« Natural » wines: time to stop posing and ripping off customers?

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David Cobbold
A few years ago, my excellent and esteemed colleague Hervé Lalau wrote on this site an article in which he claimed that one should be tolerant with those who use terms such as « natural » wine (the inverted commas are intentional!), but that the legislator should step in with some form of qualification of this strange and ill-defined expression.

Although I  concur with some of his points here (article in French), I do beg to differ with others and in particular with his conclusion. In addition, I do not think that any official definition of this, in my opinion, unwarranted term as applied to wine will ever be forthcoming.

No clear definition for "natural wine"

Whichever way one turns this question, the problem of a clear definition arises. Does « natural wine » or « vin nature »mean wines with no added sulphur, little added sulphur (and how much is little?) no added substances at all during the wine-making process or only certain added substances (and which ones and why?), not to mention what agronomic practices are allowed and why. This alone means that I cannot see everyone concerned ever agreeing on what the expression should clearly designate, or even in what sense the wines thus designated differ from what is already covered by many other designations (and there are too many of these).

According to what I have recently heard (and one must beware of hearsay, I know) the INAO (the French body that governs all geographically designated wines in France) has refused to attempt an official definition of « vin nature ». I think that they are very wise in this instance. When one looks at the nebulous group composed by those who frequently use this term, one is reminded of numerous political parties who, as soon as they have been constituted, immediately begin to sub-divide themselves into splinter groups and fight amongst themselves. They are born to disagree, with anyone and everyone.

There is however another, perhaps more fundamental and philosophical issue that underlies this question. Is nature actually « good »? I feel that the answer must be that such a notion is meaningless. How and why should one attempt to apply moral values to an area which is not linked to such an exclusively human approach. Nature is, for sure, in its immense complexity, but it is definitely amoral. Now I fully realise that a lot of the motivation behind those wine producers who seek to make wines with little or no added substances involved in the process is totally honorable and linked to ecologically sound reasoning and, perhaps also, to some concerns about the health of consumers. On the latter point I find that they are often mistaken, but I will return to this in a while with a couple of examples. There is also, in many cases, the will to show the true character of their specific combination of particular grapes and a sense of place derived from where the grapes are grown (terroir, if you prefer). Even here, things can go seriously astray when deviations in the constitution of the wine, through undesirable yeast strains, bacteria, volatile acidity, re-fermentation or premature oxidation sets in. In such cases it becomes very hard to tell the grape variety or even the origin of the wine, since the defects simply dominate all the rest.

Laissez faire is not necessarily the way to go

Of course we can all agree that everything possible must be done to improve the health and vitality of soils, water tables, plants, animals and human beings by thinking carefully about what we do, how we do it and the substances that we use in agriculture. But I am not convinced that some form of laissez faire is necessarily the way to go.

Take the case of wines with no added sulphur (which, by the way, is a « natural » product as part of the earth’s crust). There are some very good ones and even some that can stand the test of time, as I was able to note again recently when tasting two wines from the Gamay grape and the Loire’s Touraine region. Here, the producer Henry Marionnet has been making a wine called Premières Vendanges with no added sulphur for 25 years and I recently had the opportunity to taste both the latest vintage (2017) and the first one. The young wine was deliciously bright and clear-cut in its fruit, light yet ripe and full of energy. The older wine was still alive, mellowed by age and with the fruit transformed into something harder to define, but still very drinkable. So it can be done, probably thanks to impeccable hygiene both in the vineyard and the winery, and maybe some other techniques, but I am not into this producer’s secrets which belong to him.

On the other hand, last week I tasted two so-called « natural » wines that I show above and below (Marionnet does not use this term by the way). They were both totally undrinkable and could even represent some minor inconveniences to one’s health if one were to consume what might be considered as « reasonable » quantities. They were purchased in a Paris wine shop that specializes in these so-called « natural » wines and my colleague Sébastien bought them to illustrate for a class the differences between a well-made wine that tasted good and other wines, at similar price points and of the same region/grape combination, that presented clear defects that made the tasting experience unpleasant.

Both these wines were so seriously deviant that I would defy anyone who is not a total masochist to like them, or even finish a glass! And yet they are on sale, and at prices which set them well above the average prices paid for wines of their region or category. There is a problem here, and it is one that should also be linked to health considerations. I do not think that these bottles have been in any way controlled by fraud or health inspectors. If a retail shop was to sell a foodstuff with such flagrant defects, I am sure that they would be prosecuted. Why is it that some wine shops feel free to sell any old rubbish?

A form of « political » statement

Which brings me to my final point. Not all, but quite a lot of these wines are clearly intended as a form of « political » statement. They are saying, or rather shouting, « we are different, we are rebels: we look different, we taste different, we don’t care about any rules and we are therefore free ». Well they are not that free, they are just posing, and they should have a bit more consideration for their customers upon whom they depend for a living.


About the author

David Cobbold (Connaître & Apprécier, Académie du Vin de Paris, In Vino Sud Radio…) is the most french among the English wine writers or vice and versa. In 2011 he received the Wine Blog Trophy for his blopg "More than just Wine". He was an important contributor to the 2016 edition of the Grand Larousse du Vin.