Natural Reason

–by Doug Wregg

Beware counter-counter culturalism. It disappears with alacrity up its own fundament. Take an argument that doesn’t exist and create a false thesis; use the counter argument to attack the false thesis to make it seem as if you are upholding moral standards against a degradation of good taste. Make it seem as if you are the last bastion of rationalism in a world that is falling under the sway of swivel-eyed demagogues of paganism.

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Yeah, it’s all crap.

In the face of this I am inclined to strip arguments to their bare essentials. So here in a nutshell is a brief overview of natural wine.

Start with wine qua wine. Cheap wine, expensive wine, bland wine, flavoursome wine, manipulated wine, unmanipulated wine. Wine can be made in a variety of ways. Whilst there may be faults in certain wines, it is difficult to argue that specific winemaking methods are wrong when the very intention is to create that particular style of wine. Disliking the effect is not reason enough to gainsay the cause. Besides, there is no academy of wine, no taste panel that one could ever trust, no judge who has the final word on good taste –yet there are many who would determine parameters of acceptability.

To make wine with few or no interventions is an aspiration for some vignerons. One has to accept an element of risk in every vintage and understand that to eschew conventional safety nets creates the possibility of spoilage. Unless you know what you are doing. To make this kind of wine you also need wonderfully healthy grapes and this can only be done with healthy vines in a healthy vineyard. Which is why natural wines, by definition, depend first and foremost on prescient farming.

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Although manifold decisions and revisions can be made during vinification there are two broadly opposing winemaking approaches. One is to exert control at every stage in the process to create an homogenised product, the other is to allow the alchemy of the vintage to play out with natural yeast ferments at ambient temperatures, adding nothing to the wine throughout the process and taking nothing away. The contras would have you believe that the natural approach is, paradoxically, unnatural, that a full battery of oenological techniques is essential to craft the raw material into a finished product. The product, aimed at a consumer acceptance panel, is devised as a line of least resistance. Conformism may be commercial insurance, but it throttles individual expression. Since winemaking is about choices and choices are relative to circumstance it seems daft to criticise growers for exerting their right to make the wine they want, the wine they will end up selling to other people who will in turn drink and sell that wine. The contras would have you believe that we are peddling alcoholic snake oil, that customers have swallowed hook, line and stinker (sic) the mythology of natural wine and its myriad false claims, that natural wine is, in effect, a trend without traction. The reverse is true; it is because customers enjoy the wines without listening to pr blah-blah or being invited to purchase them at unfeasibly deep discounts, that growth is very much sustainable. We’re selling the wines because they are good to drink rather than on the back of a movement; there is no cult of the wine or the winemaker unlike the rest of the $$$ worshipping wine world.

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The second part of the debate revolves around terroir and whether the wilder, funkier elements of wines vinified au naturel detracts from the expression of terroir, or whether the clinical oenological-driven approach sterilises personality.

Nature isn’t perfect and terroir is not the expression of the oenologist’s will but of all the variables that cannot be fully governed by the winemaker, although the winemaker will seek to harness these variables and guide them to the bottle with the minimum of interventionist hoo-hah. One can look at it another way and say that the personality of the vigneron is an integral part of terroir expression. Thus the counsel of perfection is the path to neutrality. Because the winemaking process is about microbiological transformation and chemical change some winemakers and writers are tempted to see it an exact narrative, the sheer appliance of science. Science simply describes what happens during these transformations; oenologists assess whether these transformations are desirable or not – and adjust accordingly. Which begs the question of what are faults and what are features. For example, is reduction a fault? (according to one MW I know it is, according to many winemakers it is an essential part of the winemaking process). Is oxidation a fault? Is it wrong that a winemaker chooses to work with big foudres, decides not to top up and does not practise temperature control? Is it a question of degree? What about the famous traditional, deliberately oxidative wines? What a boring world we live in when the ortho-doctors draw a line in the sand and dictate their specious textbook notions of correctness. And where did those notions come from? Are they so in thrall to the oenologists that they permanently suspend their ability to reach an independent conclusion? It’s a topsy-turvy world where the supposed sceptics are the flat-earthers.

les caves de pyreneFor every assertion of a clinical oenologist I could produce a natural wine maker to attest the complete opposite. So one believes that chemical intervention is the way to greater, ahem, purity; the other is convinced that the fewer interventions the truer the wine. Whereas, for example, the natural winemaker will often make the minor adjustment in sulphur use according to the vintage, the oenologist is more likely to follow the identical recipe the year after year. Here is Christian Binner’s take on winemaking: “For ten years our Pinot Noirs have not seen a speck of sulphur. In 2009, we had a little problem, a bacterial growth, which obliged us to add sulphur to one particular batch. the remaining batches had no problem and we were able to bottle the wine, as usual, without sulphur.” Sounds eminently sensible, doesn’t it?

What makes opposition to natural wine so facile is that the contrariness is precisely that – contrariness. Proponents of natural wines are content to live and let live and allow people to get on with quietly (or noisily!) drinking the stuff; the contras, meanwhile, are furiously exercised because they believe their moral authority is being challenged – and undermined. Natural wines are literally a drop in the wine ocean, but they have caused quite a splash and that aggravates the hierarchy that places an undue value on the correctness. I believe there is a place in the world for clean-lined wines, for anodyne wines, for manipulated wines, for oaky wines – I don’t have to drink them myself – but diversity is important and benchmarks are essential. Of course, there are also natural wines that I don’t enjoy – they may be clumsily made, or too extreme or simply not fit my mood. The notion that there is an archetypal “natural wine” is extremely silly; there are wines that you enjoy drinking and wines that you don’t.

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The fundamental dishonesty of the contras is not disliking low-intervention wines but asserting that they are false or incorrect. Because there is a process in wine doesn’t mean that wine has to be heavily processed. Respecting the process over the content is a very peculiar way of looking at life.

We sell wines to drink. I would like there to be a presumption that wine is generally a natural product; when you buy a bottle in a shop or a restaurant there is no indication to the contrary. I would like to redefine the terms of the argument. Rather than questioning why certain vignerons use no additives let’s ask others why they do. Making a chemically stable wine excuses the over-use of sulphur, acidification or any one of the fifty or so allowable additives. Is it necessary or just a quick fix?

It is no longer acceptable to work with chemicals that pollute the environment, to farm in a way which treats the ecosystem abusively. Now there is a widespread recognition that organic and biodynamic methodologies in the vineyard lead to healthier vines and consequently better wines. If biodynamics is part of man’s evolutionary relationship with nature, why is there is a presumption that wine should then undergo a thousand unnatural shocks in the winery. Using the chemistry kit is a relatively recent phenomenon; there is no empirical evidence that it makes for better wine, despite what the anti-naturalistas would have you believe.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Tom Wark

    “there are two broadly opposing winemaking approaches. One is to exert control at every stage in the process to create an homogenised product, the other is to allow the alchemy of the vintage to play out with natural yeast ferments at ambient temperatures, adding nothing to the wine throughout the process and taking nothing away.”

    Douglas, this is an absurd and self serving simplification of winemaking. Only “two broadly opposing” approaches to making wine? Really? Just two? “Natural Winemaking” and everything else?

    This happens far too often, this kind of simplification of winemaking for the sake or raising up the “natural wine” movement. It’s just one part of the “PR Blah Blah” that has infected the efforts of the champions of “natural” wine and part of the reason that there has been so much push back against those trying to champion the wines.

    1. blog

      Hi Tom,
      If you read the article in its entirety you will indeed see that I believe that the arguments are rather more complex and subtle than this sound-bite. In this case, however, I am obviously caricaturing the simplistic argument that is endlessly being levelled at natural wines by its more extreme critics (and there are many), that they are not commercially fit for purpose, because the manner in which they are made precludes making a consistent product and that they are bad because you apparently you can’t make decent wine without chemical interventions. (I’ve actually been told this by a master of wine). Since natural winemaking is constantly being caricatured in the wine media by people who have less than a nodding acquaintance with the wines and winemakers, it seems fair enough to play on this cultural opposition. Therefore, there can only be “two broadly opposing winemaking approaches”. Or so I am always being told by trade professionals. Which is strange because I always thought winemaking was a succession of choices (whether one intervenes or doesn’t intervene at a certain stage is a choice). But that is not the case evidently since natural winemakers (by their lack of intervention) are making incorrect choices. Yes, I am subverting the very argument that says that there are only two ways of making wine: the approved way (right) versus the zero intervention (natural, for want of a better word) (ie the wrong way).
      Rather than assess the wines on their merits the critics of natural wine damn them with not-so-faint-damns (yet claim to be guided by benevolent rationalism.) Rather than take these histrionic assertions at face value I have decided to highlight the polarisation since those critics. I have always stressed that natural wine is a relative term, a convenient peg on which to hang the low-to-zero interventionist approach. Unfortunately, there are many who seek to criticise it as a phenomenon, an extremist movement, rather than what it is –  growers independently making wine with as few chemical additions as possible. I support the freedom of people to make the wines they enjoy making, and for cavistes, wine shops and wine bars to sell those wines and for punters to drink them – without being castigated by arbiters of taste and told that they are being hoodwinked by the natural wine propaganda machine. The beauty of this “non-movement” is that people can think what they want and drink what they feel like drinking. Amazing – and I thought all natural wine evangelists are meant to sing from the same hymn sheet!
      Unfortunately, one can’t defend even a reasonable democratic position without being styled as an extremist, which makes me wonder who the extremists really are. If you can’t argue rationally with these people, then you have to satirise the absurdity of their arguments which are after all tantamount to telling us what is good wine and what is bad wine. The subject is too fascinating to be trivialised, but it will degenerate into third-rate sophomoric argument, hyperbole and clunky straw-man building until the wine establishment recognises the legitimacy of the growers and the wines.

  2. Great post. Very wine-ranging, and it has expanded and clarified the context and of natural wine and put it into perspective. I especially liked:

    “Rather than questioning why certain vignerons use no additives let’s ask others why they do”

    Good question! Why has it not been asked before? And why has it always been the natural winemakers that have had to justify not using additives?

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