Corporate Natural Wine?

natural winemakingThis is a curious experiment.

Since the beginning of the natural wine movement, natural wine has been produced almost exclusively by small wineries who often quite explicitly contrast their product with corporate-made “manipulated” wines. Natural winemakers often see themselves as renegades, thumbing their nose at conventional tastes, mass production techniques, and winemaking recipes governed by market-tested preferences.

And this “outsider” status has persisted. Despite 40 years of sometimes hi-profile conversation and controversy about natural wine, a search of or the website of your local Total Wine store will yield only one or two wines labeled as “natural.”

But this might be about to change. Treasury Wine Estates, the 5th largest global wine company, is about to launch a line of natural wines in Australia and, if successful, they will likely release them in the U.S

Treasury Wine Estates, the Australian giant behind the Snoop Dogg-promoted 19 Crimes range of decidedly UNnatural wines is, it seems, launching an eye-catchingly-labeled set of wines called Second Glance, including an ‘Amber Wine, ‘Chillable Grenache’ and a ‘Pet Nat’. The red is described – by Treasury – as “picked early and naturally fermented for extra freshness and swagger. Brimming with juicy raspberries and whiffs of berry-sour confection and herbal notes, it’s lightweight, zippy & made for chilling on those warm days.”

Does this mean that natural wine will go mainstream?

Natural wine has come to occupy a particular niche in the wine world. They have become identified with a juicy, high acid, low alcohol, lightweight, easy-drinking style of wine meant to be served with a slight chill. That taste profile has even acquired a name of its own—glou glou—which is meant, through sonic association, to indicate a wine that is chuggable.

There is no reason why low-intervention wines made with minimal sulfur and native yeast must have this taste profile. You can make a natural wine with dense, rich fruit, high alcohol, moderate acidity, and heavy tannins. But the natural wine community has gravitated toward the lighter style, and I suspect there might be a substantial market for it, given the popularity of rosé. There are of course many conventional wines that are juicy and lightweight but you can’t tell that from the label—the association of the label “natural” with light, quaffable wines might make them readily identifiable for consumers seeking that style. The added association of “natural” with “healthy” and “good for the environment” will also help draw younger consumers.

But there is a downside to this. For many wine lovers, what makes natural wines interesting is their unpredictability. Each vintage, each barrel, and sometime each bottle can be significantly different which makes drinking natural wine an adventure. I doubt that corporate natural wines will be unpredictable. Casual consumers of industrial wine value predictability and so the rough edges of these wines will undoubtedly be eliminated.

The fact there are no enforceable standards for what counts as “natural” means that wineries will do whatever it takes to get consistency. The term will in the end refer to a style rather than a production method.

The purists in the natural wine movement will have to find another label.

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