At the beginning of each year I don an oenomancer’s spangly pointed hat, decant a colfondo Prosecco, examine the true lies of its wiggly wine sediment, sniff the prevailing wine wind, and pretend to prog-nose-ticate, despite the fact that the whirligig of wine will inevitably bring in the same-old, possibly even more so. The wine industry is constructed to perpetuate the status quo, by rehashing old trends and repackaging them as good news stories.
The headlines never change. The song remains the same. Cut any Nielsen survey to the marrow and that you will discover every country, region, Tom, Dick or Harry is a statistical winner and all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds in the wine industry. The wine industry continues to puff like a self-important steam engine. And the hype, it hypeth every day.
For all the commercial brouhaha and backslapping there is something really exciting afoot in the nether regions of the wine world (if such an entity exists). It is not immediately tangible; it cannot be set in lights and announced as the next big thing. Perhaps it is because it is a grassroots phenomenon, predicated on the decisions and the respective will of individuals, rather than the crude dictates of markets.
These individuals inhabit the fringes rather than the mainstream – their wines are not extolled with high scores, nor are they written about in trade magazines. They (and their wines) are often perceived as rule-breakers, anti-establishment for the hell of it. They are castigated for going too far, and caricatured as prisoners of their own idealism rather than sticklers for quality.
The poet, the artist, the sleuth, whoever sharpens our perception, tends to be antisocial, rarely well-adjusted, he cannot go along with currents and trends ~ Marshall McLuhan
The truth is somewhat simpler. The growers are artisans who are making wines for themselves (and also for their friends), ploughing their own real and metaphoric furrow. They live through their wine in every sense. You tend to hear about them when they come into conflict with daft bureaucracy; you might read about them in offbeat blogs; you will meet them at wine fairs celebrating artisan vignerons and their wines, you can taste their wines in natural wine bars and buy them in small independent wine merchants and cavistes.
Their offbeat wines may offer simple affirmative pleasures, not just life-changing epiphanies. They have garnered no reputation, nor have they received critical imprimatur. Neither gaudy nor pretentious nor complaisant, these are modest wines, yet, because they have integrity, they also possess unique value.
Winemaking is neither a fine art nor a precise science. Vignerons are constantly learning, each vintage a lesson in adaptation, a reminder of the need for humility. Some vignerons will even learn about themselves through the very process of accompanying the wine on its involved journey. Conversely, those winemakers who work to the tried-and-trusted chemical recipes, are not listening to the wine. They make a servant of the wine and have nothing to learn from the process.
Similarly, as drinkers, perhaps we should not exalt our preconceived tastes above the wine. For each real wine has a distinct narrative. (I am not speaking of industrial versions but rather wines made with relatively few interventions). It is important to listen to these stories so we may better understand the origins, and thus the personality, of the wines.
This year I am going to try to open myself and become a better taster. I have become careless in my approach and more than a little glib in my opinions. By filtering everything through a gauze of preconceptions I’m not allowing myself to taste the wine inside out and, as a consequence, am missing something essential. Some experiences, however, help you re-evaluate your entire approach. I was not at all a fan of Sauvignon, for example, until I tasted examples in Styria that made me realise that it is not the grape, rather the terroir and the nature of the winemaking that makes a wine noble.
I won’t backtrack from using natural as a term to define a group of growers and their wines, although I acknowledge this is a relative term. To me it describes a journey, a partnership between man/woman and the vines and a form of mutual ventriloquism. The natural wine is shaped by the exact nature and the route of its journey. We are not arguing here about milligrams of sulphur, nor the right of the vigneron to help the wine according to its needs, but championing a holistic, sensitive yet vigorous approach to winemaking that helps to bring the drinker as close as possible to the vines and the vintage and the physical (and mental) endeavours of the vigneron. Because natural is a relative rather than absolute concept, with different vignerons interpreting the journey in different ways and intervening at different times and in different ways. For all that, the wine will have its own indisputable identity. Ultimately, the taster will sense whether the interventions truly marry into the wine or whether they confuse the wine and scramble particular desirable characteristics – such as upsetting or masking balance, tension, energy and purity of fruit.
There are those who would argue – or generalise – that natural wines fall short of the conventional wine standard because they incorporate (obvious) flaws into their make-up. There are those who would say that these flaws are not only beautiful, they are what makes the wine stand out from dull commercial products and imbue them with a living quality. Although it should seem obvious and desirable for a wine to possess life, for those who prize stability over edginess and unpredictability, low-intervention wines ruffle expectations: Life is an offensive, directed against the repetitious mechanism of the Universe.
We are interested in vignerons who treat wine as a part of a greater whole rather than a be-all-and-end-all product-for-a-purpose. Rather than tackling the whole winemaking process with the exact flavour profile of the final wine clearly in mind, therefore needing to exert a strong measure of control over the process ab ovo usque ad mala, these vignerons combine traditional, sensitive farming practices with gentle, interpretative winemaking ones. We are seeing men and women using biodynamics, creating healthy eco-systems, and becoming more in tune with their vineyards and their vines.
Biodynamics posits a unified methodology insofar as it is not treating the vine as a patient but creating a healthy environment for the vine to exist in. Rather than being a reactive form of farming, it is prescient, intuitive and intelligent. Incorporated within this philosophy are such diverse matters as the importance of a planting calendar, seasonal tasks, epedaphic conditions, the waxing of the moon (and how it corresponds to high pressure) and the role of wild yeasts. The dynamic of the vineyard mirrors all the cycles. The seasons are a necessary part of the great natural balance, the constant process of decomposition, dormancy and recomposition. Nature involves a series of transformations, and biodynamics analyses the different states and exchanges of matter and energy that operate in the growth of the vine: between the mineral and the roots; the water and the leaf; light and the flower; heat and the fruit, a series of metamorphoses which can be seen not as different states, but ascendant and descendant ones.
This prescient approach continues in the winery, which will not be a sterile laboratory filled with computerised equipment and chemical medicines, but a place to house the wine whilst other transformations occur. This is where the wine breathes – we see greater use of old barrels, cement vats and even clay jars so that the wine can interact with its immediate environment rather than be protected from it. A form of protection may come from the grape skins or stems or from the lees or from the natural micro-oxygenation during fermentation and maturation. The wines are thus allowed to take their time to find their equilibrium rather than being rushed through the process to get to the market.
One favours cleanliness and stasis through systemic treatments of vineyards and grape juice. This risk-averse approach is based on the belief that wine may be improved and infinitely refined by human intervention, a reductive credo that presupposes that grape juice is an exoskeleton waiting to be filled with a variety of authorised flavours.
Systems, scientific and philosophic, come and go. Each method of limited understanding is at length exhausted.
Winemaking systems currently reflect the very human fascination with technology and perfectionism, the notion that man should hath complete and corrective dominion over his environment. This received world view is slowly being undermined by a growing group of artisans who don’t wish to drive out nature with a pitchfork and consumers who prefer not to have their wines denatured, an alternative viewpoint that concedes that wine may be more than the sum total of the technologies deployed to create the product-for-a-purpose. Moreover, it conceives wine as a way of life for some growers, a form of truth for others, a means of nourishment and a thing of joy for those who consume it. A small (global) community of growers, importers, distributors and drinkers have, by their beliefs and their actions, formed a kind of unofficial natural resistance to the wine industry. These positions are relative rather than necessarily adversarial or absolute, but it is outwith the current industry system that one needs to look for real inspiration.