Natural v industrial wine
Readers of our website, know that I follow the issue of natural wine closely so last week’s news that France has just allowed a new category of wines “Vin Méthode Nature” to be introduced is quite a development. The brainchild of two natural wine producers in the Loire, to qualify as a natural method wine, the grapes have to be certified as organic and be hand-picked. Winemaking should only use natural yeasts and no additions including sugar, acid, water etc. and should be made any technical changes such as reverse osmosis, filtration or must heating.
This is the first and therefore quite an important fundamental step. Only 50 producers have been approved for the 2019 vintage but as you can imagine, many more are waiting in the wings. But as always with the natural wine debate, the solution throws up many more questions regarding sulphur levels, yeast additions, cooling the must (also essentially changing the style of the wine) than it answers and while I caution against industrialized wines made more in the cellar than in the vineyard, I deplore the “holier than thou”, strident protestations of the natural wine movement, that threaten to derail the evident good that has been done in making wine growing so much more sustainable and organic in recent years.
For those who are not subscribers of Jancis Robinson’s website, I am sending you an article written by a well-known wine consultant, John Barker on this debate. It sets out the historical context and then attempts to explain how the waters have become muddied in recent years. It is quite long but it goes to answer so many of the natural wine questions that I thought that you would enjoy reading it. I hope you can take the time in these quarantine times to read it this is one of the most lucid texts I have read on the subject.
© Fiona Morrison M.W.
Nature is not an absolute or fixed concept. What we perceive as natural is a reflection of how we see the world and where our interests lie.
John Barker is a New Zealand-based lawyer and consultant. He has a long involvement in international wine law and policy, including as the first New World candidate for the role of OIV Director General. Here he puts natural wine in historical context.
What is wine? By and large, we take it for granted that wine is made from the fermentation of grapes. Yet throughout the history of wine there has been a tension between the paradigm of wine as a natural product of the vine and the pragmatic recognition that certain additions or processes may be needed to ensure that wine reaches the consumer in a palatable state.
This tension lies squarely at the heart of contemporary debates surrounding what is called ‘natural wine’. As much as it is a modern counter-cultural movement, ‘natural wine’ is equally an extension of an age-old debate about the identity of wine: what is wine and who defines it?
wine’ as a concept makes strong claims about what is natural in wine. Opponents argue that the concept is ill-defined and that, in any event, wine is already natural. Both sides rely on their own set of rather opaque assumptions about the meaning of ‘nature’.
Everybody knows what ‘nature’ means, but most would struggle to define it concisely. We might talk about the earth and the sky, the trees and the birds, but conceptually it’s difficult to pin down.
Nature exists in contrast to human intervention. What is not human, what humans do not understand or control, is ‘nature’. Or, to be more precise, what we perceive as not being subject to human understanding or control is considered to be ‘nature’. Very often we are content to see things as natural that we know are created by people.
For example, an elaborate garden planted on land that was once primordial forest is the result of many layers of human intervention. But the garden has been designed to present a variety of naturally occurring phenomena (the blooming of flowers, the green leaves of trees) and we selectively focus on the ‘nature’ that is in front of us without delving deeper.So it is with wine. Everyone is aware that wine is a product made by people and consumed by people. But we have ‘naturalised’ certain aspects of its production to the extent that they have become almost invisible as human interventions.
Of course grapevines, rock and soil, sunlight and rain, microbes and fermentation are all naturally occurring; but they are not wine. Wine is what people make of those things; what people have made of those things over millennia.
Nevertheless, the idea of nature in wine is important – it underpins how we think about wine. Wine must come from grapes – which are natural – and therefore wine is natural. Wine derives its distinctive characteristics from terroir – which is not human-made – therefore these characteristics are natural and not artificial.
Because the idea of nature in wine is so important, saying that a wine is ‘natural’ is a way of legitimising it – of saying that this is real wine. On the other hand, saying that certain winemaking practices and additives are not ‘natural’ – that they are ‘industrial’ – serves to de-legitimise a product.
But nature is not an absolute or fixed concept. What we perceive as natural is a reflection of how we see the world and where our interests lie. So claims about what is ‘natural’ in wine are really claims about a wider set of values, beliefs and understandings. Equally, they are claims about who should be entitled to benefit economically from the use of the name ‘wine’.
Distinguishing between ‘natural’ and ‘other’ in this way can be seen as either a front of resistance against destructive economic forces or a border that excludes innovators and popularisers. It all depends on who is drawing the line and which side you are standing on.
The paradigm of wine as a natural product made solely from grapes is of ancient provenance. For example, in the first century AD the writer Columella expresses the view that: ‘the best wine is one that can be aged without any preservative; nothing must be mixed with it which might obscure its natural taste. For the most excellent wine is one which has given pleasure by its own natural qualities.’ (De Re Rustica, Book 12)
At the same time, this paradigm has always contended with the commercial reality that certain additions and interventions may be required to ensure that wine is drinkable when it reaches the consumer.
After dedicating a few lines to describing his ideal, Columella goes on to describe in detail the many practices and additions that are recommended to preserve wine, remedy or disguise faults and improve the flavour.
Some of these have modern analogues (eg the addition of sweet grape must concentrated by heating, today's RCGM), while others seem strange to our modern understanding (eg the addition of seawater). Which goes to show that ideas about which interventions are acceptable and which might be considered adulteration or worse can vary considerably over time.
The Loi Griffe
Modern technology and tastes may have superseded most of Columella’s winemaking advice, but the tension between the natural paradigm and the need for pragmatic interventions continues to resonate.
The contemporary definition of wine in most wine-producing countries owes a debt to France’s Loi Griffe (Griffe's Law) of 1889, which prohibited any product from presenting itself as wine unless it was: ‘the exclusive product of the fermentation of fresh grapes or the juice of fresh grapes’.
This definition eventually came to form the basis of the definition of wine within the European Union and many other countries.
The Loi Griffe (named for a senator from the Hérault department in the south of France) was enacted against the background of the phylloxera epidemic that had progressively devastated the vineyards of France for the previous two decades. Phylloxera, a species of aphid that kills grapevines as it feeds off their roots, probably arrived in France on rootstock imported from North America in the mid 19th century. By the late 1880s, phylloxera had reduced France’s total wine production from a high of 84,500,000 hl in 1875 to a low of 23,400,000 hl.
The resulting shortage of wine saw a dramatic rise in the production of piquettes, raisin wines and blatantly fraudulent concoctions. Piquettes, or sugar wines, were made by fermenting sugar and water together with pomace, the residue left over from the pressing of the grapes. The sugar used for this production came from the beet fields of northern France, or even further afield in Belgium.
Raisin wine was made from raisins imported in vast quantities from Greece and elsewhere, treated in a similar way to piquettes. Also common were counterfeit concoctions of colours, acids and flavours given a boost from alcohol distilled from northern beet sugar.
These types of products were not new, but they were now competing directly with ‘natural’ wine at lower prices – further threatening the livelihoods of France’s phylloxera-struck vignerons. As a result of political pressure from the vignerons, the Loi Griffe was enacted as one of series of measures to address the mounting crisis.
The law did not immediately outlaw piquettes, raisin wines or artificial wines. Instead, it forbade them to be labelled as wine. But in doing so, the French government drew a line not only between what could and could not be considered authentic ‘wine’, but also between who did and did not have economic control over the valuable name of ‘wine’.
The Loi Griffe mandated that wine must come from a vineyard and nowhere else. It was not a product that could be fabricated at will and in any place using manufactured ingredients. It was a product that came from the vignerons, who could not be excluded by the merchants and brokers. More subtly, it implied that French wine must come from a vineyard in France and not be the product of Greek raisins or Belgian beet sugar.
French wine law takes shape
While the Loi Griffe was a decisive regulatory intervention in defining ‘wine’, it did not put an end to the political - and sometimes physical - battles that continued to rage around the identity of wine in France through the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
For many years after 1889, France’s wine sector remained in turmoil. A complex mix of factors – including fraud, overproduction of low-quality wine, expansion of Algerian production and diminishing exports – exacerbated the woes of the vignerons and ignited protests and strikes.
Fraud – from piquettes, raisin wines, fake wines and false representations of origin – became a major target for protestors. ‘Vive le vin naturel’ was the rallying cry of the struggling producers.
Documents of the time emphasise the need to protect the natural qualities of wine, to maintain a link to terroir, to grapes, and to the experience of the vigneron. This was presented as an opposition to ‘industrialisation’, which was seen as demeaning to the product and its social environment.
These social and economic forces – and the discourse of natural, loyal and authentic versus industrial, disloyal and fraudulent that accompanied them – provided the impetus for a series of new laws intended to eliminate fraud and unfair competition and support the livelihoods of the vignerons.
By 1935, the essential architecture of France’s wine regulation was in place with the appellation d’origine contrôlée at its pinnacle and the lowly vin de consommation courante at its base. Over time, this also came to provide the framework for the rules governing wine across the entire European Union – and ultimately to exert a strong influence on the identity and understanding of wine throughout the world.
The definition of ‘wine’ and additives
Despite defining wine as the ‘the exclusive product of the fermentation of fresh grapes or the juice of fresh grapes’, the Loi Griffe and its legal successors did not outlaw the use of additives for winemaking. That was never the intent. Vignerons still needed to be able to make wine in the way that they were used to making it and to compensate for the vagaries of nature.
In fact, throughout the period when France’s wine laws were evolving, the list of permitted additives and practices was being expanded and refined. By the time the wine laws were codified in 1936, a broadly familiar set of practices had been authorised.
This included: addition of sulphur dioxide as a preservative; filtration and clarification; removal of colour with activated carbon; and addition of tannin and citric acid for specified purposes. The rules allowing the addition of sugar to grape must used to produce ‘wine’ (chaptalisation) were being codified even as piquettes were being outlawed.
The law of 28 July 1912 specifically prohibited ‘manipulations and practices that have the objective of modifying the natural state of wine, with the goal either to mislead the purchaser as to the substantial qualities or origin of the product, or to conceal their alteration...’
What is interesting here is the implication that permitted winemaking practices are not considered as modifying the natural state of the wine. In other words, the legal permission ‘naturalised’ these practices. This says a lot about how closely the law came to be associated with the idea of wine as a ‘natural’ product.
Wine and nature today
Rules and ideas about wine have continued to evolve significantly over the years. But it is interesting to observe how persistent the discourse of natural versus industrial remains as the dynamics of the global wine sector have shifted.
When production in the so-called New World first began to compete with European wine in traditional markets, it was often branded as ‘industrial’, as opposed to the more authentic and ‘natural’ approach of Europe. This was a response to an economic threat, but it equally represented a genuine fear for the identity of a product that had become inextricably bound up in the legal system. If the law in the EU defined the limits of real (meaning natural and authentic) wine, products emanating from a different legal system must by definition be ‘industrial’, it was thought.
The recent ‘natural wine’ movement also employs the natural/industrial dichotomy, although it reflects a different set of forces. The movement arises from a generation that has largely been excluded from the accepted ‘greats’ of the wine world – whether as producers who cannot afford to buy land in prestigious regions or as consumers who cannot afford to buy the wines.
At the same time, they reject the perceived loss of individuality and social/environmental degradation that has resulted from the scaling-up and standardisation of wine production techniques in recent decades. Instead of relying on the law to draw the line between natural and industrial, many in the natural wine movement view the law as serving the interests of ‘industrial’ producers. What the law defines as ‘wine’ is simply not natural enough.
Using ‘natural’ in this way is about staking out an area apart from these social and economic forces – claiming a space outside the mainstream. It does this often by working with previously unfashionable regions and varieties, insisting on practices that deny the possibility of large-scale commercial production, eg excluding the use of preservatives and other additives, and rejecting existing conventions on taste and style. The irony is that the more successful this strategy has become, the closer it has moved to the mainstream and the more attention these regions, varieties and styles have attracted from larger commercial interests.
While ‘natural wine’ has become increasingly recognised around the world, its meaning has continued to be contested. Almost since its inception, there have been disputes about how to define the concept and whether or not there should be a formally enshrined set of rules.
Far from being a homogeneous grouping with a shared manifesto, it is a mosaic of factions and practices, many of whose proponents have in fact sought to distance themselves from the word ‘natural’. Despite these contests, the term ‘natural wine’ has entered the mainstream as the umbrella term for these various interests.
As is to be expected with any challenge to the status quo, the movement also has many detractors who dispute the right of the movement to determine what is or is not ‘natural’. For them all wine is ‘natural’ and perhaps wines that display what are conventionally considered to be faults should not be dignified with the name ‘wine’ at all.
So we come back to the age-old debate. Who decides what is real wine and what is the manipulated substitute? In whose interests is that decision made? Perhaps all that can be said for certain is that as long as there is change in the wine sector – be it generational, economic or technological – this debate will continue in one form or another.