We have come a long way from the early low-intervention wines, which hit shelves in the UK around a decade ago. Volatile, expensive, and often unexpectedly fizzy, many had me gasping in relative joy at the first glass of stringy claret afterwards.
In those early days, the number of bottles returned was high and everything was sold with a caveat. For a while, buying natural wine and buying stable wine felt mutually exclusive, a high-risk game that only a small group of inquisitive early adopters on either side of the industry were willing to play.
Now the terms organic, biodynamic, low-intervention and natural are increasingly on customers’ lips, partly thanks to wider conversations about sustainability. Although the debate in wine is much broader than simply the levels of intervention when winemaking, all wine professionals need to be familiar with these terms to communicate with wine lovers.
In addition, wines made with these principles increasingly claim to represent the kind of purity and authenticity that has always been part of the conversation about what makes wine special. A holistic and environmentally-conscious approach is being seen by ethically-minded consumers as an essential prerequisite for wine to be called fine, marking a major shift away from the purely organoleptic assessments of previous generations of wine drinkers.
Yet there is still confusion. Sloppy articles that link sulphur and hangovers have not helped, and the false association between these two things has proved to be a tenacious verruca in the foot of the industry. Questions around the role of cultivated yeasts and forced ferments remain central to low-intervention winemaking debates but are still poorly understood by the drinking public.
Animal labour remains something to which most vegans are opposed, yet wines are routinely advertised as vegan friendly, despite being made from horse-ploughed vineyards or utilising animal-based biodynamic treatments. These contradictions continue to prove challenging to negotiate, particularly for consumers who simply want to do, or be seen to do, the right thing with their disposable income.
At the moment, navigating these choppy waters remains almost impossible for the average wine drinker and most will rely on an independent retailer or sommelier to provide accurate information. However, even though this situation empowers the traditional gatekeepers of the industry, they are also reliant on patchy and often incomplete information from suppliers and producers.
Increasing the provision of clear information at the producers’ end is a major area where the conversation can improve. Using digital technologies to achieve this is essential. The smartphone and the QR code have come a long way. Now, they offer an easy access opportunity for wineries to directly convey information that is extremely useful for both consumers and professionals navigating the terminology of sustainability.
The steps that have already been taken to regulate and define organic and sustainable viticulture are an important move in the right direction. Attempting to delineate natural wine in law, and trusting the principle of survival of the fittest among competing charters for biodynamic wineries are ways to work towards a solid, commercially-minded base for the category to grow.
That sustainable viticulture will grow now seems beyond doubt, and we are well beyond the point where such wines can be considered outré experiments conducted by renegade winemakers. How it grows depends on the effectiveness of the industry to communicate clearly and inform both professionals and consumers with integrity about sustainable practices.