The world is paying attention to the well-being of nature, our body and our soul. Concepts of ‘minimalism’, ‘natural’, and ‘organic’ are quickly catching consumers’ eyes. In China’s wine market, the niche natural wine category is beckoning to a growing group of millennials and Gen-Z and has defied what critics once dismissed as a “fad”.
You may wonder, how natural is ‘natural wine’? How did it take over the China market? What’s driving natural wine growth in the Chinese wine market? Vino Joy News has talked to key importers and sommeliers to uncork the natural wine trends in China.
What Is Natural Wine?
There is not yet a legal definition for natural wine, but it is often phased as ‘low intervention wine’ or ‘zero-zero wine’ because it is produced without adding or removing anything in the cellar. The production of natural wine does not encourage using additives, chemicals, filtering, and even yeasts in the winemaking process, and are produced with grapes without usage of pesticides or herbicides.
The wine itself has become a subject of heated contention in the wine world. Its converters and supporters laud the wine’s virtue, authenticity and unique taste, while traditionalists decry its anarchist idealism or even denounce it as pig swill.
Is It Same As Organic Wine And Biodynamic Wine?
Natural wine is often confused with organic wine and biodynamic wine. The later two actually carry more solid definitions than natural wine.
Organic wine typically refers to wine produced in organic methods. It can refer to vineyards adopting organic practices, which usually do not use pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and herbicides.
The definition of organic wine in different countries often depends on the amount of added sulfites. Sulfites have been a common preservative and antioxidant used in wine since Roman Times. Naturally, sulfur dioxide is released by-product of the fermentation process during winemaking, but nowadays wine producers often add extra synthetic sulfites.
In the US, organic wine has a strict definition. To obtain the US Department of Agriculture organic certificate, only 10ppm of additional sulfites can be added into the organic wine. Both growing of the grapes and the conversion of wine are also regulated. For instance, grapes have to be grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers. Additional agricultural ingredients used in wine cannot exceed 5% of the total product, and have to be specifically allowed.
In Europe, a wine can be defined as organic when it is produced according to the Regulation of the European Commission. The wine has to be produced from organic grapes, and using only products and processes authorized by the regulation. The maximum sulphite content is set at 100 mg/L for red wine and 150 mg/L for white and rosé.
Meanwhile, biodynamic wine can also adopt organic farming methods, but they focus on the concept of anthroposophy, which means the farmers would view the vineyard as an ecological whole. Vineyards are not just about grapes, but the habitat around it, including the flowers, the animals and the soil. The farming practices are often linked with the spiritual force of the cosmos. For instance, harvesting is linked to the phase of the moon.
In the US, the legal definition of biodynamic can be defined by the Demeter Biodynamic Farm Standard. It reflects the biodynamic principle of the farm as a living organism, which should be self-contained, self-sustaining and following the cycles of nature.
Natural Wine Is Welcomed by Youngsters In China
Towards 2000s, when natural wine enthusiasts were spreading s gospel in trendy wine bars and restaurants in the UK and the US, small importers in Asia were testing the waters with natural wine. In 2010, Hong Kong’s foremost natural wine promoter La Cabane was founded. In first-tier cities in mainland China like Shanghai, natural wine has also found its place in artisan and trendy bars like Vinism and RAC which opened its doors in 2017.
Apart from modish natural wine bars, wine lovers are exploring natural wine in exhibition fairs and parties like Wine Lips Natural Wine Party by China Social Club in 2018, CRUSH Natural Wine Fest by Social Supply in 2019 and Design China’s Beijing Fair in the same year.
Giovanni is a co-founder of Ziran, a small group of wine importers focused on natural wines in China. He witnessed a growing interest from the wine exhibitions and international fairs. For instance, Wine to Asia has accepted Ziran to lead the Living Wine area designated for natural wine.
“Natural wine is a growing phenomenon worldwide and the China market, which is not an abstract entity but a concrete group of curious and interested people very sensitive to trends and tendencies”, He told Vino Joy.
Giovanni also co-founded Zefiro, a wine import company based in Shanghai. Searching for a new tendency in both Europe and China markets at first, he accidentally discovered the wonder of natural wine, and now it accounts for around 80% of Zefiros’ wine portfolio.
As an insider of the industry, he noticed more commitments from big and structured traditional importers as well as huge e-commerce platforms. “Some of the most renowned and serious wine educators in China are already providing their students with all the information and details needed to better understand this kind of ‘unconventional’ wines.”
Despite major cities like Shanghai, Shenzhen and Beijing being the main consumers of wine, Giovanni has been receiving interest from other regions. ‘Some colleagues from second and third tier cities contact us asking for these wines, and gradually go deep in the entire selection finding out other producers, their philosophy and the work behind an organic and natural wine.’
And then there is an emergence of young drinkers who are ready to explore more.
“In Shanghai, it is obvious natural wine has become a main choice for ‘Post-90s’ consumers in these two years [referring to people born in 1990s]. There are lots of wine bars and bistros that feature natural wine as their signatures in Shanghai,” Kingsley, a sommelier at the Shanghai natural wine bar Le Verre à Vin told Vino Joy News. The wine bar has a portfolio of 180 to 200 labels, with natural wine accounting for around 50 of them so far, he recalled.
Kingsley shared the same observation with Giovanni when it came to the expansion of the natural wine market. He noticed that natural wine emerged as a new category in Suzhou and Hangzhou, as well as other first-tier cities in Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shanghai.
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