Organic, ecological, biodynamic, vegan... what is natural wine really?

Consumers can find out about the nutritional values, ingredients, expiry date or packaging and origin of any food product through labelling. Except for one. Wine can contain dozens of legal, unlabelled ingredients and additives, as well as pesticide residues and heavy metals.

In view of this, natural wine is proposed as a radical alternative. This is produced from the fermentation of the grape without synthetic chemical residues or aggressive procedures, and with sulphite as the only optional additive but at low doses.

Despite several European reports showing consumer interest in obtaining more information on wine, the debate on the regulation of labelling in the EU has remained in stalemate, without any prospect of a satisfactory outcome for the consumer.

The natural wine movement has recently gained recognition in Franceas a result of this situation. They can now label their wines as "vin methode nature", (labelling as "natural" is prohibited). In doing so, they have challenged the dogmas of contemporary oenology and the wine industry, calling for the return of traditional, artisanal winemaking and the local winemaking heritage.

Natural wine: fact or fiction?

We've been drinking wine since at least 8,000 BCE. If we ask the grandparents in any Iberian wine region how wine was traditionally made, it is easy to see that the most common answer is that the grapes were simply left to ferment naturally. Perhaps they added some alcohol or a sulphur wick to the barrels, little more. Although sulphur has been used for a long time, it is not widely used.

In 19th century France, innovations in winemaking such as pasteurization and chaptalization revolutionized wine production. But the differences between natural and artificial wines were still very clear in Europe, and in Spain.

The situation changed with the expansion of modern industrial winemaking from the 1960s onwards. This resulted in standardization of the types and qualities of wines on a global level, as denounced in the documentary Mondovino and more recently, Fermentación Espontánea or Albariño Rías Baixas: de la tradición al mundo in Spain.

Nowadays, winemakers can employ a vast array of intervening tools, from artificial yeasts to antioxidants, antimicrobials, acidity regulators and gelatins, to the use of electrolysis, micro-oxygenation or reverse osmosis. All this is in accordance with current legislation and without the need for labelling (with the exception of allergenic substances like sulphites or eggs).

In addition to industrialization in the winery, the vineyards have also been industrialized. In France, 3 % of agricultural surface area is dedicated to vineyards, but they account for 20 % of the use of fungicides. Several studies show the presence of pesticides in wines, although often at low levels.

Pesticides not only damage our health and the environment, but also transform the aroma and taste of wine, and even lend their own character to it. This calls into question the very notion of typicity on which the legitimacy of wine Designations of Origin is based.

Alongside this industrialized evolution of winemaking, there has always been a minority of winemakers and winegrowers who were suspicious of this model. They proposed a return to the roots of natural wine, with its virtues and defects. So, isn't organic wine natural... ?

Organic, ecological, biodynamic, vegan...

Nutritional labels tell us what there is, certificates tell us what there is not. We could do without the many existing labels and their complexity, from organic to biodynamic or vegan, if we assumed that wine is a natural product - the consumer would then only need to be informed of any additions.

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Comparative table showing different types of wine and the ingredients allowed in Europe. This includes conventional, organic and biodynamic wines from the association of natural wine producers in France and the French SAINS association. CarnetdeVins

However, the situation is rather the opposite. Spanish legislation defines wine as "a natural food obtained exclusively from the total or partial alcoholic fermentation of fresh grapes, whether crushed or not, or of grape must", Despite this it also allows all beverages with more than 1.2 degrees of alcohol not to label their ingredients.

Organic or biodynamic certifications also mean extra costs and more paperwork for the producers: the logic of the polluter pays is reversed. We are also faced with more contradictions, such as the fact that non-alcoholic wines are required to be labelled. Even at international level, the proliferation of labels leads to confusion: organic wine in the United States cannot contain sulphites, but in Europe it can.

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Label of the alcohol-free wine Win. WIN wine

Certifying seals or labels offer us only partial information about what is not present in a particular wine, specific production methods or an ethical stance. The organic or ecological label, managed by public and private entities, prohibits the use of synthetic fertilizers and plant protection products and reduces the amount of additives that can be added to wine.

Even more restrictive is the biodynamic label, managed by private enterprises such as Démeter, which guarantees less intervention in the vineyard and in the winery according to the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner.

The vegan label lets us know that animal products, such as casein, albumin or fish gelatins have not been used. Other labels, such as zero emissions, fair trade or the like, tell us about ethical positions. Claims without a label such as “without sulphites” only guarantee that no sulphites have been added, while they may have used the entire arsenal of modern oenology. They are thus not necessarily natural wines.

What is natural wine?

The natural wine movement seeks to recover the essence of the wine, working on the product in the vineyard and cellar without adding anything that does not come from the natural system. It avoids aggressive physical treatments, such as filtrations, electrolysis or reverse osmosis.

Natural wines have already travelled a long journey, mainly in France - to get to know their history, you are recommended to watch this talk by Benoit Valée and Marie-Louise Banyols or read this summary–. The movement as we know it today arose in the 1980s in the Beaujolaise and later spread to the Loire, acquiring great importance in Italy and more recently in Spain.

Despite this expansion, there is no international legal definition of natural wine and it is the associations themselves that enact regulations. These generate profound debates, generally on the use of sulphites or not, and their quantity, especially in France.

In Italy the complexity is even greater, with three large associations (VAN, ViniVeri y Vinnatur) with apparently similar criteria that actually disguise differing ethical, administrative and political positions.

Natural wine became recognized in France in March 2020, opening up the possibility of labelling it as “vin methode nature”, thanks to the efforts of the Syndicat de Défense des Vins Naturels. Its manifesto gives us an idea of what a natural wine should be along general lines: certified organic viticulture, manual artisanal/craft work and no additives allowed except for low dose sulphites (less than 30 mg / L) and only before bottling. This opens a new horizon for the future of a wine that looks to the past.

But are we prepared in Spain for legislation similar to that of France? In our country there is the Asociación de Productores de Vino Natural, which has its own definition and natural wine fair. There are also many bars and other natural wine fairs, such as Vella Terra, which attract and wine lovers and professional experts.

of what it is, how it differs and where they can buy natural wine. Perhaps it is a good time to legislate in this regard and put into practice the motto of French natural wine: "we say what we do, and we do what we say".

Despite all this, the consumer still has no clear notion of what it is, how it differs and where they can buy natural wine. Perhaps it is a good time to legislate in this regard and put into practice the motto of French natural wine: "we say what we do, and we do what we say".

By Eva Parga Dans and Pablo Alonso González (Incipit-CSIC).

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read it here.

The Conversation

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