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How the natural wine movement might challenge the Wine Aroma Wheel lexicon and what to do about it


"Will the natural wine movement or any prominent wine industry trends emerging in the past few years alter how the Wine Aroma Wheel is currently seen?"


I have encountered this question several times in the past few months. My answers didn't seem to satisfy the people challenging me. I thought I would then share my perspective with you, hoping we could start a conversation on this topic.


Let's start with the natural wine movement, and I will tackle other trends in coming articles.



What is a natural wine?


An organic or biodynamic wine, or just fermented grape juice?

According to Hagan [1], the natural wine movement started in the 1960s in France, in the Beaujolais region, where a small group of producers decided to "go back to the basics" to make wine.


To this date, there is no unified or regulated definition of what makes natural wine. Most professionals agree that practicing organic and biodynamic principles in grape growing and winemaking leads to more natural wines. These approaches contrast with conventional practices involving intensive interventions in the vineyards to control pests and diseases and in the cellar to control the wine style being produced.


I heard several times natural wine described as raw or a living wine.


A clean wine?

More radical thinking spearheaded by a few celebrities goes as far as claiming no intervention should happen to qualify wine as  a "clean wine."

Anyone who has been part of grape harvesting or winemaking knows that "clean" is not the best adjective to describe the wine business.

Making wine requires getting your hands dirty, even in organic or biodynamic operations. Besides, avoiding sulfite addition is super risky, not only to prevent oxidation but also to prevent undesirable microbiological growth.



What is the public perception of natural wine


A Swiss-Australian study

A study published at the end of 2020 investigated what wine characteristics consumers from Switzerland and Australia associated with a natural wine [2]. 

  • The rationale to select the countries was to contrast two wine cultures. Switzerland is an old wine-producing country where most of its inhabitants have been health-conscious and environmental-conscious for several decades. 

  • Europeans still consider Australia as a new world wine-producing country. However, I know many Australian friends do disagree.

About 230+ wine consumers from each country participated in an online survey.

  • Researchers asked them to select the factors that were important when they buy wine.

  • Participants had to review 21 attributes describing how the grapes were grown, how the wine was produced, and how the wine was packaged.

  • They rated how natural was a wine with each attribute. 


What naturalness means?

Wine naturalness seemed more critical for Swiss consumers.

However, all participants identified wines from an old-world producing country, or aged in barrels, or closed with an oak cork as the most natural.

Producing wines with additives, especially sulfites, sugar, or gelatin, signaled a less natural wine

Do these results surprise you?



Unfortunately, the study design didn't consider how certain combinations of attributes could change public perception of a wine's naturalness. 

For example: is an old world produced wine, aged with oak chips and closed by an oak cork more natural than a new world made wine, aged in oak barrels, and closed by an oak cork?


In my experience, some attributes are more important than others, and asking participants to rate one feature at a time assumes all features have the same importance.

Also, the risk of halo bias, one attribute rating affecting another attribute rating, can quickly occur in such a study design.

But I digress.





What specific aromas can we expect from a natural wine?

Going back to the initial question, how the Wine Aroma Wheel can help better describe natural wines, I searched for helpful wine reviews.

The common aroma attributes I found across the internet were "funky" and "sour" profiles.

These two words are subjective to interpretation. While I would associate "sour" with "vinegar," a descriptor triggered by volatile acidity, I am still perplexed about what "funky" means.



What does funky mean?


A cider-like aroma was another way to describe "funky"; apple ciders tend to exhibit a bruised apple aroma, a sign of oxidation in conventional winemaking.


What about other perceptions?

The descriptions of natural wines also included other aspects:

  • a cloudy appearance because wine is not or less filtered and 

  • some fizziness due to the carbon dioxide released during a slower fermentation process than conventional fermentation.


The fizz might be the reason some wine aficionados describe natural wine as a living beverage.



Should we add "funky" on the Wine Aroma Wheel?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines "funky" as having an offensive odor. It doesn't help us trying to be more specific.


Looking further, I found this definition: 

"A "funky" smell or odor is the smell of something a little bit rotten, moldy, sweaty, etc." (phrasemic.com)


The Wine Aroma Wheel already includes "moldy" in the Earthy category, mostly about moldy cork, and "sweaty" in the Lactic category, associated with a fermentation gone wrong.



Therefore, we could advocate to include rotten in the microbiological category.


I'd like to remind us that the Wine Aroma Wheel's purpose is not to provide an exhaustive list of possible wine aromas. So no need to alter the wheel, as far as I am concerned.


The Wine Aroma Wheel  is, however, a tool to learn how to categorize our perceptions when smelling and tasting a glass of wine.


I realize describing a natural wine as funky is not appealing.

Considering the growing natural wine movement, I would think that funky is not a typical wine aroma.

Other aromas, tastes, and mouthfeel must make the sensory experience enjoyable and memorable. 


Tell me then in the comment box below,

what specific aroma, taste, or mouthfeel do you associate with natural wine?

New! Comments

Have your say about what you just read! Leave me a comment in the box below.

Published March 3, 2021

References

[1] Au Naturel: A Beginner’s Guide to Natural Wine by McKenzie Hagan | April 14, 2020 

[2] Cornelia Staub, Fabienne Michel, Tamara Bucher, Michael Siegrist, How do you perceive this wine? Comparing naturalness perceptions of Swiss and Australian consumers, Food Quality and Preference, Volume 79, 2020, 103752,