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Blog: If some wine’s natural, what’s the rest? – Hannah Fuellenkemper (English)

Steeds vaker kan je in restaurant een glas natuurwijn bestellen. Maar zijn al die andere wijnen dan niet natuurlijk? Hannah heeft er zo haar bedenkingen over. YFMer Hannah Fuellenkemper schrijft over voedsel, heeft haar eigen blog en organiseert de sit-down supper club.

Generally speaking, natural wine is made of grapes grown organically and then made into wine with minimum manipulation. This means nothing is added*, nothing is taken away; the winemaker ‘only’ guides the grapes along the natural path of fermentation.

Its proponents hand-harvest, reject industrially manufactured yeasts, additives and preservatives in reaction (one starting in the 80s) to a wine industry that it thought had become too reliant on legal additives to correct deficiencies in the grapes. And so they set about experimenting: changing their product, going back to the way it was done before with everything they knew from their now. Natural wine makers hold transparency as a core principal. They are respectful of their environment and offer an ideal: the reclamation of the honest and handmade versus the increasing industrialization of the production of everything. They make fermented grape juice, which, according to the dictionary, is all wine is. So what is it about natural wine that people think it has to prove itself to be worthy of our glasses and not just a kick at The System?

What’s in a name
Well, there’s the name for starters: people, I suppose, don’t like what the opposite of ‘natural’ implies about their own product. No one wants to stick a big ‘unnatural’ on their label. No one, it seems, wants to list anything on their wine label and nor do they have to, thanks to a curious limitation in food labelling laws that also apply to… oh hey, only wine.

So how are you, as a consumer —no, let’s make you a vegetarian consumer — to find out what’s in a particular bottle? You’re not. But that doesn’t seem to be the issue reverberating through wine society. If you put your ear to the ground you’ll hear it’s the natural winemakers who are at the receiving end of most of the criticism; not, for instance, Bordeaux, which sprays 3320 of the 65,000 tonnes of agricultural pesticides sprayed in the whole of France (including, by the way, traces of chemicals that have long been banned and many more, not banned, that are labelled as potentially carcinogenic or toxic). No, apparently it’s more upsetting that natural winemakers are making exaggerated claims about their more virtuous practices. More upsetting that they (can) produce cloudy, oxidative wines; that they hide the poor quality of their wines behind a smokescreen and, anyway, now that you ask, we the conventional wine makers are forced by the needs of the market to do what we do, who are they to say it’s bad the little punks…

Sounds like resentment to me. And we know how strong a motive this is: just look at the lingering associations society still has with the organic movement. It’s the harder path to follow — are those who manage it better than us?

What’s in your wine
The reality is that if producers did have to list what they put into their wine, it would, at best, be a fairly long list, and at worst, very long with at least one or two words that sound like dinosaur names (cute but not when it comes to what you’re about to ingest) and many others with lots of z’s in them. This is because commodity wines — those that make up the bulk of the wine industry — are the result of industrial farming and winemaking. They are agrochemical, homogenised products with little, if anything, left to natural processes many of us believe, or want to believe, are still applicable. The pressure that we as consumers apply on producers, even if unknowingly, has led, as with all agriculture, to huge pressure being applied on our environment as well as the use of science to gain total control over the wine making process rather than produce wine with as little intervention as possible.

It’s important, after all, so as to prevent you looking like a fool at a dinner party when the wine turns out to taste not as you expected, that that Rioja you so liked last time tastes the same now, right? Likewise it’s equally important, this is a supermarket after all, that it’s always available, right?

But when you stop to think about it, about the fact that grapes comes from plants that are exposed to different conditions each year, how can the wine taste the same all the time without some tweaking? Tweaking that, in most mass-produced wine, is not as gentle as one expect but that can (legally) include the addition of dimethyl decarbonate, acetaldehyde, iyoszyme, polyvinylpolyryrrolidone (this is not a typo nor a dinosaur) and casein, to name but a few substances I don’t know anything about. Then there’s the fact some of these additives come from animal derivatives (additives trypsin is extracted from the pancreas of pigs or cows whereas isinglass is an extract from fish bladders) and then the vineyard itself; with all the pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, insecticides and fertilisers forced upon it in order to keep the vines producing despite changing weather patterns, soil degradation and the eventual fundamental imbalances of the ecosystem — y’know, the normal trappings of any monoculture worth its salt.

Until all wine producers are legally obliged to disclose their ingredient lists I don’t think it’s relevant to consider whether natural winemakers are exaggerating what they do is better. With a list of ingredients, consumers could decide for themselves.

A case of taste
So what else do we like to throw at the natural winemakers? There is, of course, the matter of taste and aesthetics. Wine is meant to be red, white or rose, right? So definitely not orange. Wine’s meant to be clear because all the wine you’ve ever drunk is clear, so a glass that looks like it contains cider someone’s farted in is faulty. Obviously. Natural wines all taste ‘natural’ and — equally upsetting — you might pick a nice dark, syrupy-looking red that tastes nothing like you expect it to. Right? What’s that about? Well, the first one is at least wrong; the second can happen but who cares? If it’s good, that should be exciting.

As with any wine grouping you choose to think in, there will be things you don’t like the taste of. However, to criticise a genre because one or two don’t hold up is an unfair standard; and to think all natural wine tastes ‘natural,’ or that wines should be clear, or that all natural wine isn’t clear, is incorrect. Naturally, the natural wine flavour spectrum is as wide as any other, with those (granted) on one end that taste more like a microbial swamp and that are, in fact, cloudy (i.e. unfiltered), but many many waaayyy on the other end that are barely, if at all, distinguishable from conventionally made, classic tasting wines. In fact, at a recent natural wine fair in London showing more than 200 wines that had to accord to its strict charter, I was actually disappointed not to find much of the weird and wilderness, the snap and fizzle I happen to (personally) look for. Instead, I found almost 100% more classic tastes amongst the supposed fringe than I expected. Tuns out the wild-eyed partisans comb their hair.

And a bag of tricks
There are also those that like to dismiss natural wine as an excuse for poorly made wine, a gimmick to trick us into supporting something that, were it not virtuous, we wouldn’t drink. Of course there’s bad natural wine, bad winemakers and those that say they’re natural when they’re not (there’s no legal definition of the practice). But at the end of the many days spent tending to your vines and grapes, to be successful, to be consistently successful, proof must ultimately come from the quality and flavour of your wine; two things one must be decidedly scientific about without the benefits of chemicals or technological shortcuts. And anyway: what about the chemicals added to conventional wine — isn’t the whole point of them to excuse poor tasting wine? Oh I forgot, we weren’t to know of these.

Focusing on the characteristics natural wine can have but by no means always has is unhelpful. Fingers are being pointed for the wrong reasons and in my opinion, in the wrong direction. It’s good we’re finally asking questions, but we’re asking the wrong ones. Instead, why are we not striving for greater transparency? Why are we accepting manipulation as the norm from which we mustn’t deviate despite its cost to our environment and maybe, even, to us?

*The only additive used by some natural wine growers is SO2. Under EU law, maximum total sulphite levels permitted in a bottle of wine are 150mg/litre, 200mg/l and 400mg/l for red, dry white and sweet wines respectively.

Organic and biodynamic certifying bodies are a little more stringent than this, but natural wine is the strictest of all, with most producers averaging under 30mg/l for reds, 40mg/l for whites and 80mg/l for sweet wines. Some growers use none at all.

// Lees ook Hannah’s vorige blogs:
blog: Part of the package of the cacao industry.
blog: In season, on trend.
blog: Do you want meat with that?
blog: On fish.

// Tekst & Beeld: Hannah Fuellenkemper
// YFM nodigt bloggers uit om hun mening te delen op onze website. Dit artikel is de persoonlijke mening van de schrijver. Wil je reageren? Dat kan onder de Facebook post die bij deze blog hoort!

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