U.S. Wine Book of the Year, Gourmand World Cookbook Awards
Some 9000 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 done hundreds of years back. 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, yet 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, as well as 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 could start by agreeing that in its most basic form, all wine is natural in that it is not a synthetically producing beverage. Instead, grapes contain- within and without- all that is needed to make wine. One could therefore argue that the more manipulations or additions that a wine undergoes, the less natural the resulting wine, 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 both 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' itself implies some sort of human intervention, in terms of selecting which plants to grow, tending them, and keeping a degree of order. Of course, the gardener does not make anything grow 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 they eschew the worst-offending chemicals and don't introduce anything non-living into the garden-the extreme example would be planting artificial flowers. But you could also talk in terms of degrees of naturalness, such 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, to a more functional vegetable garden. In a way all of these are natural, and some are more natural than others.
If we are fundamentalist about naturalness, then there's no such thing as natural wine. But if we accept the idea of a continuum of naturalness, and the usefulness of establishing just how natural some wines are when compared with others, then it is possible to make a range of choices in the vineyard that will shift the wine in one direction or the other along the naturalness continuum. It is important that a line is drawn 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.
The fork in the road
The issue of naturalness and authenticity is one of the key current debates in the world of wine, and one that is set to get 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 route 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 sense of place. The destination? Wine gradually becomes indistinguishable from other drinks, and the grapes are seen simply as the raw ingredient in a manufacturing process. It's easy to see how wine is being pushed down this route by changes in retailing practises and demand for branded, homogenous wine. Marketplace-driven consolidation has hit the wine industry, and threatens to weed out the players who can't manage large volumes with low margins forcing them to retreat to the heavily-saturated and competitive fine wine niche or bow out completely. The middle ground, once flush with diversity, has rapidly eroded and those still in the game are seeing their routes to market dry up. This is a real concern because many of the most interesting wines have come from this middle ground: mid-sized producers with perhaps dozens of hectares, rather than hundreds, who make the sorts of wines that we fell in love with and which persuaded us that wine is interesting in its own right. Nowadays, a small group of large drinks companies dominate 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; neither do they 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 moved in. The marketeers realized that product quality wasn't the selling point, and instead 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 homogenization. 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, and blended and tweaked to fit the preferences of specially convened panels of 'average' consumers, that wine itself will become moribund as a sector. Diversity based on regional, cultural and winemaking differences will be lost, and, once that continuity with the past is severed, it may be lost forever.
The other route involves a re-tracing of steps and a celebration of what it is that has made wine different and special: a respect for tradition, a sense of place, an acknowledgement that diversity is valuable and not just an inconvenience. Wine embedded in the deeper culture. Here, the destination 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 this, the consumer climate is changing. There is a growing awareness of environmental issues around production and packaging of food and drink, as well as the provenance of products. Consumers are willing to pay more for organically produced food because they believe this 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 buying into 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, and not just a highly environmental aware subset, as is currently the case.
With this in mind, our two-pronged concept of authentic wine-that wine made naturally is more interesting and tastes better, and that natural wine production is more sustainable and respectful of the environment-may also prove to be an effective marketing strategy for wine, which is currently stuck in a price reduction rut.
These are the issues that we will be covering in this book. We want to take a broad ranging and intelligently critical look at the way naturalness and authenticity apply to wine. We begin by looking at how more natural approaches in the vineyard can have a positive effect on wine quality. We'll discuss the issue of terroir-the possession by wines of a sense of place-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 organics or biodynamics (a specialized form of organic farming popular among winegrowers) is not 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 also 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, before closing 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. Some may be believers in natural wine (whatever this is) and will be looking for a defence of the natural wine position, coupled with a thorough exploration of those wine producers who would align themselves under the natural wine banner. Others will come from a sceptical position, having already decided that it the term 'natural wine' itself is a nonsense, with no real meaning and lacking a useable definition. We hope that whatever position you come from, 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 this is an important discussion to have.