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Banter or Bullshit?

“Natural” wine: Bullshit or a Bonanza?

I applaud innovation, but a comprehensive definition that adequately codifies and enforces “natural” winemaking practices doesn’t yet appear to exist. The closest appears to be from an enthusiastic cabal of vintners called Vins Methode Natures who created some initial guidelines. I’ve carefully read and re-read these guidelines en français et anglais and applaud their initial effort. But, at least as I understand them, several elements of the guidelines are internally regulated, having wineries make a “declaration of honor” of what they did - or did not do - in the vineyard and cellar. While a well-meaning good start, without outside oversight and enforcement, isn’t this letting the fox guard the henhouse?

Most countries don’t have a definition of “natural” and the term “natural” isn’t allowed in many European Union countries. Critic Robert Parker labeled natural wines a “fraud” and even the natural wine uber-evangelist Alice Feiring, when grilled by Decanters Jancis Robinson M.W. about policing the new Vins Methods Natures guidelines conceded, “It’s not well thought out.” France’s respected governing body for all things fine wine-related, the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO), remains opaque on the groups’ effort, instead only “recognizing” it.

For example, the aforementioned guidelines require the use of “indigenous” yeast. Tell me please, what exactly is “indigenous” yeast, scientifically? Is this “indigenous” yeast indigenous to the vineyard(s) or to the winery facility - or both?

Yeasts are efficient organisms and have become ubiquitous in our environment. And it is well documented that the microbiota found on grapes and stems from the vineyard typically die during fermentation when ~6% alcohol level is reached, so how does this vintner ferment their grape must to dryness with “only indigenous” yeasts? Answer: Usually with the myriad other yeasts that are present in that environment, but that do not come from said vineyard. Could some of these other yeasts also be commercial yeasts that found their way into this environment? If so, doesn’t this blow the core tenet of this philosophy out of the water?

Hand holding red wine grapes

Let’s also remember, yeast is there to do a simple job; ferment fruit sugar, and many widely available yeasts are extraordinarily neutral (eg Prise de Mousse yeast from Champagne) and provide conscientious vintners very specific, measurable outcomes, allowing superb vineyard and varietal expression to be at the forefront. So why all the hoopla about the unknown, uncertain “indigenous” yeasts?

On a practical level, how do these vintners, during their frenetic harvest, determine that the yeasts in question are “indigenous”? During harvest, we winemakers are very busy; overseeing fermentations, traveling to many different vineyards, picking up supplies at other wineries, warehouses, etc.. So how does one know that the yeasts fermenting in their vats come only from their vineyard and not off the soles of their shoes? Or, how do they certify that yeasts in their vats didn’t arrive on a truck delivering corks or bottles whose previous stop was at a large winery down the road replete with commercial yeast? What 3rd party entity is overseeing this process, vat by vat, winery by winery, appellation by appellation?

Grapes in bin after harvest

So given the very low likelihood that a vintners “vineyard yeast” is the only yeast in a particular vat, are these “natural” vintners then somehow removing the “non-indigenous” yeasts from their vat - cell by cell? If so, I’d like to see that black magic.

In closing, vintners bleating that “indigenous” yeast delivers a better qualitative expression of a particular terroir or grape type is based on lazy (or at least incomplete) methodology, flawed science and often includes a pungent dose of marketing bullshit. It would be funnier if this romantic notion of “indigenous” yeast wasn’t so pervasive in wine comms today.

Net-net, how can a winemaker (or sales rep, restaurateur, somm, retailer, journalist, etc) label or call a wine “natural” if there is no codified definition of “natural” wine in most countries and only an individual vintner’s “honor” statement (and 70 Euro fee) affirms that this member abides by this groups’ guidelines? And while these guidelines make mention of a “certifying body - on a random basis” there appear to be no structural/legal mechanisms outside this group to police member activities - or the wine in bottle.

And if a wine labeled “natural” has 30 ppm Free SO2 (as this group requires and like millions of other wines in the world), how is this naturally-labeled wine different from so many other wine bottles on store shelves around the world? For the record, my ’22 Domaine Jonathan Pey Morgon “Bellevue” has very low SO2 (about 2 parts per million free SO2 (30ppm Total SO2) and I prove it by publishing the laboratory results here). And my wine is not labeled natural. (See more thoughts on SO2).

Next time you hear; “We feature/make natural wines made from local yeasts with low sulfites” perhaps ask the vintner, wine shop or somm for specific, measurable answers to what I have posited above. Enjoy the discourse. And caveat emptor mes amis.

I’m sometimes asked if my wines are “natural”. Let’s peel this back a bit. For starters, I don’t label my wines “natural”. But I do hand-prune and hand-harvest healthy, natural grapes from carefully managed vineyards; many organically farmed and certified. Some are also naturally dry farmed and draft horse ploughed. These vines and their verdant mid rows naturally sequester tons of carbon every year. My grapes ferment with whatever yeasts are floating around (indigenous to the vineyard haha, cellar, ambient, commercial and wild). Millions of these diverse yeast cells naturally transform the grapes natural sugar into carbon dioxide (CO2) and alcohol during fermentation. These yeasts also naturally produce sulfur dioxide (SO2) during fermentation, part of which stays naturally in the finished wine. I don’t do any of the winemaking voodoo that large factory wineries use like flash fermentation or cryo-extraction and don’t add mega-purple or other colorants. After a few weeks, my wines naturally ferment down to dryness (because there is cultured yeast that can support fermentation with alcohol). I then gently press the skins and juice and mature my wines in (mostly) neutral vessels to capture the purity of the site or the grape type. Some lots may see a soupçon of French oak barrel maturation - these barrels being naturally grown in sustainable French forests that naturally sequester tons of carbon every year. After that I shepherd my wines into low-medium-weight post-consumer recycled bottles with minimum effective (both naturally occurring and/or added) SO2, minimum/no filtering or other interventions. My labels made from FSC-certified recycled paper or recycled cotton and printed with compostable inks and the aforementioned bottles are sealed with FSC-certified natural heritage corks. For more transparency, I display all 3rd-party laboratory analyses of my wines. How many wineries do THAT?

But back to the question; “Are my wines “natural”?” You decide.