out “no added sulphur” ranges and so forth, and to me this is largely meaningless. It is mostly in the territory of fads and market fashions. If we want to get closer to the true ethic of 99% of natural wine producers, the definition has to include mention both of farming methods and the removal of other manipulative practices in the winery.
I didn’t even shake the hornet's nest of manual harvesting — this is also usually included in any definition of natural wine. And then there are those natural wine producers who are experimenting with “no till” and no pruning (Meinklang and Franz Strohmeier being two examples). The movement encompasses a whole raft of developing ideas.
Definitions certainly need to be watertight. But so far every single definition created by a voluntary winemakers’ association (Vinnatur, vini veri, Raw wine, AVN, Vins S.A.I.N.S and the new French charter) is much broader than simply specifying a lack of additives. So I don’t think a definition purely on this basis would carry any weight, or speak to current followers/supporters of the scene.
KD: What do you both think of the recent Vin Méthode Nature definition, and do you think other countries should adopt the same charter?
From the moment humans domesticated alcoholic fermentation, they have been intervening in order to preserve wine for longer than nature intended, or to make it taste more pleasant than it might otherwise do by blending or by adding flavourings. Modern “unnatural” wine as drunk by most of us today is probably the least trafficked and least unpleasant wine in human history. This historical assertion just doesn’t hold up to academic scrutiny.
AJ: I like the fact that the Charter is called Vin Méthode Nature — as any translation of that phrase would clearly move away from “Natural Wine” to emphasise a certain sort of method. That’s a good idea.
But then the Charter turns very hazy about nomenclature. We have:
- Vin Méthode Nature
- Le Vin “Nature”
- Le Vin “Naturel”
- Vins Nature’l (whatever that nuance might mean)
- Notre vin sans papiers.
So which is it? You have to decide on a term and provide a coherent argument for that term.
I also take exception to
“... il s’en fait, il s’en vend et il s’en boit depuis plus de 8000 ans. Or, aujourd’hui, en France, en Europe et partout dans le monde, ce vin originel et original n’existe pas.” Translation: [Natural wine] has been made, sold and drunk for more than 8,000 years. But, today, in France, in Europe and everywhere in the world, this original and unique (original) wine doesn’t (officially) exist ...]
This claim is not true, as anyone who had read Uncorking the Past by Patrick McGovern or some of Rod Phillips’s books (or Hugh Johnson’s The Story of Wine) would know. Almost all the earliest alcoholic beverage residues from ancient pottery analysed and dated by Patrick McGovern and his colleagues have proved to be either mixed beverages (usually a melange of grape wine, beer and mead) or flavoured wines (often with resin or pitch); the 2018 finds in Georgia were unusual precisely because they weren’t mixed beverages. From the moment humans domesticated alcoholic fermentation, they have been intervening in order to preserve wine for longer than nature intended, or to make it taste more pleasant than it might otherwise do by blending or by adding flavourings. Modern “unnatural” wine as drunk by most of us today is probably the least trafficked and least unpleasant wine in human history. This historical assertion just doesn’t hold up to academic scrutiny.
After that ... it’s obviously up to the Association to put whatever it wants into its own Charte d’Engagement, but some of it seems strange to me. Clause 4 flatly says ‘Aucun intrant n’est ajouté’ (no outside agricultural inputs are allowed), which would seem to me to rule out any purchased compost or biodynamic preparation. Clause 7 says that small quantities of pre-bottling sulphur are allowed, which goes against the spirit of this kind of wine being “no added anything.”
Personally, I cannot understand what might be “unnatural” about physical (as opposed to chemical) interventions (Clause 6: Aucun recours aux techniques physiques brutales et traumatisantes ... n’est permis), given that no wine can ever be made without physical interventions from the moment you cut the grapes, brutally and traumatisingly, from the mother vine. Some of these ‘brutal and traumatising’ physical interventions are mentioned but the list is non-exhaustive and tails off.
And I continue to be troubled by the assertion of “natural.” What is natural about a tractor or plastic picking boxes, used by all? What is natural about a glass bottle, used by all? What is natural about a truck driving pallets of wine from artisanal Loire valley wineries to Ste Nazaire, where they are loaded into refrigerated containers and hauled off in a ship the size of a block of flats, powered by the world’s most polluting fossil fuel, all the way to Singapore, where that wine will be kept under air-conditioning for the three months which will elapse before the bottles are opened by folks who have just stepped off flights from Sydney or New York in a natural wine bar? To fret about 10 mg sulphur added to 75 cl of red wine alongside this colossal mountain of unnaturalness and environmental wreckage seems surreal and symptomatic of a loss of proportion. You don’t just drink the wine when you drink wine; you drink the packaging and the transport, too. Should the Charter not address this?
I don’t know, Simon, and you will probably feel that these considerations are way beyond the brief of the movement as a whole — but these are the things that trouble me.
SW: I agree that this charter is far from perfect, and that it’s imprecisely written in places. It is extraordinary that the Syndicat worked on this with the INAO for 10 years before it was approved. And yet we still have confusing and vague wording in places. The worst example is the bit about sulphites. I spoke with Jacques Carroget (one of the main forces behind this charter) and he confirmed that the intention is to limit total sulphites to 30mg/L, however this is not clear at all from the way the document is worded.
That said, I think you are getting way too hung up about semantics when we talk about “natural.” Names and terminology develop organically through usage. We are no more in control of how people use the phrase “natural wine” than we are for terms such as “fine wine” or “pet nat” — both slippery concepts which can mean dramatically different things depending on context.
You make valid points about particular practices and interventions not being very “natural” — and I am with you 100% on the elephant in the room of global shipping. But again, when we talk about “natural wine,” I assert that it is a convenient shorthand. Those of us who want to drink or find these wines can use it as a codeword to get what we want in a restaurant or a wine shop.
Would you also complain that “vin doux naturel” is a stupid name? It actually means almost the exact opposite of “naturel,” yet we all know what kind of wine to expect if we see this term on a wine list or a bottle. It’s a convenient frame of reference even if it’s a stupid name.
AJ: You’re right, Simon: it is a stupid name!
SW: But let’s talk about the specifics of this charter. I see it as a sticking-plaster for a growing problem — when the concept of natural wine is completely unregulated, the chance that bandwagon-jumpers play fast and loose and pull the wool over consumers’ eyes is high. Right now, anyone can say their wine is natural or “nature.” It is then open to question what that means in each individual case. There is an utterly mass-produced five euro wine on the shelves of Dutch supermarkets which proudly proclaims “this is just a natural wine” on its label. It is of course not remotely “nature” or “natural” in any sense that we would understand.
This charter provides a mechanism for natural wine producers to effectively self-certify (it is not much more than that, given that the Syndicat and the French anti-fraud agency DGCCRF only warrant to audit 10% of applications) to say that they are doing what they claim. I think this is a positive step — if nothing else because it responds to the oft-made claims from the wine industry that “natural wine” is a fraudulent concept.
I was particularly happy to see that organically grown grapes are number one on the list. I’ve already said this, but there is nothing more important than the farming standards. If the grapes were sprayed with glyphosates, I really couldn’t give a damn whether there are 10mg/L or 100mg/L of sulphites in the wine — I don’t want to drink it.
These are baby steps, so I don’t think that a charter such as this can tackle international supply chains, the use of tractors in the vineyard or issues with receptacles and closures. That said, these are hot topics within the community. Natural winemakers are often the ones pushing the idea of bag-in-box or other bulk wine shipping options that are greener. Many are looking at how they take the tractor out of the equation and replace it with manual work or horses. I know a winemaker here in Netherlands who says his focus is selling wine in his local catchment area, even though he is constantly asked if he wants to export.
To return to the original question, I don’t think this charter should be applied in other countries. It’s too imperfect, too vague in its “Frenchness.” The definitions from the AVN or Raw wine are more precise.
The Cape and Ontario also now have pretty solid definitions for what they see as “non-standard” (non-interventionist/natural/skin fermented white) wines that didn’t previously fit into their classifications. Perhaps it’s just that they are written in English, but they seem more cogent to me.
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In the full transcript, you can read Andrew and Simon’s opinions on
- France’s new Vin Méthode Nature charter
- The politics of natural wine and whether large wineries are even eligible for the category
- The nature of terroir with skin-contact “orange” wines
- Whether the notion of “typicity” in appellation wines is a hindrance to natural wine, or an outdated way of looking at terroir
- And the proper thresholds for sulphur usage in wine.