5 Feb 2011

Why the term "natural" wine is absurd

Most people who read this blog from time to time (at least the wine pages of it) will probably realise that I love wine, and also that I have been around in this business for a few years. Apart from student jobs doing deliveries and organising stock in a London wine shop at Christmas periods back in the late 1960's, I finally started in the wine trade in 1983, and have never ceased working with this marvellous substance ever since, in various capacities. For the past 15 years I have been an independant writer, broadcaster, teacher and occasional advisor on wine and wine matters.

I have seen various fads and fashions come and go over the past 30 years or so. Words will suddenly appear out of nowhere, usually in an attempt to describe some new niche that has developed within the complex skein of currents that circulate within the marketing (wine people often hate this word in connection with their product, but that is what it is nonetheless) of wine as a whole, or as a series of sub-groups. The latest fad is so-called "natural" wines. Now the origins of this niche are not exactly young, but the term has developed and spread recently to the extent that it has now become fashionable, and therefore quite annoying to me, especially as the whole concept is based on a major philosophical error.

This error is the idea that nature is "good". I suppose this harks back to Rousseau and all that clap-trap about the noble savage. Nature is neither good not bad, and it makes no sense to place moral values on something that is not consciously controllable. I would love to see the reaction of some ardent protagonist of "natural" products if they were dropped into the jungle somewhere (or any inhospitable place away from mankind and his comforts) without a survival kit. And I doubt very much whether they would construe nature as being "good" the next day, if indeed they were still alive. I sometimes get the impression that the intensity with which such silly notions are held is directly proportional to the distance between those who hold them and something one could call "nature". In other words, it is an avatar of town-folks' nostalgia for what they think of as a lost paradise.

But of course one cannot just shrug off things as easily as that. I could find myself being accused of sophistry! There is often a silver lining, or at least some good intentions, behind misconceived ideas. One needs to start by getting rid of the absurd term of "natural" wine before looking at some of the questions that lie behind it. Why is the term absurd? Well, apart from the basic misconception outlined above, it must be said that wine production can never be a totally "natural" process. Has anyone ever seen a vine plant itself, cut its own arms and legs off in winter in order to be able to produce some decent fruit, curtail its inherently generous growth during the summer, fending off marauding animals as the grapes ripen and then plucking the bunches off and jumping on them in some conveniently placed hollow vessel before waiting around until a bottle or barrel flaoted by to contain the liquid that resulted? Obviously all wines are produced by men and use techniques invented by man, which resort to tools and materials of various descriptions that have been manufactured using more or less industrialised processes. So wine is NOT, and never can be, a "natural" product. It is manufactured, on a scale that can vary from the vastly industrial to the minutely artisanal.

So what are these other ideas that subsume this movement in wine towards what is purportedly "natural". Well obviously the main element is a growing rejection of what is seen as excessive standardisation through over-reliance on industrial and intensively technological procedures. Probably first and foremost is the fact that viticulture has been, over the past 80 years or so, an increasingly intensive user of chemicals to prevent (or hold at bay) diseases and pests in the vineyard, not to mention chemical fertilisers used for a long time to improve yields. This has now receeded, it has to be said largely through the pressure of various "green" movements, and reasonable vine-growers, and now this reduction of chemical overload has finally been sustained by governments. The growing niche of wines made from organically grown grapes forms the substratum of the "natural" wine movement, since all so-called "natural" wines come from organically farmed vineyards.

Two other elements that bear consideration are involved. The first is the use of indigenous yeats, as opposed to selected and cultivated yeast strains that are produced in specialised laboratories. Without getting too technical, all yeasts are "natural". What is at issue here is a supposed advantage, in terms of "individuality" and, I suppose, the "home-grown/home-made is better" myth (not always true, as anyone who cooks will admit) of indigenous yeats to be found in each winery and cellar over selected strains that are sold by laboratories. I think the jury is out on this issue and the answer will always depend on the circumstances and the type of wine being produced. There are positive and negative things to be said for both sides here.

The second issue is that of added sulphur dioxide. This is "naturally" present in all wine, without anyone adding any of this compound which derives from one of the major components of the earth's crust, sulphur (a "natural" product by the way). Below a concentration level of 10 milligrams per litre, no declaration of its presence is required by the increasingly stringent legistalation that governs wine labelling in many countries. In Europe, wine is allowed to have up to 160 mg per litre, but usually used much less. The usefulness of sulphur dioxide is as an antibiotic disinfectant and an antioxidant, and so it is widely used in winemaking at various stages in the process. The problem is that it has, largely in the past, been used in excessive quantities to mask inadequate hygiene, as well as poor quality grapes at the start. Some peole can be allergic to high levels of suphur dioxide, and excessive use of it has come into justifiable disrepute and now been abandoned. But babies should not be thrown out with bath water. Sulphur dioxide does a very good job of protecting wine from undesirable bacteria, as well as from premature oxidation, when used corerectly and in reasonable quantities. Yet some wine-makers, probably disappointed with the "dumbing" effect of this substance on their more delicate wines, tried (and try) to make these without adding sulphur dioxide. Such wines can taste fruitier and "clearer" in their youth, but they do not age well and have difficulity in travelling as one must keep them at all times below a maximum temperature of 14°C. In principle this may seem to be a good idea, but in practice it is often catastrophic, apart from the limited case of wines that are drunk young , stored carefully, and consumed close to where they are produced. Amongst the adverse effects that are frequent on wines that have has no sulphur dioxide added are bubbles where there should be done, nasty barnyard-like smells that put you off entirely, and premature oxidation that turns colours brown and makes the wine taste flat. I have experenced all these defects on many occasions with wines to which insufficient (or no) suplhur has been added, and they do not make one enjoy wine!

The general line of argument used by most proponents of the "natural" wine movement is that they add nothing and substract nothing to and from what nature offers. This is not only inexact, it is also specious and beside the point. Of course one should sustain any movement that will help preserve the richness of the natural world, albeit largely re-arranged by man over the centuries. But a lot of the slightly paranoid and idealistic preoccupations of the "naturalists" are quite beside this point, and also, more dangerously, retrograde in the process of learning how things work. Wine has been hugely improved over the past 50 years by knowledge and technology. Why should we be forced back to the dark ages of hit-and-miss winemaking by a few misguided, although probably well-intentioned, people? (I didn't say a bunch of loonies, did I?)