Is it possible to make a natural, orange wine from organically grown grapes, and sell it for only six quid?
Aldi wants you to believe that it is, as does their Romanian supplier Cramele Recaş. Their Orange Natural Wine went on sale in UK stores yesterday for just £5.99. As you might expect, the wine’s launch caused quite a stir amongst wine pundits and twitterati. It’s also generated a surprising amount of column inches in the UK’s tabloid press and beyond, albeit almost all parroted from Aldi’s copy/paste friendly press release – which says a lot about the bankruptcy of journalism today.
Many natural wine fans took to social media, metaphorically rolling their eyebrows barely before the ink on the press release was dry. The idea of a major multiple retailer appearing to cash-in on a niche sector caused a predictable knee-jerk reaction, but was their venom justified?
Most of those commentators questioned whether the wine was really the real thing. Surely the grapes could not be organically farmed at this price? And as the terms ‘natural’ and ‘orange’ have no legal definition, did anyone believe that this was actually a natural wine – in the generally accepted meaning of that phrase?
It turns out that the wine’s credentials are pretty much in order. Bristolian Philip Cox, commercial director of the giant Cramele Recaş, confirmed that the wine is made from a parcel of organically farmed grapes grown “by our neighbour”. That neighbour happens to be 70km and “two hours drive on very bad roads” away, but maybe that’s splitting hairs.
Cox confirmed what the front-label claims: the wine is spontaneously fermented, unfiltered, unfined and made without any added sulphites. At least sort of. He also mentioned that the grapes were dusted with a light sprinkling of sulphur during transportation. While these sulphites would have been entirely consumed during the fermentation, perhaps it’s a little bit ingenuous to claim this is a “no added sulphur” wine.
Natural wine is a movable feast at the best of times, and I think Aldi have enough justification to use the phrase here. Far worse crimes have been committed against the term than this. That said, it should be noted that Cramele Recaş do temperature control their ferments, which for some hardliners may mean the natural credentials are already in tatters.
Never mind the technical details. What does this surprise release from Aldi actually mean for the market, and for natural wine? There is surely a real upside here. If Aldi’s customers are introduced to the concept of natural wine, and skin maceration in white wine through this budget-priced offering, that can’t be bad.
Very few are going to take a chance on a bottle costing £15 – £20, if they’re not sure whether they’ll enjoy the wine. But at £5.99, most would agree it’s worth a punt. Whether any of those customers will convert to more sustainably and artisanally made wines when they realise that this isn’t the normal price point is moot – but at least a proportion will have had their eyes and tastebuds prised open.
Cox doesn’t mince his words, and some of his soundbites haven’t endeared him to the natural wine community. In an interview with Meininger’s Wine Business International, he stated that “Most other orange wine is very expensive and horrible, and we wanted to make one that’s more commercial.” He reinforced this on twitter, stating that “all the orange wine I’ve tried has been horrible.” When I called him out on that statement, he admitted that Romania’s very poor storage and transport conditions combined with high summer temperatures meant that many wines were not in good condition when he sampled them. He repented slightly, adding “I don’t claim to be an expert on natural/orange wines.”
My initial hunch was that the Aldi wine might be a rebadging of Cramele Recaş’s “Sole Orange 2017”, as the two have an identical blend of 85% Chardonnay and 15% Sauvignon Blanc. However, Cox noted that although the fruit is the same, for the Solé the Chardonnay was carbonically macerated, while in the Aldi version it is not. The Sole Orange is a delightful wine, light and tangy but with the kind of subtle herbiness that you might expect in a macerated wine from Umbria or Lazio. I’ve not yet tasted the Aldi bottling – but will report back very shortly when I have.
Looking at the economics, this release does feel like a loss-leader. UK fixed duty on a bottle of wine is £2.16, but the VAT on this bottle amounts to another £1. So that’s £2.83 per bottle left for Aldi’s margin, the producer’s margin, the cost of the bottle, the cork, that fancy paper strip on top, the label and the transport from Romania to the UK. Philip Cox confirmed that “Aldi are more or less selling it at the price they buy it, but we’re making a good margin.” He added, “I don’t feel sorry for them – they make their profit on other lines!”
Cramele Recaş is a huge producer, knocking out close to 25 million bottles a year, so it has economies of scale that are not available to smaller operations. Cox also confirmed that both real-estate and labour are cheap in Romania, helping to keep production costs lower than they would be in other parts of Europe. As an interesting aside, he pointed out that many of Cramele Recaş’s wines are on the shelves in the UK and Netherlands for much, much lower prices than Aldi’s Orange Natural Wine. “We’re actually making quite good money on this” he mused.
The issue of supermarkets using loss-leading to encourage footfall and positive PR might be dubious on ethical grounds, but it’s doubtful that Aldi will be poaching customers from independent wine shops, or converting natural wine fans over to Recaş instead of Radikon. Aldi currently has around 775 branches in the UK, and Cox confirmed that about 12,500 bottles of the Orange Natural have been produced for the chain. That’s a mere 16 bottles per branch, so if you want to try this wine – and I recommend that you do, as it is certainly good value – then be quick.
Now, if I can just persuade Aldi to flog all of their Orange Wine customers a copy of my soon-to-be-released book…