The growing awareness of public opinion about the linkage between food and health, as well as on the negative effects that traditional food production practices have on environmental resources, has triggered consumers to be more selective and pay more attention to which components and ingredients are used in the food products they eat in everyday life (Asioli et al. 2017).
Consequently, the demand for natural products has grown considerably over the last decade among consumers. The notion of “natural” has become one of the leading label claims on new food products launched to satisfy new consumer demands and market niches (Roman et al. 2017; Hemmerling et al. 2016). However, a universally accepted definition of food naturalness does not exist, and thus, the naturalness of a food product is still a rather vague concept (Roman et al. 2017; Rozin 2006). Undoubtedly, naturalness leads consumers to perceive food products as healthier and more environmentally friendly than conventional ones (Rozin et al. 2012; Caracciolo et al. 2019) but also tastier, evoking an enhanced hedonic experience (Chambers and Castro 2018; Siegrist and Hartmann 2020).
The search for naturalness has also affected the wine market (Wine Intelligence 2021). Consumer preferences are gradually more influenced by aspects of wine linked to personal healthiness and product sustainability, and this in turn impacts the quality differentiation strategies developed by firms (Pomarici and Vecchio 2019; Schäufele and Hamm 2017). Indeed, the increasing amount of low-intervention, additive, and processing aid-free wines represents a strong trend in several important markets (Wine Intelligence 2021). Natural wine consumption has increased especially among more conscious and responsible consumers, as suggested by recent empirical researches (Galati et al. 2019; Migliore et al. 2020). Furthermore, various producers’ associations and organizations are actively promoting natural wine, among them are the Asociación de Productores de Vino Natural and Vella Terra in Spain and Triple A, Viniveri, VinNatur, and Vignaioli Artigianali Naturali (VAN) in Italy (Catellani 2015).
Natural wines are also attracting increased attention among wine critics, giving rise to a surge in books, specialized events, and films about them (Feiring and Choksi 2019; Nossiter 2019; Legeron 2018; Goode and Harrop 2011). Similar to other foods, however, the concept of natural wine is highly debated in the literature due to the lack of a clear and regulated definition. This has led to a proliferation of heterogeneous norms and standards proposed from different natural wine associations at national levels (Alonso González and Parga-Dans 2020; Forbes et al. 2009). Therefore, to date, it is difficult to outline the boundaries of this concept due to the different production philosophies that natural winemakers promote, which have triggered debates among natural winemakers themselves.
Therefore, natural wine should be considered a social movement involving consumers and producers rather than a regulated form of agricultural production (Maykish et al. 2021; Urdapilleta et al. 2021). Only France has recently recognized natural wine as a distinct category and certified it under the denomination Vin Méthode Nature. However, this certification has prompted a heated debate in the European Commission as other EU countries do not agree with the French certificationFootnote 1, considering it a form of unfair competition against their own wine sectors. This uncertainty about the meaning of natural wine affects also consumer’s perceptions. According to the existing literature, wine is generally perceived to be a natural and environmentally friendly product, as consumers often assume it only includes grapes (De Salvo et al. 2019; Grunert et al. 2018), showing low knowledge about the ingredients, additives, and processing aids that may be used in the production of wine (Pabst et al. 2019; Grunert et al. 2018). Even wine critics tend to associate wine with nature in their tasting rhetoric, with the aim of attracting consumer interest (Black 2013). This is also due to the information asymmetry that dominates the wine sector worldwide (Parga-Dans and Alonso González 2018). The asymmetry derives from the fact that wine has been historically exempted from the mandatory ingredients list other than those that may have an allergenic effect (e.g., sulfites, egg, or fish), generating disinformation and confusion among consumers (Pabst et al. 2021). Nonetheless, according to the latest surveys, European consumers show a clear concern for food additives and residues (EFSA 2019), which would generate a market niche for natural wine in case it would be recognized as such.
In addition, previous studies showed that consumers tend to associate natural wine conceptualization with organic (Urdapilleta et al. 2021), tend to mistake natural with organic or biodynamic (Delmas and Lessem 2017; Sogari et al. 2016), or to connect the naturalness of wine with the presence of an eco-label (D’Amico et al. 2016). In this context, an in-depth analysis of how consumers perceive natural wine is critical in order to mitigate the level of information asymmetry currently on the market. This could help winemakers, distributors, and retailers to develop more targeted marketing strategies. At the same time, supplementary insights on the drivers of individuals’ natural wine consumption could support policymakers in deciding whether regulating the natural wine labeling and foster tailored communication strategies to better address consumers’ needs and expectations.
In addition, according to Galati et al. (2019), a cross-country study on this topic could be useful in order to reveal possible opportunities to expand this new market segment.
Consequently, the current paper provides insights on the drivers of natural wine consumption, addressing the following research questions: (i) What are the factors affecting consumer perception of natural wine? (ii) To what extent information and psychographic and socio-demographic variables affect consumers’ natural wine consumption?
To this end, a direct survey was performed in Italy and Spain, which according to the International Organization of Vine and Wine (2020) are the two core countries in terms of both wine consumption and production.
Naturalness interest among wine consumers
While natural wine is increasingly acquiring new consumers in many traditional and non-traditional wine-consuming countries (Wine Intelligence 2021), scholars have devoted limited attention to this specific topic. Nevertheless, several studies have focused on the naturalness of wine indirectly, as an aspect that may influence the perception of healthiness or sustainability of wine (Pappalardo et al. 2019; D’Amico et al. 2016; Kelly et al. 2015). Kelley et al. (2015) showed that the presence of the claim “naturally farmed grapes” in the wine back label information positively affected US consumers’ purchasing decisions. In turn, Pappalardo et al. (2019) found that the adoption of production practices related to the higher amount of a natural compound in wine (i.e., resveratrol) increased consumers’ demand led by the perception of healthiness in wine. Similarly, D’Amico et al. (2016) revealed that the naturalness of wine affects the health attitude of consumers and represents a relevant factor influencing consumers’ willingness to pay a premium price for organic wine without added sulfites.
Considering studies that directly investigated consumers’ perception, attitude, and willingness to pay for natural wine, one of the first contributions on the topic is the research from Galati et al. (2019). The authors showed that Italian consumers are willing to pay a premium price for natural wine, especially millennials which are particularly concerned about the environmental and social impacts of their choices. In addition, the authors found that the importance attributed to the label information on ingredient contents and sensory characteristics is positively linked to individuals’ willingness to pay. Furthermore, Galati et al. (2019) highlighted that consumer WTP for natural wines depends on personal attitudes towards healthy products, without additives or additional ingredients.
Recently, Migliore et al. (2020) found that Italian consumers’ interest towards natural wine is strongly affected by individual attitudes towards healthy eating, the environment, and nature, while sensory characteristics and other traditional quality attributes, such as wine color, grape varieties, alcohol content, critics ratings, are not influential. In addition, the authors showed that WTP for natural wine is linked to consumers’ interest towards the organic production method as well as to wine sulfite content; on the contrary, WTP is negatively related to the PDO/PGI certifications. An interesting study realized by Staub et al. (2020) assessed what properties of wine influence the perceived naturalness of consumers from two countries, Switzerland and Australia. The authors reveal that naturalness awareness varies according to the country of origin. In addition, individuals with a high level of wine involvement consider naturalness significantly more important than people with a low level of involvement. Furthermore, Swiss results showed that naturalness was the second most important factor for wine choice over price and grape variety. Urdapilleta et al. (2021) also highlighted that cultural differences, personal involvement, and identification with wine strongly affect the social representations of natural, organic, and conventionally produced wines among French and New Zealanders, as well as between wine professionals and consumers. French consumers see organic and natural wines as healthier and associate them with environmental sustainability, while New Zealanders represent natural wines less positively.
In light of the paucity of specific studies on natural wine, there is a need to better understand this specific target of consumers (Alonso González and Parga-Dans 2020) deepening the numerous aspects which mediate individuals’ information and perception of natural wine, and the rationale behind their consumption behavior.