Despite the divisiveness that surrounds them—or very possibly because of it—natural wines have changed our vinous landscape for the better. At heart, they embody environmental stewardship by championing chemical-free farming and winemaking with the fewest possible additives and manipulations.
Combined with their often irreverent or minimalist labels and rebellious spirit, natural wines have converted countless drinkers into lifelong wine lovers. Their popularity has forced a notoriously reticent industry to examine long-held beliefs and practices, including the level of transparency it presents consumers.
The lack of official regulation or certification for using the phrase “natural wine” has created an existential crisis.
Despite the style’s environmentally responsible directives and positive attributes, some longtime natural winemakers are now opting out, requesting that those who sell and support their wines cease referring to them as “natural.”
The decision doesn’t come from a philosophical change of heart. In fact, it’s just the opposite. These are winemakers who farm their own vineyards organically or biodynamically, often with the certifications to show for it, and who are stringent about working as hands-off in the winery as possible. In other words, they’re as “natural” as it gets.
But the lack of official regulation or certification for using the phrase “natural wine” has created an existential crisis. It’s up to winemakers and those who sell, promote and drink their wines to decide whether a bottle fits the natural bill.
And as natural wine’s star continues its ascent, the temptation to jump on the bandwagon has never been stronger.
This is especially true in the New World, where the winemaking culture is younger and many producers must buy their fruit. Organic or biodynamic grapes are expensive and sometimes hard to come by. While the winemaking itself may be minimal, the raw material can come from conventionally farmed vineyards, going against much of what natural wine stands for.
As new producers, often young and social media savvy, burst onto the wine scene with the latest creatively labeled wine, so too do #naturalwine hashtags and images of the wine being sipped in well-known natural wine haunts. The wine is, therefore, presumed natural, whether it is or not.
In an effort to distance themselves from the watered-down term, some producers who truly are working with minimal intervention, from grape to glass, wish to disassociate themselves with the movement as a whole. For consumers, that only results in further muddying of a term and ideology that’s already steeped in confusion.
As natural wine’s evolution marches forward, the need for a new classification or, perhaps more realistically, a certification program, becomes ever more apparent.
While the task of retaining natural wine’s grassroots spirit under a new set of regulations seems insurmountable, the wine industry owes it to consumers, and to themselves, to provide greater clarity and context to what exactly natural wine is before its identity is completely lost.
This op-ed was originally printed in the July issue of Wine Enthusiast Magazine.