It was 30 years ago today…

by blog on September 6, 2018

As mentioned in virtually every piece that we write now, we are thirty years old this year! A lot of real and metaphorical vino has passed under the bridge; the whole gastronomic scene has been transformed beyond recognition (and continues to be transformed), the nature of wine lists has changed, and how we communicate about and sell wine have also altered substantially. Over the period of thirty years, the wine scene has become immeasurably more interesting, more diverse and often more experimental in nature; we are learning the stories behind the wines and hearing about the ideas that propel vignerons on their quests to make something true to the vineyard.

As farmers who used to sell grapes to co-ops, for example, have decided to make wine for themselves, their wines have become more artisan in that they are individual, small-production, hand-crafted (for want of a better word), the result of personal choices. These vignerons, increasingly, may come from any background or generation (and the same for the drinkers) and do not feel bound by local rules, bureaucracy or “recent tradition”. Perceived as the antidote to the usual wine snobberies and globalised certainties, their naturally-made wines have developed a wider appeal, their very existence inciting drinkers to express their subjective enjoyment of wine rather than to be in thrall to some hierarchical critical judgement. All the while, wine bars have been opened and since proliferated, specialist retailers too; wine fairs and salons have boomed, all of which has helped to connect the wine buyer and the potential consumer even more closely to the grower and the wine.

Over the period of thirty years, the wine scene has become immeasurably more interesting, more diverse and often more experimental in nature; we are learning the stories behind the wines and hearing about the ideas that propel vignerons on their quests to make something true to the vineyard.

Although there have been political elements to this slow revolution, it was often a haphazard, spontaneous, dynamic phenomenon. Suffice to say that the wines themselves appealed to a new generation of younger, more adventurous, drinkers and sometimes appalled those of a more conservative mindset.

The wines were being made by individuals who questioned everything from farming methods, terroir, vinification techniques, the concepts of local culture of appellation, the very notion of taste, and were trying to capture what was (or what they felt was) something pure or natural in these wines. This small section of the wine world bubbled with energy and ideas like some wild fermentation.

Meanwhile the greater wine industry, which is based on different assumptions such as clinical correctness and product-worthiness, found it difficult to come to terms with natural wines. Journalists and wine writers were having to position themselves in the debate. It was tricky to pronounce positively on wines that were (to them) naturally inconsistent, so they defaulted to scepticism – at best – and downright hostility – at worst. For some it was a cause, a schtick to beat down a perceived trend and arrogate to oneself the glory of being the first to declare it an “emperor’s new clothes” trend, for others it was genuine incomprehension how so many people could be apparently hoodwinked or brainwashed into drinking technically-deficient wines. Oenologists and classic winemakers were aghast that their wines would be considered fake, and so the generalised false argument was born – that natural wines were faulty, or most of them were faulty most of the time (positing the idea that to be called “natural”, they must, by definition, be faulty). They all blamed, to varying degrees, the importers, the restaurants or wine bars, the sommeliers and, of course, the growers.

We have witnessed a change in the style of wines in the period that we have been importing and selling them. Better farming, greater self-belief at the same time as greater forensic self-criticism, adherence to hygiene – all these factors have played a part in guaranteeing higher quality and greater consistency in terms of outcomes.

One of the strengths of natural wine lay in its strong presence on social media and the viral impact of sharing bottles that one loved. The rest of the media -TV, Radio and national newspapers largely ignored this phenomenon or waited until supermarkets made their faux wines. Restaurant critics were also puzzled that so many new restaurants were leading on the natural wine front. What they may not have realised (and may not still realise) is that these wines are astonishingly diverse and are present and very correct on wine lists ranging from Michelin starred restos to humble wine bars as well as the aforementioned retailers. To generalise about the phenomenon without knowledge of the wine’s provenance, the manner of farming, the type of vinification, is like trying to understand a novel from reading the last sentence or passing judgement on a poem from its title alone, and demonstrates prejudice and ignorance in equal measure. The real problem such critics have is when wine bars employ the word “natural” to promote their offering. We are never going to resolve that dictionary definition argle-bargle, because as Humpty-Dumpty said (paraphrasing), a word can mean what you want it to. Many restaurants and wine bars are proud of having a selection of wines, even a whole list, entirely devoted to organically farmed wines made without chemicals, and by so styling themselves as natural wine specialists, they are attracting aficionados and presumably also warning off sceptics!

We have also witnessed a change in the style of wines in the period that we have been importing and selling them. Better farming, greater self-belief at the same time as greater forensic self-criticism, adherence to hygiene – all these factors have played a part in guaranteeing higher quality and greater consistency in terms of outcomes. The wines, as mentioned, have found homes on all kinds of wine lists; it is, and always has been, about the wine and not what you call it. You don’t have to love natural wines to love natural wines.

People in the wine world, and the wider public themselves, are quite capable of understanding that a wine which is not chemically-processed, pasteurised, stabilised, or filtered, is more natural than one that is.

A little postscript. This year I was involved in a debate with an Australian oenologist who proclaimed “all wines are natural.” In other words, that no matter how much one denatures and processes the grapes, no matter how many additions and interventions are used, the eventual result will be a product that is natural because is a man-made product. (my italics). It is a bizarre argument, but one I’ve heard before. Another critic called me out for using the word “natural”, because no wine, by definition, could be natural, as all the transformations, from farming to winemaking, are forms of intervention. It is an absolutist argument to a relative question, as people in the wine world, and the wider public themselves, are quite capable of understanding that a wine which is not chemically-processed, pasteurised, stabilised, or filtered, is more natural than one that is. Wine is transformed grapes (we get it!), and comes about as a result of human will and expertise; however, it also comes from a specific place and as a result of natural processes and transformations.

30 years…we love the volatility and edginess of the natural wine world and we love the new certainties that are emerging. There are so many beautiful wines being made, wines that link the nature of the vineyard and the vintage with the nature of the individual. There are endless variations on endless themes. And this is why natural wine will continue to go from strength to strength.

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