Seven Steps to Natural Disambiguity

  1. Unwined.

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    At the extreme of denatured wine is a mass of grape juice with chemical intercessions at every stage of the manufacturing (sic) process from the intensively-farmed vineyards to the wines themselves which are controlled and manipulated to the minutest degree. The wine has no choice in the matter – it is basic juice to be transformed into something notionally called “wine”. These mass-produced wines may be found lurking on the shelves of cash & carries and supermarkets or bought in by wine suppliers to satisfy the insatiable demand for vertiginously high gross profit margins in cheap pub groups and chains. At their worst they are unhealthy and excessively sulphury, at best chemically inert and anodyne. Moreover, the exploitation of the land through the remorseless creation of an arid monoculture, is the unacceptable face of industrial farming.

  1. Chemi-quaff.

    A profiled product deriving from technological control from grape to bottle. No one ever picked a grape by hand or put one in their mouth and nothing is selected by intuition; meanwhile, computers measure and therefore dictate most choices in the winery and the recipe on the back of the packet for winemaking is followed oh-so-diligently, but the wines themselves – through a mixture of better-quality juice and more judicious winemaking – are perhaps slightly greater than the sum of their chemicals. They possess an iota of personality by means of either varietal definition or drinkability (albeit through sheer lack of complexity). The difference to (1) is that although stability is still prized above terroir expression the interventions mark the wines less egregiously. Supermarket and high street fodder generally, also tend to be the “house wines” sourced from co-ops and cantinas by wine merchants who looking to develop a style that doesn’t taste (luridly) chemical.

  1. The middle ground.

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    Inhabited by wines made reactively – though often with the best of intentions. The farming method is called lutte raisonnée with chemical intervention employed when the situation warrants it. This begs the question how much and what kind of intervention is acceptable, when they should be used, and how they should be monitored.  It’s the half-way house of agriculture where symptoms, rather than the causes of the maladies are treated, as opposed to a holistic approach which seeks to address and solve problems at root. Nevertheless, the wines themselves may be technically sound and reasonably balanced with virtuous terroir expression if the winemaking is less obtrusive.

  1. Extracto-philia (sometimes known as underwined oak)

    Organic or biodynamic viticulture will create the preconditions for healthy grapes, but certain vignerons seek to create powerful and monolithic wines which are not a sensible reflection of the terroir. For whatever critical reason. Oenological tropes are used to layer on desirable flavours and textures (think 100% new oak, micro-oxygenation, spinning cones and various techniques of tannin management) and confer a seemly cut to the emperor’s exceedingly bulky new raiment. Driven by a desire to create something iconic and critically desirable and thus to be part of the gold standard of wines that may command higher prices, new oak is lavishly employed– its presence serves to make the wines more expansive (possibly), certainly more expensive, by definition, and confers pseudo-gravitas on the whole production. Extracto-philiac wines are where the maquillage masks the beauty of the terroir.

  1. Virtuous simplicity

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    Reflecting typicity of vintage and terroir, wines that are revealed by sensitive winemaking. Chemicals (in the vineyard), seen as a negative intervention, inhibiting those nutrients in the soil that give life and energy to the wine, are used sparingly, if at all, and alternative solutions explored. Vigilance is required to avoid the monolithic wines in 4 – grapes have to be harvested the moment they reach maturity (and no later). These wines will normally see little or no new oak, will ferment with natural yeasts (although that fermentation will be controlled) and will be bottled with light or no filtration or fining.

  1. Approaching zero.

    Wines made without chemical intervention in the vineyard (natural remedies to diseases and pests are always sought) and with total respect for the ecological health of the local environment. Philosophically and practically speaking this is biodynamics, an integrated, progressive agricultural approach. Most procedures are done by hand with meticulous care (this is back-breaking work) for the natural well-being of the vineyard is paramount if grapes full of ripe sugars, great acids and all the natural preservatives that will assist in a natural fermentation are to be obtained. Selection is key (yields will necessarily be low). Subsequent fermentation is spontaneous  (pied de cuve may be used), often at ambient temperatures, sulphur will be used sparingly (and only as necessary) and the wine will normally be unfiltered and unfined to preserve as much of the authentic appearance and flavour as possible.

  1. Nature red in tooth & claw.

    Finally, there are the zero intervention wines – the step into the unknown without a safety net. The vigneron is a physical rather than a chemical guide in the process here, working, monitoring and nurturing without relying on additives. The result can either be ur-funky and arhythmic or possess a beautiful harmony and have unparalleled precision and purity – or be somewhere in-between.

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This final category is but a drop in the wine ocean and one suspects, plucking mythical statistical straws out of the wind, that fewer than .01% of wines are made in this look-only-hands fashion.

If one asks Joe or Joanna (Wine)Blogs to define what wine is they would probably come up with a definition nearer the vins natures end of the spectrum that the more mainstream/ manufactured versions I have described above. We all get stuck in the web of definition depending on whether we view wine as mainly about the grapes or mainly about the microbiology. One can come at this from so many angles. The angle of the low-interventionist is: “Why would I want to obfuscate the flavour of the grapes (and hence the terroir) with lashings of artificial flavour?” We have all tasted countless wines where the flavours have derived almost entirely from designer yeasts. The non-naturalist, conversely, will dispute the validity of unstable natural wine and state categorically that the majority of their flavours stem from various kinds of bacterial spoilage. Microbiological change is, in itself, not necessarily spoilage and could be possibly construed even as a kind of enhancement. The issue is how much is too much, what is being disguised or discarded, what is being added that attracts or confounds. Some may have fixed views, but wine is not a fixed liquid, rather it is intriguingly mutable although those making wine for mass markets would aver that total control over fermentation is necessary if you are not to lose your market. Bad, clumsy winemaking occurs plentifully with conventional winemakers with all the tricks of the trade at their disposal, proving that a chemistry set is not a passport to cleanliness or godliness and noxious wines with foul aromas induced by chemicals and/or bad winemaking will occur with depressing regularity. Even good commercial oenologists tend to want to remove any element that would imbue the wine with individuality. A great natural winemaker has to be fastidious in the winery, constantly cleaning and constantly tasting in order to ensure that his or her wines, aren’t spoiled. That it happens less and less frequently indicates a growth in the understanding that winemaking is not about benign neglect – there is a physical, monitoring, mentoring element required until the cork is placed in the bottle and that bottle is shipped.

But let us return to first principles. Wine is seemingly treated differently in arguments about the authenticity of taste. We may happily consume unpasteurised cheese, artisan bread, real ale, natural cloudy apple juice, so why must wine, of necessity, be a man-made, manipulated product? The wisdom goes that wine would not exist without man. Nor would cheese, bread and cloudy juice. So I come from the opposite camp. How artificial does something have to be to retain an approximation to the original? Freshly squeezed juice from an orange is the essential expression of the orange; is juice made from concentrate still orange juice and how about orange-flavoured drink which may have a microscopic amount of juice in it? Processes that alter and re-animate in a different form so dilute and denature the wine that one wonders whether such wines should be classified as something other than wine – flavoured fermented grape juice, perhaps.

A modest proposal, but if the whole process of winemaking is to remove any sense of origin, of vintage or unique flavour, then surely it is closer to wine unmaking.

To be continued….

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