With a desire for healthy, sustainable food stimulating trends like the farm to table movement and Slow Food, natural wine is positioning itself as the perfect accompaniment. But according to some experts, the unregulated use of the term 'natural' is
misleading gullible consumers as well as polarising the wine trade.
"These are all things that don't exist - natural wines, the tooth fairy and Father Christmas," says Robert Joseph, a wine trade veteran who is one of the most prominent naysayers. Natural wine does not exist as a legal category in the European Union,
despite flourishing movements in Italy or France, the two biggest producers in the 27-nation bloc.
"At present, the compound noun 'vin naturel' (natural wine) has no definition on the national level," said Aubierge Mader, a spokeswoman for France's fraud protection agency (DGCCRF). Yet hundreds of wines today are advertised and sold as 'natural,' appealing to consumers on a variety of levels.
"I think consumers also respond favourably to the image of 'natural' wines as being not just more authentic, healthy or artisanal but also being fun, easy-drinking and separate from the pretensions of the wine elites," said David Lillie, owner of American retailer Chambers Street wines. Alice Feiring, author and de facto spokesperson for the natural wine movement, describes the loosely organised group's manifesto as "nothing added, nothing taken away."
Natural wine producers eschew synthetic chemicals and fertilisers, cultivated yeasts, corrections for acidity and sugar, fining and filtering. Purists reject sulphur dioxide, widely used to control oxidation in the wine-making process. The wines range from pristine expressions of terroir to cloudy, smelly, off-colour micro-bacterial disasters.
"Yes, they're a bit crazy sometimes and their flavours can be a bit challenging, but they are the sorts of wines that I like to pop the cork and drink," said Dr Jamie Goode, author of "Authentic Wine". "They've got personality."
Nor, supporters add, is there confusion on the part of the consumer. "In New York, the term is very well used and not at all confused," said Arnold Waldstein, a New York business strategist. "It creates interest."
But critics lambaste the 'naturalistas' - as they are known, on two fronts. First, the term 'natural' appears to undermine the integrity of wines not produced by naturalistas. "It's almost like by using the term natural, there is a subtle implication that the people who are not in this club, who are not making natural wine are somehow unnatural and that's a shame," admitted Goode.
"Even what we call industrial wine is still a pretty natural beverage." What really irks authorities and winegrowers, including conventional and organic producers, is that the term has no legal meaning, thus no accountability.
"It's meaningless nonsense," says one DGCCRF official. "Organic wine has a definition. Natural -- we don't know what that means, it's too vague. It could mislead the consumer."
In theory, anyone advertising their wine as 'natural' must be able to justify the term. But first, one must avoid confusion with existing wines which are legally entitled to use the term 'natural' — French fortified sweet wines (Vin Doux Naturel) for example.
On the French website www.vinsnaturels.fr, 15 natural wine fairs are listed between now and April 2013. Shops from Paris to Hong Kong to Copenhagen are listed as selling natural wine.
Last summer, Italian agricultural authorities descended upon Enoteca Bulzoni in Rome and fined owner Alessandro Bulzoni for selling 'natural' wine, which has no legal certification. Undeterred, Bulzoni paid the fine and continues to sell natural wine.
But some retailers like Lillie, while fans of the high-quality producers, only half-jokingly referred to the products as "wines formerly known as natural." Winemakers are also rethinking how to speak to consumers without misleading them.
"All of the honest winemakers, trying to make a minimum intervention wine, we still don't know what to call our wine," said Zeynep Arca Salliel, a partner in Arcadia vineyards, in Thrace, Turkey. 'Low-manipulation' and 'light-handed' wines are entering the lexicon.
"We call our style 'light-handed winemaking'," said Salliel, who practices sustainable viticulture and uses gentle,
gravity-led vinification. "We stay true to the grape."
Feiring regards more regulation as inevitable but remains opposed to the idea. "That will open the door to 'industrial' natural, just as the EU organic wine rules have opened the door to industrial organic wines," she argues.
Goode echoes the theme. "People say we really need a strict definition of what natural wine is otherwise it's meaningless," he says.
"Well, I disagree. I think that if we define natural wine, it kind of goes against the spirit of this really exciting, emerging movement."