WAC 2014 Recap Series : Legislation and the definition of wine’s “natural state”

How much does legislation influence our perception of what a product should be?  Wine represents a particularly fine example of this surreptitious legal sway over our intellect, particularly in France, where its production has been closely regulated since the end of the 19th century.

The evolution of this legislation was the subject of a presentation at WAC 2014 by Alain Chatelet, of the DFCCRF (Direction générale de la concurrence, de la consommation et de la répression des fraudes – General council on competition, consumption and the repression of fraud).

The story begins in 1889, when the French “Griffe law” defined wine as a product of the fermentation of fresh grapes, and nothing else.  Good ol’ strawberry wine?  Not so fast – if it is made from strawberries, it is, by definition, not a wine, at least under French jurisdiction.  A few years later, a French law banned any practices that served to modify the “natural state” of a wine.  The intention here was not to establish some early grain of the natural wine movement, but rather to protect the consumer against fraud.  At the time, all products that strayed from the most straightforward fermented grape juice could be, and probably were, the result of an attempt to cheat and swindle the buyer into buying something [cheaper] that wasn’t really “wine.”  The only practices that were allowed, were coupage (blending with a different wine to ameliorate the quality), freezing or partial freezing of grapes, pasteurization, chaptalization (addition of sugar to the must to increase the alcoholic degree in the final wine), fining, and the addition of cultured yeasts, tannins, plaster (since outlawed), or sulfur dioxide.  Acidification of must using tartaric acid was allowed, but the acidification of final wines was strictly prohibited.  Why the distinction?  In part because the practice of adding acid directly to wines was seen as overly articficial (indeed, a transformation of the acid occurs with the microbial activity of fermentation, and acidified wines are much easier to pick out than wines that were made from acidified musts).  But more importantly, this rule was a protection against an increasingly globalized economy.  By eliminating the recourse to wine acidification, the French government was effectively preventing the possibility of a southward expansion of the wine industry, because grapes couldn’t be planted where it was too hot if they were to avoid producing wines severely lacking in acidity.

Thus the initial regulation of oenological practices was based on two underlying objectives: to protect consumers from fraud and to protect the established French wine industry from competition by new growing regions.  The goal of winemaking was to produce a drinkable, sellable product, but the technology was more limited than it is today, thus leaving few choices when it came to oenological practices. But the law still shaped how people defined what could and could not be considered “wine,” a trend that continues to our present day.

When the laws governing winemaking within the European Community were first created in 1978, they picked up the same principle of the law passed in 1907 – that winemaking practices should preserve a wine’s “natural state.” A few more products were added to the “safe” list, in accordance with technological developments of the time, but in general the rules of the game didn’t change.

But in the 30 years that followed, not only did the rules change, the underlying principle also evolved to fit the new drivers in the industry present by 2008.  Now, the EU stressed the imperative of preserving the “essential and natural” characteristics of a wine.  This leaves us with not one but two ambiguous terms in the definition, leaving the interpretation and application of this principle rather nebulous. A 2009 modification authorized 50 oenological practices in the European Community (click here to download the full document: Commission Regulation (EC) No.  606/2009). 15 of these are additives, and will soon be required to be marked on labels as such, and the remainder are “oenological techniques,” which do not have to be indicated.  But there are 80 products that have been in discussion since 1999, and these products have yet to be pegged as “additives” or not, highlighting the delicate nature of defining what “belongs” in a wine (even if it is a conventional wine). Of particular interest are products that could be potential allergens, for example those that containing milk, eggs or gluten, which have been an important focus of labeling laws across the globe in recent years.

Thus we see, in this brief legislative timeline, the evolution of the legal definitions of wine and what is considered appropriate oenological practice. The natural wine debates aside, this history accentuates the more fundamental discussion about what should be allowed to go into a wine at all, and where we draw the lines between the “essential” nature of a wine and an artificial wine-like concoction.  The labeling solution is an interesting one, as it allows for a fudge-factor.  The government is going to decide what can be added to wines to maintain its “essential and natural” characteristics, but the labeling of approved additives allows the consumer to decide for himself if he is willing to accept the EU definition of a “real” wine.  If he feels that certain additives cause a wine to stray too far from its native state, he can choose to avoid wines that contain them. Whether or not consumers are willing to play such an active role in defining the nature of wine remains, of course, to be seen.