Organic, biodynamic, natural. Three of the world’s top performing wine segments in recent years and expected to grow strongly also in the post-Covid period, according to recent surveys by the LWSR research and market analysis institute. We discussed it earlier in the weekly Tre Bicchieri, to indicate a trend involving marketing channels. Among these is the modern distribution: with the gradual change of preferences of a consumer, more informed and in need of finding health values in this food as well. Values linked to virtuous behaviour from the chain of producers to the moment of purchase. There is a European law regulating organic production according to specific certification and control systems. Biodynamic wine is also based on organic criteria, as far as natural (or naturally produced) wine is concerned. But there is still no shared standard that codifies neither the type nor its use on the label.
“Misleading” term. The Ceev-Comité vins, represents most of the associations of wine manufacturers of the Old Continent. Last September, the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Agriculture, at the request of the Ceev-Comité vins, asked for a specific opinion on the legality and appropriateness of the use of the terms “natural” and “natural method” applied to wine labels. The response from Brussels was clear: “misleading”, which is misleading and misleading for the consumer, as it suggests the idea of a better “natural” wine than a conventional wine. The news, rebounded in Italy through the Italian Wine Union (a member of the Ceev), has rekindled the spotlight on an issue on which both the Italian, Spanish and French industry is increasing the pressing at the institutional level for a solution shared in the parameters of the law. This will be a subject of debate in 2021. Regarding the economic crisis of wine and the commercial interest – and success – that natural wines are encountering. In the last ten years, the market for natural wines has expanded considerably. After the birth of the movement in France in the 1980s (inspired by the theories of Jules Chauvet in the mid-1950s), the fame of this type of product has spread to become a global phenomenon, although there is still a niche.
Expansion in Italy. Even in Italy it is not difficult to find bottles with special collars with reference to the method, producers who use the concept of naturalness for marketing purposes, specific events of the sector, ad hoc wine lists in restaurants, associations that promote a natural approach in viticulture with dedicated production disciplines. We are not in a flood but in front of a small stream that flows inexorably. Among rules that do not exist, replaced by rules dictated by the voluntariness of those who produce these wines. Market research shows that the rise is constant, but is going to go against the interests of big industry and those specific to the organic sector. They point out the risks of inequality in the market, starting with certification costs, and episodes of unfair competition. The debate is heated: even the so-called natural wine producers themselves complain about the dangerousness of those who abuse this appellation without having the right to do so. France, with a trade union and an identifying logo in force since mid 2020, seems to have burned the times and appears ahead of Italy. To try to probe the field, we asked one of the major Italian associations in this segment, the VinNatur association, chaired by Angiolino Maule.
Maule, how would you explain, in a nutshell, the concept of natural wine to a neophyte?
The natural wine is the fruit of grapes grown without pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, then transformed in the cellar without the use of any type of additive, rejecting even invasive techniques, in order to respect the healthiness and taste integrity.
What, in your opinion, are the reasons for the growing success of this category/type of wine?
Certainly a greater attention, especially in the new generations, towards a healthy and environmentally friendly lifestyle and diet. Combined with a desire on the part of the taster to have a different history and uniqueness in each wine.
Is it true that natural wines cost on average less than certified organic wines?
I do not think that is the case, in fact, sometimes it is the other way around. Sometimes, certified organic wines are also natural.
Last August, the European Commission’s Agriculture Directorate, at the instigation of the Ceev, expressed its opinion on the subject of natural wines, stressing that the use of the terms “natural method” or “natural wine” on the label could be misleading for the consumer, since it implies that the rest of conventional wines are not. What do you think of this stance?
I am very much in agreement with the statement by the European Commission. Although I consider myself a natural wine producer, I find that a simple wording on the label, without a control and certification system, is not only misleading, but could also harm the movement of natural wines. As long as there is no single specification and control plan for companies, anyone can misuse these terms and the consumer will not be protected in any way. The European labelling regulation does not recognise natural wines. As long as there is no single specification and control plan for companies, anyone can misuse these terms and the consumer will not be protected in any way.
The European labelling regulation does not recognise natural wines. Do you think they should be standardised?
I still have a long way to go to reach this goal. There are too many differences in thinking between producers and too much bureaucracy. What is more, there is a good part of the so-called natural world that thinks it is not right to set standards.
As a product or as a method?
I think it is important to set rules for a production method. Every company must commit to produce its entire range of wines with this method, there can be no mixed companies, I think this is fundamental.
Can it be said that a natural wine is an evolution of organic? Why is that?
Of course, we consider ourselves “beyond organic. ” Organic and biodynamic are excellent starting points. Then, we must strive to go further: reducing or eliminating the use of copper and sulphur in the vineyard, reducing or eliminating sulphites in the cellar, are just a few examples.
If you were considered an organic rib, would that be a good compromise?
We, as VinNatur association, have been relying on Valoritalia for some years now for the management of the control plan for member companies. Valoritalia is one of the most important certifiers for organic products. They know how to do their job very well and apply it in the best possible way on our specifications which, as far as the vineyard is concerned, is very similar to organic. Unfortunately, in the cellar the differences are abysmal, and for this reason I think it is difficult to be compared to organic.
The VinNatur association has built its strength on the seriousness of the approach and the certification. Who are the scammers you talk about in one of the latest issues of your magazine? Who are you defending yourself from?
We have to defend ourselves against those who think they are natural, but in reality they are not and use the term only as a window. Natural wine, in fact, is having a great success and this means that many people go into it without having any right.
The companies that are members of VinNatur have always relied on third parties to prove and test the quality of the wines offered and the conformity to a voluntary specification, in which the quantity of sulphites plays a decisive role, demonstrating that they are not afraid of being compared with high quality standards. The consumer has recognised you and the proof of this lies in the success of the dedicated events, the spaces on the wine list of restaurants, etc. Are you ready to step out of a grey area and be shackled in the law?
Our specification is still young and inspection visits are constantly being improved every year that passes. We hope that our experience can be taken as a cue from the legislator, to put in place a common line of serious certification. And we are ready to cooperate and make our contribution, but we cannot express ourselves about other winegrowers or other associations.
Italy, through a Mipaaf application decree, is about to issue the unique protocol on sustainability (productive, economic, ethical) which should include many of the concepts expressed by your production philosophy. Is this an opportunity that might interest your associates?
I don’t know the protocol in detail, but I think it could be very interesting.
In France, the association of French oenologists has stated its opposition to any use and to any registration and use of distinctive marks on natural wines. For them, it is necessary to reiterate the concept that wine is not only a processed product derived from the hand of man, but the intermediate product of a path that, without man, would lead “naturally” towards vinegar. Do you agree with that?
Without man, grapes would not become vinegar but animal food or compost. Man does his part, of course, but he must do it as an individual inserted into nature, not as a superior individual who in the name of productivity and profit disrupts and impoverites the earth and every product it gives us. I believe that this hostility is not only due to the use of the word ’natural’, which could easily be replaced by something less high-sounding.This concept disturbs a certain conservative and obtuse world of oenology. I have confidence, therefore, in young oenologists who instead try to be useful, investigating many of the problems that afflict the production of natural wines.
Let’s close with a pandemic crisis question. What were the effects on your members’ financial statements and what strategies did you use to respond? Have you benefited from the growing interest of consumers in healthier foods?
The pandemic has hit the catering industry hard, which represents an important part of our clientele. As a result, it has become difficult to deal with the changes that the crisis is bringing with it. If, on the one hand, there is increasing attention to the healthiness of food, on the other hand the purchasing power has decreased and the sales network that a small company can support is obviously limited. But I am very confident for the future, there is a desire for authenticity that will surely reward those who work seriously.
In France, union and logo
The natural wine movement took shape at the end of the eighties in France, inspired by the work of Jules Chauvet (1907-1989), scholar, taster and merchant, considered the father of the natural wine movement. Already in the 1950s, when synthetic chemistry was expanding in agriculture, Chauvet spoke of the importance of indigenous yeasts and spontaneous fermentation to preserve in wine the most genuine expressions of terroir.Under the pressure of the producers themselves, from the end of 2019, France can also count on a union for the defence of natural wines ( https://vinmethodenature. org/le-label/ ) which brings together companies that comply with a precise specification, starting from grapes that are 100% certified organic, and manages the two distinctive logos of the association (without added sulphites and with sulphites below 30 mg/litre), awarded following a certification that remains under the watchful eye of Dgccrf (fraud prevention) and Inao (the national institute for designations of origin). The use of logos has been strongly contested by the Union des enologues, according to which the legal appropriation of the term nature applied to wine is not acceptable because it discriminates against conventional wines.
Who is VinNatur
A specification, of voluntary production, a control plan of a body recognized by Mipaaf, a regulation for the use of the brand. These are the three cornerstones that govern the VinNatur association, founded in 2005 by Angiolino Maule, the current president, which today has 170 producers from nine different countries. Manual harvesting, organic fertilization and sulfur, pesticide waste, indigenous yeasts, low levels of sulfur are some of the rules followed by members. And among this year’s novelties, there is the rapprochement between VinNatur and another great Italian association Vi. You. Vignaoli e Territori), chaired by Gabriele Da Prato, with the aim of laying the foundations for a shared path in the field of natural wine.
by Ginaluca Atzeni