The Gray Area

(Continued from previous post, 7 Steps to Natural Disambiguity)

les caves de pyrene

Critics would argue that there is a vast middle ground of entirely rational intervention which creates technically stable and terroir-accented wine – which is surely a desirable outcome. There is nothing inherently wrong with stability, and there is a huge market for it, nor is there, however, anything wrong with uncertainty, safety-net-free winemaking, though the potential clog-poppers (vins natures) rarely inhabit the same shelves as the mummified majority (conventional wines).

For so it is caricatured in the increasingly humourless wine world.

Confusion further abounds when the vignerons are asked to comment about the way they make wine. Some growers deprecate the natural tag and say that they make wines “organically” or even “biodynamically” – whatever that means. Others talk about the necessity of using sulphur dioxide in vinification, but, when tasked, admit they only use a very small amount – they refuse to see “natural” as a relative term and believe that being associated with it would harm their commercial reputation (even though they fulfil virtually every criterion for making natural wines).

Some rightly point out that fantastic wines can be made with chemicals in the vineyard and interventions in the winery. Of course, what works for you is what works best; it is possible, however, made even better wines with low or zero interventions. The judgment is what is good, bad, clean or faulty, and it will rage on until Judgement Day.

I am interested in the grey area where winemakers’ choices can be subtle and outcomes uncertain. Imagine, for example, playing a golf course and that every shot you make that falls into a bunker or is mired in the rough can be replaced in the middle of the mown fairway. In fact the rough could be removed altogether with weed-killer and fairways could be cropped to resemble a putting green and the trees chopped down so that no obstacles remain – nothing has to be worked or shaped or driven… The uncertainty – and difficulty – is what distinguishes one vintage from another, just as the weather and the set-up of the course create an individual challenge for every round.

The angle (so many angles, so little time) of supermarket buyer and pernickety officialdom is that winemakers have a straitjacketed duty of care to the consumer. Whoever he or she may be. The consumers of natural wine, however, drink natural wine. Not for them your fancy-schmancy cola pops. How many consumers consumeth the cloudy stuff? 100,000? 300,000? A cool million? Are they all buying into the ugly myth? Are they drinking the wines with clothes pegs on their noses because all they really want to do is to stick two fingers up to the arbiters of taste? Have they no taste? No shame? Wine must needs be consistent and stable – rather than consistently smelling of the stable. This is tantamount to saying, however, that each and every performance of a play or a musical concert should be identical to the breath and the note with nary a whisper of a ripple of deviation. The people who believe this don’t recognise vitality, mutability or unpredictability.

les caves de pyrene

“Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”

“Would you tell me, please,” said Alice, “what that means?”

“Now you talk like a reasonable child,” said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. “I meant by ‘impenetrability’ that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.”

“That’s a great deal to make one word mean,” Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

“When I make a word do a lot of work like that,” said Humpty Dumpty, “I always pay it extra.”

The angle of the amateur critic (the most compleat angler of all) revolves around the use of that tricky word “natural”. A semantic arm-wrestle over the validity of a word does not invalidate the toil and moil of the natural winemaker. Our friendly absolutist pedant will point out that natural wine is a contradiction in terms, and the journey between grape and bottle is, by definition, mediated by vigneron. I think we get the point but, since no-one argued otherwise, it is a moot one. I would go further and suggest that a vital aspect of terroir is the very relationship between the man/woman and his/her environment. The ability to create the preconditions for, to work with, and interpret nature, provides a unique signature to the wine. The amateur critic who desires the Manichean certainties of the authorised textbook –is, in effect, saying that wine should be either all nature or all man. Life’s a tad more complicated.

It is the way you work, the decisions you make, the philosophy you go by, that determines whether you are on the natural side of the argument and whether you are an extremist is whether you express no doubt and admit no room for manoeuvre.

les caves de pyrene

Those who live by the so-called dictates of science have their own circumscribed world, where everything can be explained and explained away, often believing that the most recent experiment or survey constitutes proof (or counter proves) and that there is no beauty in mystery and no mystery in beauty. The life of the head (the thinking or unthinking head) is opposed to the life of the heart, the laboratory rationalist opposed to the intuitive vigneron who uses his/her senses to calibrate the winemaking process rather than relying wholly on scientific instruments.

Shall ever the twain meet? Journeys are forever being made and constant repositioning. The real rationalists assess the health of the vines and the quality of the wines rather than strike intransigent attitudes. The modern history of vins natures dates back to Chauvet and Lapierre, after which a few vignerons such as Breton & Puzelat took up the cudgels, and then more and more until now wherein approximately four hundred growers work to the beat of the wild yeast (and various other things).  Within another five years this amorphous crazy gang may number over seven hundred.  No one is counting; there is no overarching organisation that quantifies or qualifies naturalness for all, and for every group that publishes a philosophy you will have a schism and schisms within that schism. The true artisan will always want to divorce himself from the methodology of the mainstream and arrive at his or her own unique interpretation of terroir and no amount of critical bleating will have any effect. Conversely, I would be happy if this trend were never corralled into a mass movement; there is too much division in nature, and in human nature, to allow a uniform message to go out and people will always quibble ad nauseam about nuance and detail. Politics equals pettiness.

Nevertheless, some trends are meritorious.  Despite Richard Smart’s objections, a mere Antipodean grumble amongst the cacophony of virulent cow farts, it seems that by 2020 a vast swathe of vineyards in France, New Zealand and many other countries will be organically farmed, or in the conversion process – good riddance to bad chemicals. Intelligent farming practice will replace the lazy once-size-fits-all, one-toxic-cocktail-of-sprays-annihilates everything approach in the vineyard. Equally, the idea that the winemaker can willy-nilly bombard the wine with additives without facing bureaucratic pressure in future on labelling is naive. The appellation system is currently in disrepute often penalising the most honest growers and turning a blind eye to abusive practice – this too will have to change.

This faux-debate is often seen as a battle of the sceptical scientists and critics on the one side and the natural fundamentalists on the other. Irrationalism abounds even amongst those who worship the graven images of science and Parker points and fundamentalism exists equally on both sides punctuated by rare shafts of thoughtfulness. Without a priori experience of the vineyard and direct knowledge of specific winemaking processes the sceptic is left with mere booksmarts (leavened with “perceived good taste”) which is in itself hardly enough to claim authority on these complex issues. The wheel is forever turning and what is seen as heretical now may be entirely orthodox in a few years’ time. As Olivier Zind-Humbrecht opined in an interview: “Biodynamic scepticism is a thing of the past”. Whilst I would doubt that is the case (just read the number of so-called wine experts who still equate it with mystical lunacy practised only by woad-daubed hippies and pagans) the mere fact that so many of the best growers in the world not only accept it, but also practise it, and that it has gained widespread critical acceptance, suggests that the step from fringe philosophy to practical reality is but a short one.

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