Recently, a follower reached out and asked: "I've been ordering a lot of wine lately. Many of the labels claim the wine is natural, but I'm just not sure. I have no way of guaranteeing. How do I tell?"
There are topics I often avoid writing about simply due to fear of oversaturation. It seems every day I log on to Instagram, there's another trendy natural wine making the rounds. Who wants to hear yet another snob drone on about zero/zero?
Coupled with being enmeshed in the industry for well over 10 years, it's not lost on me that myself and many colleagues are guilty of a healthy dose of tone deafness. I often forget the things I stress about, are not what the average wine consumer ever considers.
Even when vetting natural wines for Crushable - I'm also never quite sure if what I'm being told is the truth. There have been too many times I've fallen prey to a cool kid persona, diatribes of dynamizing, or romanticism of pastoral vistas.
Inevitably, trusted industry sources reveal the truth: what I've been told isn't the full story. Often, alleged natural producers are using lab yeasts to inoculate their ferments, are buying conventional fruit or lying (by omission) about their dependence on additives.
There really is no way to guarantee what any of us are being told is honest.
For many, a trusted route is seeking out bottles denoting organic or Demeter certifications, as UK based wine writer Simon J Woolf, attests, "There are clues I look for, if I don't know the wine: organic and especially biodynamic certification always makes me feel a lot happier. Hopefully some reference to spontaneous fermentation, no filtration and perhaps the total SO2 level on the label. I see these kind of details more and more. In some cases, there will be a reference to "no added sulphites" which is a good sign. It's not infallible, but it's a good guide."
This can be a great starting point for natural wine neophytes. Though as one moves further down the rabbit hole, they'll find these regulations allow for additives and interventions poopooed by most natural wine aficionados, like reverse osmosis (RO), whereby the wine is filtered into its components - alcohol, sugar, acid, water - undesirable traits removed, then "put back" together.
The National Institute for Origins and Quality (INAO) now recognizes a designation for wineries in France, Vin Méthode Nature, indicating whether a wine is natural with categories for wine with and without sulphur additions. Wineries must farm manually, ferment spontaneously and no processes such as RO are acceptable, with allowable sulfur levels capped at 30MG/L. However, only paying, member wineries can take advantage, and currently, it's one of the only natural wine designations of its kind globally. (Vin Natur and similar associations exist to defend the integrity of natural wine.)
So, in the face of a market crippled with half truths and varying rules - how is one meant to navigate a category that's at best convoluted?
"It's a heavy, research focused hobby - it comes down to trust." shares BC based winemaker Sebastien Hotte.
Vincent Laniel is a writer based in Montreal, who writes a weekly newsletter on the SAQ's current releases. Many of the producers Laniel has never met or visited. Because of this, he relies on importers, who act as the spokespeople for the wineries. Laniel feels this creates a system based on honour.
"The minute it is known that an importer has told everyone that a certain wine is natural, only to later realize it isn't - the reputation of that importer is severely damaged. In Quebec, people know the importers, and a lot of them put stickers on the bottles. The SAQ website also indicates who the importer is, which I think would be a great practice for other provinces to take on. I'd say the secret is to do a bit of research. When you google a producer, and it appears on several natural wine stores in the world, that's generally a good hint. When I see a wine on La Cave des Papilles, Chambers Street Wine, Zev Rovine and Vom Boden websites, I know there's a good chance it is a natural wine."
Proprietor of Trail Estate Winery in Prince Edward County, Alex Sproll, thinks in order to understand what natural really means, requires "going into the weeds". Sproll doesn't think certifications help. Copper is permissible within organic certification, but do we want it in our drinking water or soils?
Greenwashing is a problem that confounds Sproll. "You are forced to take sides and the middle is too much of a grey area, filled with too much consultant speak - things like "conscientious wine”, which can literally mean anything even though it may not be a perfect description. I was at a tasting in London, and asked a winemaker how he got his 2 year skin contact wine so clear. Answer: filter 7 times. Now, I don’t know if that was meant to be funny, but it's hardly conscientious!"
Sproll continues, "Unfortunately wine has found itself in a situation where a lot of the craft has been lost and is seen as a commodity. Most of what sells is sub $15, and it's nearly impossible to do any of that sustainably for long periods of time. Once you are in that game, it's a lifestyle brand much like Bud or Canadian."
Sproll feels consumers accepting vintage variation is key, despite Ontario’s retail environment being centered on consistency and repeatability. When chains buy wine on deadlines, it's hard to make natural or low-intervention wine that way. The two are at odds.
"It's important to be totally open. Yes, it's slightly cost prohibitive for some to buy natural wine but I think that’s ok - Starbucks was too. As much as people hate on Starbucks, the whole ecosystem changed (who cared about fair trade before, really?). Now a whole coffee culture has been spawned and it happened to beer - it can happen with wine! Other examples are everywhere - bread has changed hugely - where it once was the cheapest thing in a store, it is no longer. It's also largely better with less preservatives! More focus needs to be placed on how it's made."
Proprietor of Whispering Horse Winery in Fraser Valley, Melissa Giesbrecht, echoes the sentiment of Sebastien Hotte, in that it comes down to trust and relationship building, "Knowing the winemakers, the winery, the transparency in how they farm and their production in the cellar. No standardized wine making or correcting. If it's natural, you'll always taste the culmination of that year's season, which will be different every year."
Finding not only the best, but also sincerely made products requires patience - natural wine is not a world anyone and everyone is welcome into. There's a certain amount of vetting that happens to ensure those seeking it out are worthwhile and appreciative of the arduous nature of the category.
Until you've really been enveloped - start by sending DMs on Instagram - yes, winemakers do really want to hear from you! Join wine clubs - these are people spending tireless hours visiting wineries and vineyards so you don't have to. Subscribe to super niche zines (Pipette, GlouGlou) that will expand your horizons to new heights. Most importantly, however, is to visit the producers, and get acquainted with the people behind the wines.
A category as niche as natural wine never comes with an off the rack answer for how and where to find it. Those seeking it out tend toward obsessive; akin to finding that incredible Korean taco truck parked in a secret back alley only a friend of a friend will give you directions to. The joy is in the journey.