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Let’s Define Natural Wine

The concept of natural wine is pretty textbook: pure, fermented grape juice — with nothing added. Our understanding of the current varietal trend, which has gone from niche to mainstream? It’s anything but.

By: Chris MetlerDate: 2022-05-05

“Natural wines kind of don’t exist,” confesses Michael Marler.

It’s not the first thing you’d expect to hear from this proven pioneer of biodynamic viticulture in Quebec, who, along with his wife Véronique Hupin, established Domaine Les Pervenches over two decades ago. The pair produce organic wines that express the typicality of the terroir, with methods rooted in tradition and innovation.

“There’s no real legislation for natural wine. There’s no true definition for it across the board,” he explains. “Anything could be natural. Everybody’s happy if they just hear ‘natural.’ Everybody gets all excited about it.

It doesn’t mean it’s real. It might be in their mind, if their attitude is that I just want the most natural things possible!”

In that case, you could better classify natural wine as more of a concept, or movement, than a well-defined category. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“The lack of a strict definition has sparked a deeper conversation amongst consumers and the industry alike about the way we are farming, the environment, the ingredients in our wines, and even the ethical and fair treatment of workers.” That’s the opinion of Aaron Godard, speaking on behalf of his own wife Carly, plus partners Murray and Maggie Fonteyne. Located on the southern end of the Similkameen Valley in British Columbia, the four founded Scout Vineyard in 2018. Their mission? To make minimalist, farm-driven wines which embody their vineyard ecology, soil health and diversity.

Still, it’s a dangerous place for producers and sellers to play in, both the Les Pervenches and Scout Vineyard vintners caution. The lack of distinction could essentially ruin what the real natural wine is: unadulterated fermented grape juice, made with the least possible use of additives, chemicals or excessively technological procedures.

“Let it be clear for the consumer what exactly they’re getting,” Marler stresses. \ “Is it a little bit of sulphite? A little bit of filtration? Is it a wine that was made completely conventional, but the guy at the end was going to bottle it without filtering or sulphiting it, then claiming it as natural?”

For their part, Marler and Hupin have seen the whole gamut of possibilities of what natural wine can be, including the points of view of the people either selling it or making it — or even drinking it. The couple reckon it is the responsibility of more global entities to designate what exactly natural winemakers like themselves do.

And if something were to one day be written as a worldwide idea of what natural wine itself is? “We would be pushing for a wine that has absolutely no additives and no filtration,” Marler clarifies. He doesn’t believe anyone should be criticized if they can’t quite pull it off, either. “There are a ton of great wines that don’t have to be natural to be great. It’s a means of getting great wine, it doesn’t mean that it has to be all and end all of wines.”

Similarly, as far as the Scout Vineyard squad is concerned, no dialogue about natural wine should be had without talking about farming. Wine is, after all, an agricultural product.

“If we want to discuss the naturalness of a wine, we should really start with how natural the farming is,” asserts Godard. “Is the farmer working with nature, or fighting against it? Is the ecology and microbiome of the vineyard taken into account? If so, what measures are being taken to ensure it is flourishing? Is it industrially farmed or organically? Or is it regeneratively farmed?”

From one coast of Canada to the other, both Les Pervenches and Scout Vineyard further campaign for clear and credible statements to start being made towards what labels like ‘organic’ actually mean — and what the certification process entails.

“As long as people don’t mind the painfully boring details, it seems like a good idea for the public to have more clarity and understanding about it,” Godard concludes. “With all the kinds of certifications out there these days, I’m sure most people are unsure about what ‘organic,’ or ‘sustainable,’ or ‘biodynamic’ or ‘regenerative’ actually mean.”

“That’s the way it should be with natural wine,” Marler seconds. “There should be some sort of criteria for the producer to live up to. If we don’t agree with it, well, that’s fine, too. At least the consumer understands what they’re getting.”