Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking
By Jamie Goode, Sam Harrop
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
Some nine thousand years ago, someone made a lucky discovery: that grapes contained within themselves the constituents to make a satisfying, mood-enhancing, food-compatible, and usefully long-lived drink—wine. So universally appreciated was this near-magical liquid that it soon became a cornerstone of the shared lives of many societies. Wild grapes proved amenable to cultivation; vineyards were a sign of settling, evidence that people who had previously been nomadic were here to stay. In addition to its social role, wine also became infused with religious symbolism.
Remarkably, wine has survived various social upheavals, the end of dynasties and empires, and industrial "progress" and remains with us today. Of course, many of the wines we currently consume, dominated by bold, sweet fruit flavours, would be unrecognizable to drinkers of just a century ago. Yet there are still plenty of wines around that taste much as they would have hundreds of years ago. This is because, here and there, wines are still made in ways that would be familiar to a winegrower from past times. Still others are helped a little by cellar technology but manage to retain a sense of place that connects with history. Thus wine carries with it an important tradition. In New World regions where there is a relatively brief tradition of quality wine production, there exist both wines that reflect the personality of the place they come from and those that could have been made almost anywhere.
WHAT IS NATURAL? WHAT IS AUTHENTIC?
One of the keys to wine's enduring appeal is the belief that it is a "natural" product. But how do we define natural? We can start by agreeing that in its most basic form, all wine is natural in that it is not a synthetically produced beverage. Instead, grapes contain—within and without—all that is needed to make wine. One could therefore argue that the more manipulations or additions a wine undergoes, the less natural the resulting product, although this is an overly simplistic view.
In truth, there is no such thing as natural or unnatural wine; rather, the "naturalness" of a wine is most usefully measured on a continuum from least to most natural and takes in many aspects of the cultivation, harvesting, and processing of the raw ingredient: the grape.
To illustrate this point, let's consider the analogy of a garden. If a garden is totally "natural," it is untended, and the only plants growing there will be those that establish themselves. The result will not be completely devoid of appeal, but it won't be a garden in the traditional sense. After several generations it will likely become woodland or scrubland. The term garden implies some sort of human intervention by selecting which plants to grow, tending them, and keeping a degree of order. Of course, the gardener does not make anything grow herself or himself; she or he acts merely as a facilitator of this growth. But part of the appeal of a garden is that it allows us to enjoy space that is dominated by plants and nature, even if it is nature at its tamest and most controlled.
The analogy with wine isn't perfect, but it's a useful one. Consider the winemaker (or winegrower, if, like some, you have a natural aversion to the term winemaker) as the gardener. A gardener could be said to be taking a natural approach if he or she eschews the worst-offending chemicals and doesn't introduce anything nonliving into the garden—the extreme example would be planting artificial flowers. But you could also raise questions about degrees of naturalness, as you can with wine. Does a garden gnome, or a water feature, or a bench make the garden unnatural? There are all sorts of gardens, from formal Regency-style English gardens to botanic gardens and more functional vegetable gardens. In a way all of these are natural, but some are more natural than others.
If we adhere to a strict concept of naturalness, then there is no such thing as natural wine. But if we accept the idea of a continuum of naturalness, and if we recognize that it is useful to establish just how natural some wines are when compared with others, then a range of choices become available in the vineyard and winery that will shift the wine in one direction or the other along the naturalness continuum. We must draw a line somewhere along the continuum from least natural to most natural, because otherwise anything goes—and in winemaking "anything goes" translates into a huge problem, as we'll discuss in later chapters.
However, perceived naturalness is not the only factor that has maintained wine's appeal over the ages. Another important ingredient has been the link to provenance: the power of wine to tell the story of its origin. This idea of terroir is intrinsic to wine, but is at great risk of erosion in today's marketplace. Winemakers need to listen to the vineyard and do their best to express it in the final wine. A key part of this is managing vineyards in an effective and sustainable manner. An even more important part of this is picking early enough to retain freshness and definition and avoid high alcohol and the obscure fruit qualities that over-ripeness brings. Linked to terroir is the issue of faults in wine. As controversial as they are misdiagnosed, winemaking faults are often guilty of masking terroir and, in some cases, becoming so entrenched that they become part of it! But it is no longer acceptable just to make fault-free wine that expresses its place; considerations of micro and macro environment are crucial in an age where concerns about global warming have become the domain of many consumers. A wine made with consideration for all of these factors is—in our definition—an authentic wine. We acknowledge that, like naturalness, the concept of authenticity is a shifting paradigm, and that there are limits to its application for individuals and businesses. Larger more hierarchical businesses have greater limitations, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't try to make more authentic wines.
THE FORK IN THE ROAD
The issue of naturalness and authenticity is one of the key current debates in the world of wine, and it is likely to become more heated over the next few years. Why? Because wine is now at a metaphorical fork in the road, and from here it can go one of two ways. The first is to continue down the road taken by New World branded wines: huge volumes, a reliance on technology and marketing, reliability at the cost of individuality, an emphasis on sweet fruit flavours, and a loss of terroir (the possession by wines of a sense of place). The destination? Wine would gradually become indistinguishable from other drinks, and grapes would be seen simply as the raw ingredient in a manufacturing process. It's easy to see how wine is being pushed down this road by changes in retailing practices and demand for branded, homogeneous wine. Marketplace-driven consolidation has hit the wine industry. Players who can't manage large volumes with low margins are in danger of being forced to retreat to the heavily saturated and competitive fine wine niche or to bow out completely. The middle ground, once flush with diversity, has rapidly eroded, and those still in the game are seeing their access to market dry up. This is a real concern because many of the most interesting wines have come from this middle ground: midsized producers with perhaps dozens of hectares, rather than hundreds, who make the sorts of wines that we fell in love with and that persuaded us that wine is interesting in its own right. Nowadays, a small group of large drink companies dominates the world wine market. The accountants and managers rule the roost. Their products hit price points, are made in huge volumes, and don't offend anyone, but they do not excite. They are consistent from vintage to vintage, made to reflect a style rather than a sense of place.
For a vision of where the wine industry might currently be heading, it is worth looking at what has happened to the beer industry in recent years. The big companies and suits (business executives) moved in. The marketeers realized that product quality wasn't the selling point, and instead, they focused on building brands and selling the concepts underlying the brand to consumers rather than talking about the taste of the beer. The result was product homogenisation. Does the wine industry want to tread the same path? There's a real danger that if wine is treated solely as a manufactured product, blended and tweaked to fit the preferences of specially convened panels of "average" consumers, the wine industry will become moribund as a sector. Diversity based on regional, cultural, and winemaking differences will be lost, and any sense of continuity with the past may vanish forever.
The other road involves a retracing of steps and a celebration of what has made wine different and special: a respect for tradition, a sense of place, and an acknowledgment that diversity is valuable and not just an inconvenience. Wine is embedded in the deeper culture. The destination of this road is the rediscovery of "natural," authentic wine. This is wine with a vital connection to the vineyard it came from, wine that is unique to a particular distinguished site. "I believe in the concept of 'naturalness' as it is at the core of the concept of terroir," says renowned Australian winemaker and wine scientist Brian Croser. "Terroir is at the core of the fine wine endeavor and ethic, as it defines the quality factor which is enduring and cannot be competed away by technology. I maintain that the finest, best-balanced, and most unique wines will be made naturally from great expressive terroirs. Not only will the absolute quality across many vintages and tasters aggregate to the best (compared to manufactured wine), but the very ethic itself adds a halo that is in accord with the human spirit trying to reconnect to nature in a largely disconnected life. The spiritual and intellectual needs are in accord with the satisfaction derived from the personality and quality of fine wine."
In addition to changes in the wine industry, the consumer climate is changing. There is a growing awareness of environmental issues in production and packaging of food and drink, as well as the growing awareness of where products come from. Consumers are willing to pay more for organically produced food because they believe that it is better for them, and many claim that food grown with reduced pesticide input in a way that respects the environment actually tastes better. Consumers are also endorsing the concept of food miles and are concerned about the carbon footprint of the food and drink that they buy. It may be that before too long, green issues such as these will have a major impact on the purchasing behaviour of almost all consumers, not just a highly environmentally aware subset, as is currently the case.
Our concept of authentic wine is based on two premises: wine made naturally is more interesting and tastes better, and natural wine production is more sustainable and respectful of the environment. This concept may also offer an effective marketing strategy for wine, which is currently stuck in a price-reduction rut.
In this book we present a wide-ranging, critical look at the way naturalness and authenticity apply to wine. We begin by examining how more natural approaches in the vineyard can have a positive effect on wine quality. We'll discuss the issue of terroir, which is a complex and controversial notion, but one that sits at the heart of fine wine. We argue that there is a moral imperative for winegrowers to work in a sustainable fashion, even if they decide that neither organics nor biodynamics (a specialized form of organic farming popular among winegrowers) is a feasible approach for them. Shifting to the winery, we will discuss the natural wine movement and attempts to make wine with no additives at all, as well as a gradual shift among many growers to try to reduce winemaking inputs to the bare minimum. We'll take a thorough look at exactly what is added to wine, and why. We will also cover attempts to reduce the carbon footprint of wine. We conclude the book by examining whether naturalness can be a helpful marketing angle for the wine industry.
We realize that readers will be coming to this book from different perspectives. Believers in natural wine (whatever it may be) will be looking for a defence of the natural wine position, coupled with a thorough exploration of those wine producers who would position themselves under the natural wine banner. Others will be sceptics who have already decided that the term natural wine is nonsense, with no real meaning or usable definition. We hope that whatever your position, you find our exploration of issues of naturalness and authenticity as they relate to wine useful, even if this isn't quite the book you were expecting. The reality is that the topic of naturalness is a highly complex one, bringing together many separate ideas, and it isn't easy to pull out a seamless, tidy narrative. But we firmly believe that it is important to have this discussion.
THE DIVERSITY OF WINE
How a Natural Approach Can Help Preserve Wine's Interest
Think, for a moment, of an almost paper-white glass of liquid, just shot with greeny-gold, just tart on your tongue, full of wild flower scents and spring-water freshness. And think of a burnt-umber fluid, as smooth as syrup in the glass, as fat as butter to smell and sea-deep with strange flavours. Both are wine.
Wine is grape-juice. Every drop of liquid filling so many bottles has been drawn out of the ground by the roots of a vine. All these different drinks have at one time been sap in a stick. It is the first of many strange and some—despite modern research—mysterious circumstances which go to make wine not only the most delicious, but the most fascinating, drink in the world.
It would not be so fascinating if there were not so many different kinds. Although there are people who do not care for it, and who think it no more than a nuisance that a wine-list has so many names on it, the whole reason that wine is worth study is its variety.
HUGH JOHNSON, WINE, 1966
Hugh Johnson's quote comes from a time when the wine world looked rather different from how it appears today. Then, wine was very much a matter of the classics: chiefly Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Alsace, Mosel, and Port. The Rhône, so popular with "collectors" today, was considered alongside France's "country wines." Italy and Spain had a token presence on wine lists, and in the New World, perhaps only the Napa Valley of California was seen as significant. Critics had very little influence at this stage. Yet Johnson was able to say that wine "would not be so fascinating if there were not so many different kinds." He was right then; he is right now, when the world market for wine is much larger, and fine wine is made in far more places than it used to be.
Yet the growing popularity of wine has threatened this diversity. Why? As fine wine has gained in popularity in new (and wealthy) markets such as the United States and Asia, incentives for producers to excel have become greater. The rewards, for those who can raise their quality to the very highest level, are huge and make it worth the not-inconsiderable effort and investment of capital. The greater incentives to excel has undoubtedly expanded the category of fine wines, which is a good thing. However, it has also created the problem of how to define the "highest level of quality." In addition, winemakers now have at their disposal a wide array of technological innovations and an ever-expanding catalogue of yeast strains, processing aids, and winemaking additions, which have given them much more creative control over the winemaking process. Have they all used this power wisely?
In the past, fine wine was an aesthetic system, based on benchmarking and learning. Students of wine explored the classic styles and learned to discern what constitutes a great wine as opposed to an ordinary one. It's worth remembering here that wine appreciation operates on two distinct but intersecting levels. First, we have the hedonic level. You sip a wine and then report how much you enjoyed the experience: how nice did it taste? Second, there is the learned component: people have traditionally learned what constitutes a great example of Bordeaux, white Burgundy, or Champagne. Of course, the two methods of appreciation overlap, and most people use both in tandem. However, a novice is really capable of only the first level of appreciation.
It follows, then, that when experts assess a wine, they do so from inside this tradition of an aesthetic system of fine wine. They don't evaluate a wine just on the basis of what is in the glass, and how much pleasure it brings them. Some knowledge of context is necessary in the process of wine appreciation. To be a good critic, a novice must first seek to gain some knowledge of the wine style he or she is evaluating. When we are tasting blind, there is a limit to what we can say about the wine that is in front of us. The wine trade has traditionally acted as a custodian of a fine wine tradition, and those entering it have undergone a sort of apprenticeship in wine. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Authentic Wine by Jamie Goode, Sam Harrop. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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