grapes - Getting back to nature

Winemakers are getting back to their roots and employing a range of organic, biodynamic and preservative free practices. But does the consumer understand?

The average wine drinker often has a very romanticised view of winemaking: they think of rugged old men toiling the land, painstakingly picking grapes by hand from vine to vine. The cellar conjures a similar picture of freshly hewn oak barrels stacked neatly in rows, the air damp and heavy with the smell of red wine and sulphur. These images bring wine back to their organic, natural roots of sun, sweat and soil. But the reality is often a world away. Most wine is now made in spotless stainless-steel sheds resembling factories more than any cellar. The art of winemaking has been replaced with the science of temperature control, cultured yeasts and strict hygiene. Brettanomyces, once considered as another dimension or aroma to savour, is now dismissed as an outright fault.

There is talk that consumers want to reembrace the natural, the authentic, by buying wines produced with a more environmentally sympathetic doctrine. ‘Organic’, once a by-word for natural, no longer covers the range of winemaking practices employed by more environmentally conscious winemakers. Now we have plenty of labels to slap on our labels: natural, biodynamic, pet nat, preservative free, vegetarian, vegan. But what do they all mean? Are they markers of quality wine? A proxy for ethically produced wines? All we can be sure of is that if we as an industry struggle to answer these questions, then consumers certainly do.

Speaking to the trade, we’re told that there is a groundswell for these kinds of wines despite relatively low levels of knowledge when it comes to ‘natural’ wines. But like all early adopters, they tend to be highly engaged in wine and health food already – they are not quite representative of your average wine drinker. For them, these wines are still seen as a bit ‘out there’. Trade experts tell us that consumers struggle to distinguish between various categories, and most already believe wine to be ‘natural’ – it’s just fermented grape juice after all, isn’t it? They are unaware of winemaking shortcuts that can be used make a bad vintage palatable, how freely acid and sugar can be added, or even how reverse osmosis and cryo-extraction can be employed.

For consumers to learn more, education needs to come from the top down. As a little test, I went to my local bottle shop to ask if they had any preservative free wine. I was told that they had an organic wine which was “pretty much the same thing”. Pressed further, about what makes a wine organic, he told me quite simply that it meant nothing artificial had been added.

Vegetarian and vegan wines tend to confuse just as much. Where is the dairy? The meat? Is that why some wines taste creamy, and others gamey? Well, no. But why on earth would you use fish bladders and gelatin in the winemaking process at all? A vegetarian on the WI team admits that life is too short and reliable wine information too rare to drink only certified vegetarian wines in the UK.

In Australia, the question of certification is a timely one. The recent Australian Organic Market Report 2017 which pointed out that currently “products labelled organic and sold in Australia are strictly speaking not required by law to be certified”. Anyone can call their wines organic. Consumers need to be in on the game to know that only wines labelled as ‘certified organic’ have been through any sort of rigorous process. With such loose lawmaking it can be difficult to build consumer confidence, something that is vital if producers are going to convince wine drinkers to buy organic over any other style of wine.

As highlighted in our Global Consumer Trends 2017 report, consumers are already flocking to products that strip out certain components from food and drink in a bid to ‘Exclude‘ unnatural or harmful ingredients. As organic becomes mainstream and more shoot-offs establish themselves, informing consumers what their point of difference is – and how it meets their need for a more natural, healthier product – will be a challenge.

Author: Liz Lee