How big is the market for natural wines?

Thursday, 15. September 2016 - 14:45
RAWfair London/Tom Moggach
A decade ago, it was merely a whisper without a name. By 2008, the term was coined and the controversy began. Forward to 2016, and the criticism has mutated into mainstream hype. Notably, Vogue USA magazine published not one but two major articles on the subject over the last 18 months. 
Given the increasing media attention, including robust commentary from many of the industry’s big guns – Robert Parker and UK critic Tim Atkin MW are nay-sayers; US writer Alice Feiring and French natural wine guru Isabelle Legeron MW preach to the inner temple – an outsider might assume that natural wines are taking the drinks business by storm. Are sales in this niche finally starting to have a global impact – or is it just a hipster bubble that could burst as fast as a poorly made pet-nat?

What is ‘natural’?

‘Natural’ is a philosophy or an ethic, not a concrete, regulated concept such as organic or biodynamic. Most people assume that it means a wine made without any additives, possibly excepting sulphites. Then there’s the overlap between certified organic and biodynamic production, the often uncertified natural wines arena and other micro-niches such as orange wines – frequently but incorrectly assumed to be synonymous with natural wine.

If anyone has managed to bring focus to this confusion, it’s Doug Wregg, sales and marketing director for Les Caves de Pyrene, the UK’s largest importer/distributor of natural wines. Les Caves is responsible for a successful chain of four natural wine bars and restaurants in London, the Terroirs group, in addition to The Real Wine Fair, a sizeable event only rivalled in the UK by Legeron MW’s RAWfair.

Wregg’s definition of natural wines is: 
1. Vineyards farmed organically or biodynamically (with or without certification)
2. Hand-harvested fruit 
3. Fermentation with indigenous yeasts
4. No enzymes 
5. No additives (like acid, tannin, colouring) other than SO2, used in moderation if at all 
6. Light or no filtration
7. Preferably no fining
8. Preferably no new oak

Legeron’s RAWfair manifesto adds an upper limit for total sulphites at 70mg/l and an additional qualifier: “no heavy manipulation – e.g. micro-oxgenation, spinning cone”.

Who’s buying it?

Given these vague parameters, it’s difficult to pin down sales figures. Many natural wines are sold without any mention of the category on the label. Then there are borderline cases: Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, one of the world’s most sought-after Burgundies, fits the definition of natural wine, but perhaps not the ethic. But even if figures and statistics for global natural wine revenues are unavailable, sales growth and impact can be estimated from other sources. These range from the growth in natural wine fairs, to consumer awareness (Nielsen reported in 2015 that 65% of US Millenials professed interest in the category) and barometer readings from specialist importers and distributors.

Wregg is perhaps uniquely able to demonstrate the sector’s rise. Les Caves was founded more than 20 years ago, but the big break came in 2008 with the opening of the Terroirs wine bar in London. Wregg notes: “Within three to four months of opening, we even started to see people in pinstripe suits coming to the bar and drinking these weird, funky wines. At that point we decided to focus on natural wines – the timing was right.” Wregg has an extraordinary statistic from Les Caves’ portfolio: “We now have about 220 producers who fit into the ‘natural’ bracket. In 2006 it was 15 to 20.” He estimates Les Caves’ total sales of natural wines at €4.9m ($5.4m) per year, or 17% of the company’s total revenue (€29m in 2015). This has been increasing by 20% to 30% per year, much faster than the company's overall growth of 5% to 10%. Les Caves sells over €1m of natural wines just to its own Terroirs group.

Most specialist importers would be lucky to turn over in a decade what Les Caves manages in a year, but what do larger mainstream distributors think about the natural sector and its importance to sales?

David Gleave MW is MD of Liberty Wines, one of the UK's major trade distributors. Liberty has grown over 20 years to €60m turnover and 115 staff. Gleave is frequently outspoken about his dislike of the term “natural wine”. He sees Robert Joseph’s term “primitive wines” as an apt descriptor of an “emperor’s new clothes” phenomenon, standing merely for rustic or faulty wines.

“To my mind, it’s gone backwards a bit,” he suggests. “A lot of our restaurant customers tell us they’ve stopped listing natural wines, after problems with consistency. This is anecdotal as we don't sell these wines. Young sommeliers tend to get carried away, but it doesn’t mean that customers actually want to drink natural wines.” He concedes: “There is a market looking for greater provenance, greater assurance. The natural wine movement is primarily a response to that customer demand.” He also draws a comparison with the organic movement: “You were a bit of a sandal-wearing hippy if you were making organic wines 20 years ago. Now it’s mainstream, so maybe natural wines will develop in the same way.” 

Liberty might not be boosting natural wine sales, but the niche is worth around €8m a year to the UK wholesalers, Les Caves included, who specialise in ‘natural’. The UK imports some €3.7bn worth of wine each year, thus natural wines represent about 0.2% of sales revenue overall.

Sales elsewhere

A common complaint amongst UK natural wine importers is that “the Danish are buying it all”. The Danish equivalent percentage of natural wine sales looks to be more than double that of the UK – at around 0.6%

The Danish natural wine boom is closely tied to superstar restaurant Noma. Original head sommelier Pontus Elofsson began experimenting in 2005: “René [Redzepi] wanted to put Nordic nature on the plate. The wines needed to match that – they needed to be clean and light. The food was all about the minimum distance between harvesting and plate – so we felt the wines should be about minimum distance between vines and glass.”

Noma kickstarted a food and restaurant revolution in Denmark, helping the natural wine movement gain traction. Henrik Sehested, from Denmark's longest-established natural wines importer Rosforth & Rosforth notes a corresponding change in drinking habits: “Young people are going out to drink wine now – that’s new in the last 10 years. Wine was always considered the old man's drink, but not any more.” Rosforth & Rosforth moved entirely to organically produced wines in 2002, and now employs Pontus Elofsson as a consultant. With a turnover of €2.2m a year, Rosforth handles around 25% of natural wine trade sales in Denmark, although natural wines do not represent 100% of their portfolio. 

Elofsson warns against hyperbole: “This is a Copenhagen phenomenon, still a sub-culture – it’s foodies, fine diners and hipsters.” He’s also wary of those who suggest that growth will be exponential. “The amount of natural wines will not explode, although the number of producers will increase.”

Richard van der Linden, head buyer and sales director for Dutch distributor Coenecoop agrees that it’s a big city phenomenon: “Everyone's talking about it, but 75% of the sales happen in Amsterdam.” Coenecoop focuses entirely on organic and biodynamic wines, supplying several of the Netherland's organic supermarket chains. Turnover is €60m a year, with an estimated 4% to 5% of natural wines. At a recent Coenecoop tasting of 120 wines, 10 ‘vin naturels’ were self-consciously signposted on the list. That a €60m business needs these wines in the portfolio shows that interest is building, even if this isn't yet translating into major sales.

Van der Linden highlights one of the barriers to growth: “I spoke with a restaurant owner in Amersfoort (a small Dutch town) recently, and he said: “I'd like to have a natural wine on my list – but I don't want to pay more than €6.00.”

Price points for natural wines tend to be mid-range to premium, making them a hard sell, particularly in the off-trade. Almost all producers are small, with a typical estate producing perhaps 50,000 bottles a year. Artisanal production on this scale is labour intensive, so prices are high.

Jürgen Franke, founder of specialist distributor Vinaturel in Germany, offers a telling statistic: “Our average price point is €13.56 [trade price].” He compares this to Peter Riegel – a large business selling mass-market organic wine to supermarkets, whose average is reportedly under €3.00. With higher prices, HoReCa has to be the focus. Franke also cites the improved quality of wines available to the market as a key factor in increasing sales: “Usually producers convert to organic, the vineyards are not ready, diversity isn't there, then they try out things, they try to do wild ferments, they start reducing sulphites. The first five years might not work out so well, then in the next five years quality goes up.” Franke’s €5m a year business is growing fast (by 40% to 50% a year), despite notable conservatism in the German wine market. Germany lacks a well-defined natural wine scene, aside from a small number of specialist wine bars in Berlin.

In contrast, New York has a thriving, fast- developing scene, with numerous restaurants and four dedicated natural wine bars. Seminal natural-wines distributor Jenny & Francois reports a doubling in sales over the last five years, and now sells to 23 states. Natural wines can even be found on the shelf at supermarket chain Whole Foods Market. “Wines that used to take a whole year to sell now fly out of the door within a month of release,” explains Jenny & Francois's Nick Gorevic. “For producers like Olivier Cousin and Hervé Souhaut, we have sommeliers literally fighting over the allocations.”

Natural wines clearly generate a lot of excitement, but market share in most countries has yet to reach even the first percentage point. That said, all the distributors interviewed for this article boasted significant growth in natural wine sales over the last five years. Some were cautious about how far that growth might go, while others like Gorevic are bullish: “There are new restaurants opening here literally every week. They call us up and tell us they want a natural wines list. That never used to happen before.”

ProWein calculates the global organic wine sector in 2016 to have around 5% market-share. If David Gleave MW and Richard van der Linden are right, a strong, well-established natural wine sector could achieve a similar figure by the early 2020s.  It might never be mainstream, but grabbing 5% of the global $300bn wine market would be considerably more than a hipster’s dream.

Simon Woolf
The picture is of RAWfair London, by Tom Moggach. This article first appeared in Issue 4, 2016 of Meininger's Wine Business International.