France’s defining ‘natural wine’ moment

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Natural wine? Isn’t all wine natural? It’s all just grape juice…right?

Well, yes and no.

The natural wine movement has been around for quite some time. In the 1960’s four men from Beaujolais, Guy Breton, Jean Foillard, Marcel Lapierre and Jean-Paul Thévenet, were inspired by Jules Chauvet, a well known Beaujolais winemaker and chemist who believed that sulphur should not be added during the winemaking process. This ‘Gang of Four’, as they were known, subscribed to the ideology that wine should be made naturally, with no chemical additives. At the time, this was quite a revolutionary step because post World War II French winemaking was increasingly more dependent upon the uses of pesticides and other harmful chemicals in both viticulture and winemaking. These natural wine pioneers became more influential and the movement gained support. Presently, with more pressure to focus on the environment and how to improve our carbon footprint, natural wine continues to grow in popularity.

So the question remains…what exactly constitutes as ‘natural wine’?

When you actually get right down to the nitty gritty of defining what can be classified as a ‘natural wine,’ this is where things have been a bit unclear…until now.

Do the grapes have to be organic, biodynamic, etc…? Are spray programmes allowed? If so, what type? Can the vines be trellised or should they simply exist in their ‘natural’ state? What methods should be employed for making the wine? Can it be filtered and/or have added sulphites? The list goes on and on, as the viticulture and winemaking processes are riddled with an endless array of variables and decisions that must be made.

In order to create more clarity, the Syndicate de Défense des Vins Nature , which is the Union for the Defense of Natural Wine in France, took a stand in October 2019. They created a charter defining natural wine in France and included a new label. According to the charter, there are 12 steps that must be followed in order for a wine to be granted official vin méthode nature status. This charter was officially recognised in

  1. Grapes must be certified organic according to French standards
  2. Grapes must be hand harvested
  3. Only natural yeasts are allowed during fermentation
  4. Additives are not permitted.
  5. Modifying the constitution of the grapes is not allowed
  6. No harsh vinification procedures are permitted such as reverse osmosis, filtration, cross-flow filtration, flash pateurisation, thermovinification…
  7. Sulphites are not allowed before or during fermentation; however slight adjustments are allowed after fermentation but only <30mg/Litre of sulfites (naturally occuring is included in this total) is permitted.
  8. At wine fairs, winemakers following the charter, must clearly present it next to bottles deemed as being natural wine.
  9. Winemakers following the charter must display the correct label (see below)
    • natural wine with <30mg/Litre of sulphur dioxide that is added not before or during fermentation must be labeled vin méthode nature <30mg/L sulfites ajoutés
    • sulphite free natural wine must be labeled vin méthode nature sans sulfites ajoutés
  10. Producers who wish to comply with the vin méthode nature charter must apply annually for re-certification from the Syndicat de défense des Vins Nature’l.
  11. Wines will be evaluated to determine if they fall within the confines of the vin méthode nature charter and labelled accordingly.
  12. Producers of vin méthode nature wines will be publicly recognised.

Wow…that’s a lot of detail! I’m sure there is room for improvement, but at least it’s a start. Hopefully, this charter will help to more clearly define which wines are official natural according to what has been agreed upon in France. Hopefully, more countries will follow suit in order for the natural wine movement to continue to grow and prosper. Meanwhile, be on the lookout for the new labels when you’re choosing French natural wines!

Natural Wines at Clos Cassivet in Provence, France