When is Wine Natural?

I’m married, but good wine is always trying to seduce me. The latest chapter in this unfolding story of seduction is about natural wine.

Wait a sec, some of  you might be saying. There’s no such thing as wine that can really be called “natural.”  British wine expert Robert Joseph would agree. He was quoted in an Agence France-Presse article recently: “These are all things that don’t exist – natural wines, the tooth fairy and Father Christmas.” A statement like that can be a downer at Christmas parties, to be sure, and should not be muttered within earshot of young children.

Others, possibly more naive than Mr. Joseph, argue that all wine is natural. “Wine is just made of grapes, right?” they contend. You might be shocked to learn, as I was, that big-time wine production has more in common with factory farming than a small family business, and factory farming means pesticides, chemicals and lots of other stuff in your wine besides grapes.

If you already eat organically, you might want to try going organic with your wine, but you have to sort out your definition of what a healthy wine might be.  There are a lot of terms out there: natural wine, biodynamic, sustainably-produced, and of course, organic.

Working with the Organic Wine Exchange, my communications agency recently commissioned an online survey to find out what people know about terms like organic, biodynamic and sustainably-produced wine. Thirty percent of respondents were “totally confused” about those definitions, 48% “kind of understood,” and 22% said they “totally get it.” That adds up to a lot of confusion, and wine makers, distributors and natural wine advocates are looking for solutions.

Edward Field, a wine importer/exporter based in Spain who gets organic wine onto the shelves at Whole Foods and Trader Joes, is candid about the public’s confusion about the terms attached to natural wine.

“Our thinking has been to work with the one word that’s out there that actually has a third party certification. In our case, it’s organic,” he told me in a recent phone interview.  Ed is passionate about wine that is “a pure expression of the grape” without any added substances.

That definition stuck in my mind, because for wine to truly express itself, it might not need to be organic. Recently in New York, I sat down with Alice Feiring, author of Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally. Alice is known as an articulate and opinionated advocate for the natural wine movement. She has described natural wine as wine with “nothing added, nothing taken away.” We spoke about people who care passionately about how their food got to their table, but don’t put much thought into how their wine got into their glass.

Most wine labels in the United States do not include an ingredients list so most people assume their wine is “just grapes.”

Jenny Lefcourt is an importer and distributor of natural wines. Her company, Jenny & Francois, was one of the pioneers who first brought these wines to the US. Though when I met with her in New York, she said the market has “exploded the past five years for natural wines,” she added, “what’s strange is that so many people who do care about what they’re eating don’t ask those questions of wine.”

People who eat organically certainly say they are aware of the harmful effects of factory farming.  As one of our survey respondents put it, “Grapes take on massive amounts of pesticides, and wine is made from grapes, so, it seems that if I were to drink wine that was made from grapes that are organically grown, I would not ingest pesticides like I would if I were to drink wine made with conventionally-grown grapes.”

Yet lack of information on wine labels makes the organic or natural wine choice difficult for many.  Thirty seven percent of our survey respondents said the label helps them choose a variety they like (Chardonnay, Cabernet, etc). But 18 percent said they go by a friend’s recommendation; 15 percent are influenced by a positive review.

Everyone I spoke with agreed that when it comes to natural wines, an education initiative is in order, whether it comes from informative labeling or by a wine drinker starting a dialogue with knowledgeable folk in wine stores and tasting rooms.  In the meantime, I figure somebody should be able to explain what natural wine is. Jenny Lefcourt had a go at it when I spoke with her in New York.

“What we call natural wines or real wines are wines that are more than organic. They’re made from organically-produced grapes, and then in the cellar there’s no added yeast from a lab, there’s no added enzymes, there’s no added tartaric acid or sugar, there’s no reverse osmosis. There’s no new wood …. They’re just pure fermented grapes. Sometimes some sulfites are added to help the wine travel.”

Some purists would freak at the mere mention of sulphur being added to wine, and others of a more industrial bent would say that there’s no way to make wine without a little chemical help.

As I sort this through, I suggest you open a bottle you like and mull it over. That’s what I’m going to do as I continue this series.

This is the first in a multi-part series about natural wine. I’ll have more of my conversations with distributors, marketers and advocates in the next article, which will discuss what lessons the natural wine movement might take from the natural food movement. The online survey and campaign referred to in this article are being conducted by Red Cup Agency.