Let us listen to three voices. If you ask one type of man, “What does a novel do?” he will reply placidly: “Well – I don’t know – it seems a funny sort of question to ask – a novel’s a novel – well I don’t know – I suppose it kinds of tells a story, so to speak.” He is quite good-tempered and vague, and probably driving a motor-bus at the same time and probably paying no more attention to literature than it merits. Another man, who I visualise on a golf course, will be aggressive and brisk. He will reply: “What does a novel do? Why, tell a story of course, and I’ve no use for it if it didn’t. I like a story. Very bad taste on my part no doubt, but I like a story. You can take your art, you can take your literature, you can take your music, but give me a good story. And I like a story to be a story, mind, and my wife’s the same.” And a third man, he says in a sort of droopy, regretful voice: “Yes – oh dear yes – the novel tells a story.”
I respect and admire the first speaker. I detest and fear the second. The third is myself. Yes – oh dear yes – the novel tells a story. That is the fundamental aspect without which it could not exist. That is the highest factor common to all novels, and I wish that it was not so, that it could be something different – melody, or perception of the truth, not this low atavistic form.
The other day I was asked for a definition of natural wine. A humble formulation that was easy to understand, one that cut to the heart of the matter without emotive language and avoiding a battery of technical terms. Just as language itself is both charged and fluid, however, any definition needs to accommodate the protean nature of the wines and the diverse intentions of the winemakers.
Oh dear yes, natural wine is a reasonable enough expression. The word “natural” is variously defined in Webster’s dictionary as “not having any extra substances or chemicals added: not containing anything artificial” and “Closely resembling an original: true to nature and marked by easy simplicity and freedom from artificiality, affectation, or constraint”.
We might just as easily employ other words to describe: naked wine, raw wine, real wine, low-intervention wines or additive-free wines – some sound more exacting (how about organically-grown-wild-fermented-nothing-added-other-than-little-or-no-sulphur wine), some more romantic. Some terms describe process, others are more indicative of style. For some the epithet “natural” is freighted with lofty moral overtones, a colourful banner to rally growers and drinkers who think and drink alike, for others a convenient peg to hang a highly specific approach to winemaking, and for others still it is a pejorative expression to damn wines that they believe are faulty to their insubstantial core.
In reality natural wine is a flexible formulation because winemakers do not work to an absolute or minutely prescriptive code of conduct. It simply describes the spirit in which the growers do work and their broad intentions to make wines with the minimum of additions. Each grower will always have a specific idea for the wine, a preferred outcome, whether it is to be the clearest expression of fruit designed to assuage thirst, or a living liquid intended to convey the mineral essence of its terroir and the complex action of nature on the vineyard or a product that is part and parcel of the farming lifestyle, not one thing to be exalted but one of many things to be lived. And there are some winemakers who accompany the wine on its journey, allowing it to run its natural serendipitous course, listening to the endless slow tick of the ferment as the wine eases itself into multifarious shapes.
Before we talk about microbiological method (and that way madness lies), we should never forget where the grapes are truly processed. Whilst it is theoretically possible to make no- sulphur wine with any damn grapes this does not make it natural per se for the approach goes deeper than grape to bottle, it delves rather deep into the roots of, and the very environment in which the vine dwells. Patience, hard work and observation, natural treatments and remedies realise healthy grapes. The relationship between the vigneron and the vineyard is crucial; vigilance against disease and pests, focusing on the health of the plant and creating the kind of biodiversity enables the vineyard to thrive.
It is rather too easy to focus on winemaking and dismiss the practice in the vineyard, as if the grapes were a minor means to a major end, but the opposite is the truth. Without the material, there is no substance, no life, no real meaning. If wine is effectively to be cultivated in a test tube it is not wine in any meaningful sense.
And so to winemaking. In simplistic terms winemaking is a process of subtle and not-so-subtle transformations. Stuff happens – and stuff can be made to happen. Choices are made at every stage – it is not the question of whether to intervene in the process but the nature of the interventions that mark how natural a wine may be. The vessel in which the wine ferments and ages, shapes the wine. Stems or no stems, the use of the lees to nourish, enrich and give life, the use of oxygen at every stage, the temperature, the nature of the yeasts, the length of maceration, the time in vat or barrel or bottle –You would think that wine is natural because we take these physical manipulations and concomitant transformations for granted as the wine changes from the raw juice to the more evolved product. What lies beneath and what interests us is the signature of the wine after every process has been completed, when the human interventions have not been superimpositions but a sensitive amalgam of guiding and following the wine during its evolution from raw juice to final product.
Having said that, there is no fixed approach – and even the same vigneron may chop and change according to the particular vat or barrel, rather than employ a one-size-fits-all approach. The human element is always described in the final outcome which is why we come across considerable variations in the final wine. At one end of the natural spectrum the juice may be virtually untouched, the resultant wine turbid, prickly, on the edge, variable and fragile. Conversely, there are many wines that are richly phenolic, tightly wound and almost impenetrable, and need to unveil themselves in their own good time. Between these poles are wines that are simple and fruity, elegant, harmonious and precise, energetic and brilliant, flawed and strange.
Natural wine is not about extremism any more than working organically in the vineyard or biodynamically is going back to some bygone primitive period where people beat each other over the head with the fossilised jawbone of an ass. It is not anti-winemaking (quite the reverse) or anti-progress or modernity; instead it is about seeking and rendering the essence of the wine, avoiding overt manipulations, jolting and jostling, pumping and priming bundling up a product in maquillage and artifice. Such spoofy wines are monolithic; you might admire their architectural certainty but they are tiring to drink. Chemical wines, meanwhile, are manufactured, on such an industrial scale and have been denatured to such an extent that their origin is irrelevant – they are neither nourishing nor tasty.
Winemaking is, and always has been, an ancient craft, founded on sensible farming and sensitive observation of cyclical change. As wine became a global industry, lazy farming methods have led to lazy remedial winemaking. And thus the cart has been put before the horse and in the last couple of generations, the science of clean winemaking has been exalted. We have also become perhaps obsessed with the notion that product must needs be created for a finite commercial purpose. That commercial purpose, moreover, exalts consistency to the point of homogeneity and cleanliness to the point of blandness, by insisting on stability at all costs thus favouring chemical additions to the wine, and stripping away of any perceived undesirable elements within the wine. The argument, if it is such, is partly to capture the moment, partly to make something gastronomic and enjoyable, partly because working without chemical manipulations seems the right thing to do and partly the aesthetic appeal of the shape of these wines,
Oh dear yes – a discussion about what natural wine is inevitably turns into this tortuous quasi-philosophical digression taking in semantics, consumerism, bureaucracy, consistency, ethics, technology, subjective appreciation and aesthetics. The wines themselves get lost in the mists of swirling irreconcilable arguments and resonant abstractions. It is never about what is, but what it is not.
So what is my definition of natural wine?
Natural wine is where the grower and the winemaker accompanies the wine rather than makes the wine accompany them.