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Putting a date on, or assigning a person responsible for the birth of the natural wine movement is a little bit like trying to give someone an exact date when bakers started producing “artisan bread”. It seems like a contradiction in terms in every possible way: “All wine is natural” sceptics will say. Well, except it’s not. And attributing a start date to our modern meaning of “natural” wine demarcates the heavily mechanised and chemically-reliant wine industry we currently know from an organic, grower-focused revolution making waves through the wine world.
The person widely thought to have birthed the natural wine movement is French viticulturist, Marcel Lapierre, who, in the ‘80s and ‘90s experimented with making wines from organically-grown grapes processed by hand without the use of any additives - most notably the omission of sulphites. The end result was left entirely unfiltered and was fully emblematic, therefore, of its terroir. His eventual success in creating a drink that was not just palatable but also popular won him the title “the pope of natural wine”.
For Isabelle Legeron, founder of international RAW Wine fairs and France’s first (and only) female Master of Wine, the movement first caught her attention a decade or so later in 2007, when the filming schedule for her Journey into Wine television show took her to Hungary and a blind wine tasting of over 300 wines from which she had to select a handful of growers to visit with the crew. ”I picked only two wines,” she told me, “and actually they were both by the same winemaker. This guy had been making hundreds of different wines for 20 years without equipment –no press; no pump– and I just thought: If he can make wine that’s this good without the need for equipment, what does that say for the rest of the industry?”
What is Natural Wine?
All this talk of machines, additives, chemicals and filtration begs the question: what exactly is natural wine and what is ‘unnatural’ about other wine then? Well here’s where natural wine runs into its first roadblock because there is no overarching legal definition of what it is, leading to lots of industry in-fighting about what the term means and how it can be governed. The natural wine definition set by Isabelle Legeron in her seminal book, Natural Wine: an introduction to organic and biodynamic wines made naturally, and the delineating criteria for winemakers at her international RAW Wine fairs is actually very simple: “Wines made from organic grapes with nothing added and nothing is taken away” is what it states. If small amounts of sulphites are added (up to a maximum quantity of 70mg) then the wine is classed as “low intervention”.
The "artisanal" and "bio" terms that have flooded through the food industry in recent years are similarly ungoverned, but both movements work towards the same notion: that food and wine should be seen as acts of localised agriculture in direct contrast to the destabilising and dehumanising mass exportation models proliferated by companies who often have zero respect for fields.
The World is Ready for Natural Wine
One of the main reasons the artisanal food movement has been so successful in recent years is customer demand after attention on ingredients forced food brands to make more conscious and responsible choices. It’s an energy the wine industry might struggle to emulate though given consumers, more often than not, don’t know what they’re buying (or drinking) in conventional bottles. When it comes to transparency there is currently no legislation for what should be printed on wine labels.“You don’t even have to put the level of sulphites on your bottle”, Isabelle points out. “The biggest justification I get from winemakers is they say we don’t need it; they say consumers are too stupid and don’t understand it. This is the mentality we’re starting from, and this is what we have to change.”
In a bid to educate and empower, Isabelle and her team organise the world’s only winegrower portfolio with 100% transparency on ingredients. This ethos has fuelled a grower-led movement through which Isabelle has noticed (amongst other things) the sulphite levels being used at the fair decrease year on year. “Look at Gut Oggau for example,” she told me –an Austrian winemaker whose hip bottles have become one of the standard bearers of the natural wine movement. “They used sulphites at first but I remember when they called me and said they’d made their first wine without it. They’d made some for Noma so there were only a few, and now they make everything without any sulphites!"
An early market for Marcel Lapierre’s naturally produced wine was America, but these days you’ll find natural wine bars internationally as far and wide as Berlin to Tokyo; Hong Kong to Brooklyn. RAW Wine currently hosts annual events in London, LA and Berlin - an event portfolio which Isabelle hopes to soon expand into Asia.
New Questions to Come
As the movement grows, so to do questions surrounding scalability. How, for example, can the natural wine movement stop big wineries producing “natural” wines bottled with heavy mechanisation? How does the movement ensure its core “craft” message isn’t diluted with growth? We only have to look towards the craft beer movement to see how quickly things can run amok.
For Isabelle, natural wine is an act of respect that gives back to the vines, the land and a vineyard’s terroir, with every bottle it produces. “I know that the better the growers get [at producing wine naturally] then the better the land is,” she says. “My work - raising the profile of growers, and getting more and more people to come to the fair each time - means we win each time! And that’s really why all of this is happening.”