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Insights - July 15, 2022

Defining Craft Wine

What we mean by Craft Wine and why we use this term

Written by

Aleks Zecevic

The wine industry is a complex, multi-billion dollar business. Over the last century, in the same vein as Big Food, wine became predominantly an industrial, mass-market business that completely lost ties with the craft of winemaking. Although small-scale, artisanal wineries did not completely disappear, the general public began to perceive wine simply as alcohol rather than an agricultural product that it should be. Consumers had a hard time separating one from the other.

As organic food and homemade products emerged in the last 15-20 years, this perception began to change. Environmental awareness and research revealing the consequences of harmful chemicals also led to the shift. As a reaction to industrial wine, the natural wine movement rose as one of the most notable responses. It is not exactly clear when and where it started, but it went global pretty quickly, and some of the most famous restaurants in the world started featuring natural wines on their lists.

It is necessary to rewind a little to give some historical context. Wine is an agricultural product that goes back over 8,000 years. The earliest evidence of winemaking dates back to around 5,980 BC, with artifacts found near Tbilisi, the capital of the Republic of Georgia. The pottery discovery revealed the evidence, with images of grape clusters and men dancing. 

These findings appeared in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), and the article’s co-author, Stephen Batiuk, told the BBC, “Wine is central to civilization as we know it in the West. As a medicine, social lubricant, mind-altering substance, and highly valued commodity, wine became the focus of religious cults, pharmacopeias, cuisines, economies, and society in the ancient Near East.”

The craft of winemaking kept on developing for centuries. However,  in the 50-100 years, mainly after the Industrial Revolution, World War II, and the development of synthetic chemicals, the streak of natural fermentation and craft had been broken and nearly becoming extinct if you look at some of the wines in the 90s. Pesticides, herbicides, synthetic stabilizers, industrial yeasts, and their enzymes, etc., helped winegrowers and winemakers make consistent products from year to year. 

Alas, when wine becomes an industrial commodity beverage that no longer depends on mother nature or on vintages, weather, place, and people making it, it is no longer that element of culture and civilization that it was before. It is almost just a boozy soda that can make you tipsy. Every real farmer and artisan knows that food and wine are first and foremost gifts of Nature and thus depend on Her mercy.

The natural wine movement was one response to this and a reminder that it is still possible to make wine without spraying harmful chemicals and using additives. These wines stood out, and natural wine became a controversial topic and made a firm division in all fragments of the wine industry, which was necessary.

However, natural wine can be a divisive and also unclear term and is not the only alternative to industrial wine. Many winemakers produce artisanal products that are environmentally responsible, who tend their vineyards with care and respect, make wine responsibly and aim for the highest quality. All these producers, including the natural wine producers, are what we at Vintners.co call Craft Wine. 

Certain winemakers, especially in warmer regions, like to add a small dose of sulfur at fermentation to avoid unwanted off flavors. This action is controversial among natural wine proponents. Although this changes the wine, it is a stylistic choice, much like adding jalapeño to your taco. Another example would be blocking the malolactic fermentation with sulfur addition, without which we wouldn’t have German Riesling, for example.

Thus, we find the term Craft Wine to be a bit more inclusive, encompassing many winegrowers and winemakers who treat wine as an artisanal product, including natural wine producers. Craft is a word widely used in many industries, but for some reason, Craft Wine was never accepted as a term. If you look at spirits and beer, you can see that both categories have a craft subcategory.

A craft beer or a craft spirit is often defined as a product crafted in limited quantities (typically less than that of large breweries or distilleries) and frequently made by independent breweries or distilleries. Such products are perceived and marketed as artisanal, with a strong emphasis on innovation, enthusiasm, and experimentation. 

Our idea of Craft Wine is the same. It is a product made by artisan winemakers. The people who strongly relate to the vineyards they get their grapes from and do not manipulate with anything other than sulfur. They are new, innovative winemakers and growers, not afraid of experimenting and thinking outside the box. Or on the other hand, they can be purists and traditionalists who follow the recipe of their ancestors. As long as you’re an artisan, you are a craft winemaker.

We do not put a limit on how much sulfur they use, but many rules of the natural wine “definition” still apply. Our non-exhaustive list of criteria for Craft Wine is as follows:

  • Wines are made from grapes whose origin is known. We should be able to know from which plot(s) of land a wine originates.

  • Vines are farmed with respect to the environment: preferably organic, biodynamic, or regenerative.

  • Made in limited quantities from grapes picked by the winemaker’s team.

  • People and social practices should also be known. We should be able to know who worked the wine, who picked the grapes and that this was done in respect of the fruit as much as in respect of the people.

  • Crafted by farmers and winemakers not by machines and technology.

  • Made without additives that alter the vineyard and vintage expression.

  • Made without heavy filtering or fining.

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