What the wine trade could learn from natural wines

“Wine’s not my kind of thing… it’s a bit, well, posh.”

“It’s too complicated, I don’t understand all that stuff about tannin.”

“I’ll probably get into it when I’m older.”

I hear similar things all the time when I put on tastings. These perceptions act as major barriers stopping people getting into wine. It’s nothing new; it was the same when I was first exploring wine. Yes, things are improving. But we have a long way to go, and I don’t see enough individuals, companies or professional bodies addressing these issues or even taking them seriously.

There has been much introspection in the wine trade press lately about ‘engaging with consumers’. The opening comments above are people clearly telling us what they want – something down to earth, easy to understand, and relevant to a younger audience. No wonder natural wines have made such an impact in such a short time.

Don’t get me wrong, I am no table-thumping advocate of natural wines. I’m not here to discuss their merits or otherwise. My personal feelings are mixed. But the broader wine trade can learn from what this movement has achieved – unintentionally or otherwise. Many of these wines are challenging, difficult, or downright weird; yet they have found a market remarkably easily. Doug Wregg of Les Caves de Pyrène is correct to assert that natural wine is “taking wine out of its traditional niche into something cross-cultural, vibrant and funky… it’s associated with young people.”

Thanks to the increasing interest in food and its provenance in the UK, there is one word that you are hearing more and more in marketing circles: authenticity. In spirits, Sipsmith haven’t been slow to notice. Even in other types of products such as cosmetics, brands such as Liz Earle and Bobbi Brown are accentuating the importance of raw ingredients and the people behind the brand, to great success. Compared to many of the big brands seen in supermarkets, natural wine has authenticity in spades, and people are prepared to pay a premium for it.

Where natural wines are drunk, emphasis on the human element is always present. At Green & Blue the names of natural winemakers are written on the walls. At Terroirs, instead of images of vineyards and chateaux, you see photographs of winemakers. They’re not wearing Hermes ties and Gucci suits; they have beards and holes in their jumpers. They look normal – anything but ‘posh’. They look like they have a story I could relate to; I want to hear it.

The importance of food can’t be underestimated in bringing these wines to a wider audience. It has been the opening of bars and restaurants with the specific intention of showcasing these wines that has been key to their dissemination. More often than not they are run by young people who are passionate about the wines. Isabelle Legeron MW of RAW Fair states “a lot of people come to natural wine from the food perspective… who’ve never really thought about wine, but are coming at it from a fresh food angle”.

Another great benefit of natural wines is their simplicity: organic grapes, hand-picked, no additives, naturally made. The image is of a product that is easy to understand. The emphasis is on enjoying and drinking rather than analysing and collecting. Rather than precision of winemaking and tasting note – low yields, optical sorting tables, the textural finesse of the tannins, the weight on the mid-palate – they are more often sold on the story of the wine.

For what is still a small movement, natural wine has made a huge noise. The whole wine trade seems to be talking about them. There are countless blogs singing their praises. The wine trade has created little in the way of resources for the budding wine lover; blogs are easily found on the internet, and more readily trusted since they speak the language of the reader.

Craft beers are similar in many ways to natural wines. Not just that they are artisanally made alcoholic drinks, but in their brand values: authentic, straightforward, inclusive, down to earth. According to Legeron, natural wine will “always be underground”. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that the natural movement has made wine cool; but it’s certainly helping.

“First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.” Mahatma Ghandi

Natural wines can be challenging and they are rarely cheap. Nonetheless, they have made remarkable inroads of late, with minimal marketing spend. Like it or not they are here to stay. They established themselves in part through addressing glaring barriers to consumer engagement that have existed largely unaddressed for too long. They have supplied the UK with what local drinkers have been wanting for years.


Original article published in Harpers Wine & Spirit, but this is slightly longer.