When slurping isn’t natural

I looked at the bottle three times, picked it up, took a photo on my phone. Something didn’t feel quite right.

This is simply a fabulous French no-nonsense natural wine…” screamed the label. And then further down, there it was again: “This wine is 100% natural as well as gorgeous to drink”. At €4.99 in Albert Heijn (The Dutch equivalent to Tesco), what exactly was this purported “natural wine”? I marched straight to the cashier, bottle and wallet in hand.

Slurp back label

A few enquiries later, I discovered Slurp is a range of entry level wines sold (but not made) by maverick Dutchman Ilja Gort. Bordeaux vineyard owning Gort is the bad boy of the Dutch wine scene, revered by loyal drinkers, but loathed by much of the wine trade. Why?

Tulips

Ilja Gort (Courtesy deondernemer.nl)Gort is a brilliant marketeer who doesn’t always let the truth get in the way of a good story. A self-made man, with a fortune earned from advertising jingles, he is clearly very shrewd. Since his 1994 purchase of a 15 hectare vineyard near St. Emilion, Gort has built a mini-wine empire which not only sells to Albert Heijn but also J Sainsbury in the UK. Pretty impressive.

Every facet of La Tulipe’s operation has a carefully crafted PR angle, down to Gort’s comedy French beret and eccentric moustachios. In 2008, Gort insured his nose with Lloyds of London, for €4 million. A fantastic publicity stunt. Then there’s the press release about why La Tulipe opts for synthetic pesticides instead of organic viticulture, or the fuss made of Slurp’s low alcohol content: “about 12%” according to the website. Well, the bottle I bought clearly states “13%”.

Slurping

Enough of the marketing spin. What does the Slurp Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 taste like? Well, pretty good for €4,99. A cheap Languedoc Cabernet could commit many sins – overripe, unripe, too sweet, too rustic, but Slurp manages to be utterly inoffensive. There isn’t a lot of character – I’d defy an MW to pick out grape variety or region in a blind tasting – but the fruit is decent, and the finish has a smattering of tannin which keeps things fresh. The whole is easy to drink and excellent value at this price.

I guessed I was tasting a wine made with selected yeasts, a decent slug of SO2 and some filtering and fining to guarantee the starbright hue. La Tulipe confirmed all of these assumptions, but despite repeated requests I could not get them to give me the exact level of total SO2. They say “we aim for 20 to 25 mg / litre at bottling to be at 15 to 20 mg once bottled”. Readers with a technical background in winemaking can make up their own minds whether this is believable or not.

Slurp - yes this is technically the front labelSlurp is clearly not a “natural wine”, at least in the sense that this phrase is now most often used. Yes, I hear you cry, there’s no legal definition of these words. And that’s exactly what Gort and his team are banking on. They can get away with putting misleading rubbish like this on the label, without any comeback – especially, the ever astute Wink Lorch reminded me, as the offending words are on what is technically the back label. The front label of a wine bottle, which contains information like alcohol level and volume, is much more tightly regulated.

Chateau La Tulipe de la Garde is the estate’s premium wine – a Bordeaux Supérieur, yours for £9.99 in the UK. I tried the 2011, which is decent if you like a ton of new oak swathing soft easy-going Merlot (don’t take my word for it – Decanter gave it a bronze medal). The consultant winemaker is a little known French chap by the name of Michel Rolland.

Legal definitions

It’s easy to throw rocks at La Tulipe or “Monsieur” Gort, but this is missing the point – That the phrase “natural wine” can be so blatantly abused demonstrates the urgent need for legal standards in this area – something underlined by Isabelle Legeron in her interview with me earlier this year.

Decriers of “natural wine” as a term or category will be laughing up their sleeves, but consider this: a small minority of wine drinkers are genuinely intolerant to higher levels of SO2. Wouldn’t those customers have an expectation when they choose a so called “natural wine”, that they are also getting a low sulphur wine? In the UK at least, there are mainstream low and no added sulphur wines on the market (eg: Stellar Organics), and a customer base which chooses these products for health reasons. These customers would be grossly misled, and possibly even made to feel unwell if they chose a “Slurp” wine, thinking that it falls into this category.

The wine world doesn’t need more certification – organic and biodynamic already confuse consumers enough. But if wine labels were required to state the total SO2, which additives, fining and filtering agents had been used, consumers could make up their own minds about how natural the contents are – Surely preferable to having faux-French vignerons pull the beret over their eyes.

Disclosure

I purchased a bottle of Slurp Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 out of my own pocket, however the 2011 Chateau La Tulipe de la Garde was provided for review, along with technical data.

Thanks to Mariëlla Beukers for some background and insights on this subject.

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    • robertejoseph

      As a relatively close observer of the ‘natural’ wine scene I have to admit to relishing the schadenfreude as it falls over the banana skin it has dropped in front of itself. Until now, the naturalistas who were so clever as to choose a term – ‘natural’ – which is already associated with all sorts of dodgy foods (the kind that ‘contains natural flavouring’), have resolutely resisted having any kind of certification. “Oh no”, they say, “We trust anyone who uses the term to be a nice chap like us”. Which makes sense, I guess, because the ‘natural’ movement also believes in trusting nature to make its wine for it. The same nature, that, as far as I can recall, also brought us meningitis, woodworm and tsunamis.

      People who want zero-SO2 wine, should seek out wines labeled as having zero SO2 – like Gerard Bertrand’s recommendable Naturae. I’m not sure whether Naturae is made – heaven forfend – with cultured yeasts, and it may well have been filtered. I actually very much hope that it has, because that’s the sensible thing to do with wine that lacks the protection usually provided by SO2.

      I don’t know if the makers of la Tulipe are lying about their SO2 content, and nor do you Simon. I would very much prefer it if you would have their wine analysed before casting aspersions about their honesty. Otherwise, I really can’t see what they have done wrong apart from wearing a beret and a moustache (smacks dangerously of ‘fun’ and we don’t want any of that!), make a decent, good value Pays d’Oc Cabernet, and a Bordeaux Sup that impressed the Decanter judges enough to win a bronze medal – and of course, employ Michel Rolland.

      Rolland has, incidentally, given enjoyment to millions of wine drinkers and, for this very reason is usually depicted with horns and a tail by naturalistas who only acknowledge a limited range of their kind of pleasures as being acceptable).

      I wish Mr Gort well.

      • http://themorningclaret.com/ Simon Woolf

        I think you protest too much Robert. There are plenty of people working in the “natural” wine sector who would welcome stronger certification – notably, Isabelle Legeron, as I mention in the article.

        There is nothing wrong with clever marketing, except if it is downright deceptive. I feel that’s the case here. There’s nothing “natural” about this wine – it is manipulated and contains additives. It’s in the same category as battery farmed eggs which say “farm fresh”, or processed ready meals which say “all natural” – it’s selling a marketing image which has no basis in truth.

        The marketing and advertising industries don’t have a good record when it comes to being honest with the public – they did after all try to convince us for decades that there was nothing wrong with smoking, until research proved categorically otherwise.

        I agree with you on the zero SO2 labelling. But until that information is mandatory on a wine label, I suspect we’ll continue to see wines like this one, which adopt the vernacular without the integrity.

        And regarding the total SO2 of Slurp – if you can suggest a lab where I could get the analysis done at reasonable cost, I will do so.

        • http://www.catavino.net Ryan Opaz

          4.99€ wine consumers are not in the “natural wine” debate. They drink wine to drink wine. They assume it’s a natural product. Last time I asked my tasting group back in the states what they thought of “natural wines” I heard people with 100,000€+ cellars say “I think wine should be natural, not that canned fruit juice with alcohol added”. They had no clue of the debate that is now, 3 years on, a bit louder.

          I really don’t think this is deceptive at all, but rather a great case for why the non so2 and wild yeast peeps need to find a better term. This is “natural wine” by all definitions outside of intellectual debate.

          I would love to have a way to find wines that qualify as “natural” in the way that you mean it, but that doesn’t exist. Calling a wine made with grapes, yeast(selected or not) and even SO2(a natural element) ‘natural’ seems fair to me. It is natural. And the label plays with that.

          • http://themorningclaret.com/ Simon Woolf

            We are getting to the point where there are generally accepted norms about what constitutes a “natural wine”. People like Isabelle can take a lot of credit for that I think – rawfair has a charter which defines precisely what’s in and what’s out.

            To me the slurp label is blatently deceptive – even the most simplistic consumer will equate “100% natural” to mean nothing added.

            You kind of said it yourself “the label plays with that”. I think it plays with the terms to the point that they become meaningless and unhelpful to the consumer. And there are plenty of examples of food labelling where producers have been asked to modify labels when they used terms like these which were not backed up by the good inside.

            To be honest, I’d give a true natural wine producer using wild yeasts and no added SO2 a hard time if they said their wine was “100% natural”. Because as we all know, making wine requires human intervention.

            • http://www.sfrisowinery.com Reka Haros

              As I already said it at the beginning of the month, I like the packaging. It’s catchy and gets the consumers’ attention especially for that price. I agree with Ryan that consumers don’t care about what 100% natural means.
              From a marketing point of view and the “deception of what he claims”, you could ask the authorities of the country where he sells the products. Each country has its own regulations as to what can be written and what cannot be claimed on consumer goods. Back in the late ’90s when Danone was launching its “Bio” yoghurt in some European countries, we had to change the entire Branding into Activia because the term “Bio” was deceptive. These are regulations that can be consulted, you just need to do research, or call the agency that regulates packaging in Holland or UK.

            • Mariëlla Beukers

              Simon, you say: even the most simplistic consumer will equate 100% natural to mean nothing added. Today, i experieced again consumers do not have a clue how wine is made. Let alone have any understanding about additives! Or ‘natural’ for that matter. And, like Ryan said, they don’t care. Like I said before: in the Netherlands, for which this wine is made, the word ‘natural’ has not the ‘ connotations’ you associate with it. There are some ‘ zero SO2 fanatics, among wine writers and pro’s. But you will get blank looks from my neighbours, my family, even my closest friends. And most of the wine drinkers.
              Why Ilja gort chose English and the term natural? Because: english sounds better (ever heard a pop song in Dutch? ;-)) and natural appeals to the ‘health’ trend. Bio, organic, artisanal: it want to convey a feeling, that’s all.

            • http://themorningclaret.com/ Simon Woolf

              Consumers may not have any specific understanding, but at the same time they may be subconsciously attracted to a product that says “100% natural” – as you say, because it has welcome associations of health benefits or whatever.

              If that product is manipulated and has additives – and is basically produced in a conventional/mass-produced industrial way – then I think the labelling is deceptive.

              Interesting, Albert Heijn’s own brand organically certified wines were right next to slurp, on the shelf. They do not make any such claims to be “100% natural”.

          • http://arnoldwaldstein.com/ awaldstein

            In the metropolitan NY markets, there is no debate Ryan.

            There is not controversy except amongst the pundits. This is not a market issue, strictly an industry pedantic one.

            There is no problem finding ‘these’ wines either–DTC wineries that disclose their methods, distributors and importers, who buy and provide information under their own credence and retailers themselves.

            This is an interesting topic. A non issue though.

      • http://themorningclaret.com/ Simon Woolf

        @robertejoseph:disqus , I now have this from La Tulipe:

        “Following your request we’ve noticed that the SO2 is 32 mg per liter.”

        So their original assertion ““we aim for 20 to 25 mg / litre at bottling to be at 15 to 20 mg once bottled” was indeed not quite correct.

        To be fair to La Tulipe (or rather their producer in Languedoc, whoever they might be) this still seems quite a low SO2 figure, at least in my limited experience of analysing such data.

    • http://arnoldwaldstein.com/ awaldstein

      Hi Simon

      You don’t define the world, categories or human nature by the corner cases and exceptions.

      If you did every retail outlet would become a lockdown to protect against the small percentage of people who steal.

      And honestly I really don’t care about this bottle or this winemaker.

      Natural Wine is a category that not only I but the market embraces. It has encouraged hundreds, maybe more, to look at making wine differently and more importantly, created a market that can support them.

      This is goodness.

      Categories are how people think and shop.

      The haters of natural wine are also I guess the haters of the Wellness Category where I have a company on the side. Gee–how bad a category it is with no definition at all and covers everything from Yoga to fashion to juice to skin care. It also happens to be a $2T business in the states that 25% of the women here happily shop under.

      And how good it is to for the consumer as the CEO of my company heads out to talk to 100 businesswomen this morning about NOT what wellness is but what it means to her and how she thinking about her product.

      I will bet that Natural Wine will never have a definition. I certainly hope not.

      I do–and I agree with you Simon–think that the very nature of the category will drive more legislation around what should be on the labels of wine, just as it is on our food and our clothing. The smart winemakers will do this voluntarily sooner.

    • http://blisswineimports.com Alleah Friedrichs

      Nicely said. I highly doubt the so2 claim. Even the best “natural” wines have 40g/l with minimal free sulfites. Sorry if I missed it, where were the grapes grown? In some regions its very easy to only use topical sulfer/copper in the vineyard (languedoc, rioja, douro). Not so much in Bordeaux. I’d guess anyone who relies on the “natural wine” pitch isn’t offering the best wine to begin with. The best wines normally end up being pretty “natural” on the spectrum.

      • http://themorningclaret.com/ Simon Woolf

        According to the label this is an IGP Pay D’Oc – and Slurp refer to the Languedoc but that’s as much detail as they give.

        Actually, I’ve seen and tasted plenty of wines with as low as 10mg/L total SO2 in the finished wine. See the catalogue for this year’s Rawfair for example.

        But yes, 32mg/L is still on the low side.

        • http://blisswineimports.com Alleah Friedrichs

          Well if it is from Languedoc it could easily be natural in the vineyard. Especially if they are buying the excess grapes from other “natural” farms. Then they can doctor up the juice in the winery.

          I’d love to try more <20mg/L wines, I'll check out Rawfair.

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