In the marketing deluge we face, it’s often hard to tell whether there are just clever marketers or real ideas behind a trend. The term ‘natural wine’ is on the rise, but what makes a wine natural and the values behind it are not clear to many. Rebeka Győrfi has been working with wine since 2013. After graduating from WSET in Scotland, she fell in love with natural wines for life and decided to spread the word about Eastern European wines wherever she goes. During the pandemic, she wrote the story of the region’s natural winemakers for Natúr magazine, and we spoke to her about value creation, conscious consumption, the community and, of course, wine.
What does the term natural wine mean? How long has the term been around?
After World War II, technological innovations and lobbying from big pharmaceutical companies led to the emergence of large-scale wine production, which resulted in the widespread use of chemicals, fertilizers and additives in winemaking. Within a short period, the use of these substances became so common that in certain regions of France, laws made it compulsory for winemakers to use specific chemicals. In the 1980s and 1990s, four French winemakers publicly opposed these chemicals and insisted on making wine from pure and healthy raw materials, thus bringing natural winemaking back into the public consciousness. One of the main characteristics of natural wines is that they are made with as few—or no—additives as possible. This includes growing grapes, which is also very important because I think 98% of the wine is actually decided at the point of cultivation, how we use and cultivate the land. For natural or “low intervention” wines, the grapes are preferably grown organically and/or biodynamically, where attention is paid to creating a diverse ecosystem in the vineyard rather than chemicals. While in the fields of a conventional winery, you will generally only encounter grapes, in the vineyards of a natural winemaker, you will find beautiful trees and all kinds of vegetables, animals and plants, which together with the grapes form a coherent whole. And in the cellar, there is no filtration or clarification (mechanical) and they don’t use chemicals that in any way alter the structure, integrity or flavor of the wine. I think most people have no idea what goes into a conventional wine and how much unnecessary stuff they drink with it.
This could also be because if I go into a shop and take a bottle of wine off the shelf, it doesn’t have “ingredients” written on it, so anyone can think there are only grapes, nothing else.
There was also a petition to put the ingredients on the wine, which I would consider a huge step forward. There are so many additives that can go into a bottle of wine, from wine yeast to acid replacers and colorings to sugar substitutes. Let’s not be hypocrites, I’ll buy the chips too, no matter how many things are listed on the label, and we should do the same with wine—inform consumers so that they can decide whether or not to buy it. I’m hoping for this, and I think it would be a big step towards making wine consumers more aware.
You spend a lot of time working with local natural wines in your work. How well-known and present are they here?
As far as I know, there are currently only two countries in the world where there is a legal requirement for a wine to be classified as natural: one is France and the other is Hungary. This is considered a huge step forward in the industry. In the last five years, the number of producers and lovers of natural wines in our country has soared, with more and more places appearing in Budapest and in the countryside where you can taste natural wines. There are some key winemakers with a lot of knowledge, who are important for me, such as István Bencze, Gábor Karner and Szóló winery, who are a huge force in getting the word out about these wines. Hungarian wines are exceptional, yet many people abroad don’t know that wine is made in Hungary at all, or most just stick with Tokaj aszú. Fortunately, there are more and more importers and more and more foreign restaurants and bars that are happy to serve Hungarian wines. We often have tastings here in Hungary too, I also organize the Natural Wine Retreat with the Szóló winery for the Pentecost weekend, where you can meet, learn and drink. It’s absolutely about being together and creating an informative community.
Are young people present in this environment, to what extent?
There are many young people, but all ages are present because there are people who have been making natural wine for thirty or forty years, but they just don’t make a big deal of it. These people have a very comprehensive knowledge of both wine, nature and grapes. Besides, there are the young people who want to learn, many of whom I think have got into wine as a result of the pandemic, to get out of the online space and into the natural world, to do more honest work. A lot of new micro-wineries have been born in the last year or two in Hungary, and in Eastern Europe, a lot of talented people have started to make wine that’s close to nature, and I am pleased to see that there is still a place for actual value creation in the world.
Then, as I understand it, the community is an essential “ingredient” in natural wines.
Yes, that’s exactly what wine and natural wine mean to me. Of course, we work with the grapes, make wine, nice labels and whatnot, but for me, the community is the most beautiful thing about it. There are always events organized by winemakers for winemakers, tasting together, learning, helping each other, lending each other things, talking and exchanging ideas—it’s a value I don’t see much of elsewhere. That’s why I started writing Natúr, because it’s not about wine, it’s about the people, without them there would be no wine. For me, people’s stories are really important, why someone started winemaking, because it’s a very moving and a vital part of the wine itself. That’s why I like to emphasize that the fact that something has won a gold medal in a wine competition, or how many grams of acid it contains, is not so important. There are more critical things behind wine: the person who makes it and, not least, the person who drinks it.
You’ve already talked about what the Hungarian natural wine industry is like, but what about Eastern Europe?
There are always trends in the wine world, and I think that Eastern European wines are either in their renaissance or in their heyday, I don’t know if there was a heyday or if this is it. Eastern Europe is fantastic because it has such great natural and soil conditions. Even though there are still stereotypes about this region, I see that, on the one hand, winemakers want to show the world that they can make not only cheap, mass-produced wines, but also really fine, valuable and beautiful wines. On the other hand, there is a kind of tradition keeping here, a return to the roots and how our grandmothers made wine.
How do you see the future of natural wines?
I see two things. The word ‘natural’ has started to become a marketing term in some places so that the big companies can make mass-produced wines look healthier and more natural. It is an important way to get back to our roots and build a bridge between nature and consumers. I think the future is to reflect a little bit on what, why and how we consume, so people begin to understand where something comes from and realize how beautiful and intelligent nature is. I would like wine in the future to be a statement, and not just to be drunk because it is delicious or trendy, but also because there is an idea behind it that people can identify with: that I love and protect nature and its values. I hope that this very hackneyed term, ‘conscious consumer,’ will be filled with real meaning in the future.
Photos: Ádám Csordás