Is natural wine moral?

We have two kinds of morality side by side: one which we preach but do not practice, and another which we practice but seldom preach
–Bertrand Russell

My liberalism says live and let live. Do not court conflict, do not proselytise, but lay out your view point calmly and rationally.

My radical side says that discussion uninformed by passion is toothless. If we love certain wines we should be assertive in our opinions.  There is nothing wrong with arguing for terroir and purity of flavour, or being in favour of the small artisan farmer over the global corporation. The moral aspect of these stances becomes evident when one analyses the detrimental impact of industrial farming and contrasts it to the positive agenda of biodiversity promoted by small growers. Organics has become the sine qua non of farming in concept and practice – it is the sensible corrective to years of chemical exploitation of the land; biodynamics takes this a stage further with its holistic idea of farming, positing that the vineyard should be seen primarily as part of an eco-system. It is a prescient, proactive kind of agriculture underpinned by a strong ethos. “The goal of life is living in agreement with nature,” wrote Zeno of Elea.

Working in harmony with nature, putting back in what you take out, conserving the landscape, the local flora and fauna, is the moral responsibility of all farmers. We are borrowing the land for ourselves and loaning it to future generations. “I have never asked myself the question nor had any hesitation (about whether to be organic), because it’s unthinkable to work the vines and the land without love and respect,” says Oliver Pithon. Intensive production damages the earth, chemicals weaken the vine and diminish the life in the soil; irrigation impacts on the rest of the environment and erosion destroys the eco-system. Using the land well means using the land intelligently, caring for the environment as we would care for a member of our family. It means finding natural solutions to natural problems. This nurturing regenerative mutuality of biodynamic farming is a creative statement and outlines the main differences between natural and industrial wine; one is to give to nature and accept what it gives you in return; the other is to set up systems that take as much as possible in response to the demands of the markets.

The aesthetic of the wine also matters and taps into whether we believe that wine is purely a lot of microbiology with some chemistry thrown in or whether it is the synthesis of nature and the winemaker’s art. There are those who strive to make a wine that truly interprets the legacy of nature and the vintage and those whose manipulations are intended as a corrective to, or an improvement upon, nature; these interventions materially alter the flavour and the tone of the wine.  If we understand that wine is a living, evolving substance, made up of active yeasts, a form of life,  responding to changes of temperature and atmosphere or exposure to oxygen, we embrace its mutability.

Natural wines depend on diversity, variety, pluralism. The French express abstract moral concepts rather well. They speak of “respect for grape, respect for terroir, respect for man and respect for the environment”. Respect is seen as a form of love with humility leading to better understanding.

Cultural patrimony & memory are worth preserving, from rediscovering autochthonous grape varieties to local farming methods and ways of making wines that date back centuries. To appreciate the present we need to understand the past better; dismissing the methodologies of hundreds of years is a bit like saying that our ancestors had no wisdom because they were not as up-to-date then as we are now in technological knowhow. No how. The vine, for example, used to be part of a polycultural environment; now it is largely a monoculture.

Autre temps, autres moeurs.

Rather than accept wine as a standardised product we may see winemaking as the judicious expression of the combined will of man and nature, and wine itself as something which may give pleasure and elicit wonderment (depending on the wine!). It has the binary function to be drunk for fun whilst spontaneously stimulating an aesthetic response – which philosophers over centuries have equated to having a moral purpose. Just as Shakespeare found “tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones” so many a good wine may act as a catalyst for conversation, communication, friendship, inspiration and art.

The truth of wine is its integrity and integrity has no need of rules. We seek wines which are not reflections of the grower’s ego or which conform to the demands of the market-place, but which reveal the result of the desire to be true to yourself and the vineyard. Great painting is not made great by the amount of paint used on the canvas nor progress about how technology you can throw at a wine. Less can be more; less intervention allows the wine to express its naked beauty, and beauty has no need to remind you who its author is.

Beauty can be this:

The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails. –Stephen Dedalus, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Pete Smith

    “There are those who strive to make a wine that truly interprets the legacy of nature and the vintage and those whose manipulations are intended as a corrective to, or an improvement upon, nature; these interventions materially alter the flavour and the tone of the wine.” Are you suggesting that a wine can only classed as “natural” with zero manipulations? Oak is a manipulation that alters the flavour and tone of a wine, many natural wines are oak fermented or aged….

  2. doug

    Human interventions are part and parcel of the winemaking process so there is no such thing as zero manipulation wine. Even zero sulphur wines are manipulated in the sense that they are the result of many dozens of decisions and revisions. The choice not to do something in the winery is still a choice. Natural wine is more about the minimisation (and elimination) of chemical interventions that materially alter the essential flavour of the wine. As for oak, it is a fermentation vessel, as is stainless steel, cement, amphora. The winemaker may use barrels as a means of holding the wine or to impart distinctive flavour to the wine. It is often employed to superimpose a layer of richness to the final wine, something which does not exist naturally. People who like natural tasting wines prefer the oak flavours not to be obtrusive (if they are it is the equivalent of a cook overseasoning a dish). Offhand, I can’t think of many natural winemakers who use any new wood in their wineries, but it is not axiomatic. For the natural winemaker and the natural drinker, less is more, so the more flavour that oak adds, the more the flavour of the wine is disguised. Although I guess this point pertains to all wines not just naturally made ones.

  3. Yes, it’s obviously moral and right to respect the environment. But unfortunately most of the world’s vineyards are owned and exploited not by farmers, but by corporations, and all they care about is their bottom-line and short-term profits!

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