Why Natural Wine Labels Are So Confusing
Heartbroken proprietor and winemaker Roland Velich crossed out the labels of the 2013, 2014 and 2015 vintages of Weingut Moric Sankt Georgen Grüner Veltliner. Starting in 2016, Velich’s labels instead read: “Serious wine from a gorgeous place that we are not allowed to mention on this label because this wine was disqualified by Austrian officials as being oxidized, reductive, faulty and atypical for the grape variety.”
Authorities had barred Velich from writing the name of the place from which the wine hailed. As a new wave of artisanal wine producers around the world face similar disqualification, the industry begs to answer the question: Where does natural wine production fit in with current winemaking laws?
The Disparity Between Natural and Modern Wine Making
Many natural wines are prohibited from stating the regional designation, not to mention the specific vineyard, in which the wine is produced. This is often because the wines are designated “atypical” for the region based on a variety of reasons.
For example, France’s Vin de France, Austria’s Wein aus Österreich, Italy’s Vino di Tavola and others. In best cases, the label can mention a larger geographical area, like, Weinland in Austria. But these areas tend to encompass so many distinctive wine regions that their appearance on wine bottles says little to the consumer.
Bottles disqualified based on being “atypical” are often made with century-old wine production methods. They hail mostly from organically-farmed vineyards, are handcrafted and may have minuscule traces of sulfur added before bottling. In comparison, the industry standard is dominated by heavily-processed wines, fruits with exposure to synthetic sprays and additives and the use of technologies detrimental to the environment. So, while these natural wines are being called “atypical,” current “typical” varieties process wine in multiple ways that are fairly new to the industry.
“How is it possible that someone who uses all the tricks in the book to make wine with all the additives, machines and manipulations, gets to write their specific vineyard on the label, but we who only work with grapes, don’t,” wonders Hannes Schuster of Rosi Schuster in Burgenland, Austria. His wine was disqualified for having “too much” sulfur dioxide. Meanwhile, the lab analysis of that wine shows a total of 26 milligrams per liter. For scale, an average bottle of wine contains about 100 milligrams per liter, while the maximum legal limit in the United States is 350 milligrams per liter.
Schuster suggests this problem is a consequence of industrial revolution. With the development of machines and chemicals, the wine industry changed, making large-scale winemaking easier. Suddenly, adding water to wine wasn’t the biggest crime in the cellar. Tannin powder and oak chips became popular in the 1990s, used to give wine an oaky flavor and tannin structure instead of aging it in barrels.
Industrial revolution led to a sad reality, making natural wine seem foreign to consumers and processed wine became the norm. Only 100 years ago, most of the tricks, additives and chemicals of modern winemaking did not exist. Humans have made wine without additives, except for sulfur, for nearly 8,000 years, but in the last 50 years, foreign lawmakers have made it impossible.
Nowadays, in some cases, winemaking mirrors a chemistry experiment with industrial yeast, thiamine hydrochloride, tartaric acid, silica gel, pectinase, copper sulfate, gypsum, activated carbon and acetaldehyde, to name a few. The list is longer than you would think, and wine consumers are often unaware because no law requires that this information appears on wine labels.
A newcomer natural winemaker from Serbia, Bojan Baša, experienced this firsthand. “The inspector came to look at my cellar and said I cannot produce wine here because I don’t have a separate room for oenological agents,” Baša says. “When I told her I don’t use any, she asked how I make wine in the first place.”
The paradox goes further because of the inconsistencies in judging. For wines to “pass the test,” they must not be cloudy. “[However], many unfiltered and unfined reds do pass the test, simply because it is harder to see than in a white wine,” says Alwin Jurtschitsch of his experience at his eponymous estate in Kamptal. Jurtschitsch is one of the bigger wineries fighting to change this, alongside his neighbor Fred Loimer and Styrian colleague Armin Tement.
Looking Toward Change
It’s not all so bleak for natural wine growers. People are taking notice, and individuals with some authority who can provoke change are starting to voice their concerns. For example, the French created the label “Vin Méthode Nature” to identify natural wines made by winemakers who practice organic or biodynamic viticulture. To do this, they can rely on only indigenous yeasts, and they cannot adjust acidity or sugar levels. They eschew common additives like enzymes and yeast nutrients, and the grapes must be handpicked.
In Austria, this conversation is just starting. Chris Yorke, the CEO and managing director of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board, is in talks with lawmakers to lump natural wines under the Qualitätswein (quality wine) designation. Earlier this year, Yorke gave a presentation to the Austrian National Wine Committee, the highest authority for wine, appointed by the Minister of Agriculture.
“I have noticed how well made our natural wines are and how well they are perceived in our export markets,” explains Yorke. In terms of export, the issue is that if a wine doesn’t get qualified as a “quality wine,” it doesn’t get to display the Austrian flag. “I showed the numbers [proving this notion] to the committee, and I hope that this great marketing tool will stay relevant.”
But Sepp Muster, one of the original natural winemakers in Austria, says that he doesn’t even try to get wine qualification. Stephanie and Eduard Tscheppe-Eselböck of Gut Oggau in Burgenland share that sentiment. Without their support, many natural wine pioneers worry that their calls to change label labels will go unheard.
What will be the outcome of this debate? Unfortunately, legal adjustments don’t happen overnight, and it will be at least two years before any major changes are made. Only time will tell if we’ll see a change to natural wine labeling across the globe.