Tim James: Wine, nature and possibility
The fervor of the discussions (that is to say in our little geek world) about “natural wine” seems to have died down. There is no point in endlessly debating what is and what is not “natural”. In South Africa, there isn’t much truly natural wine according to makers anyway, as there aren’t many organically produced grapes to use. But there are many local wines which, right from vinification, are made with ‘natural’ methods, and many more which have been influenced to one degree or another by ‘natural’ procedures. We all know by now that some of what is done is a little funky, some is simply hipster – and both have their admirers; and some of them aren’t really funky or hipster at all.
In terms of public relations, wine in general benefits, as it always has, from the vague and often unjustified perception that it is quite close to being a natural product. This is why the international wine industry (especially in its more “industrial” quarters) is not too fond of the idea that it should be forced to disclose ingredients – additives, that is say – on labels, like any other processed food and thus horrify some wine lovers by revealing how abnormal it is to grow grapes and turn them into stable, drinkable wine. Some wines indeed contain many more additives than others; and there are additives used only for processing that do not remain in the wine, although residues of most additives do remain.
It seems to have been going on since the early days of winemaking. In the Zagros Mountains in Iran, clay jars around 7,000 years old have been found with residues of grape juice – but also with traces of resin, which is believed to have been used as an antibacterial preservative. There are signs of ancient storage techniques that would have minimized oxidation. Of course, the most severe modern producer of “natural wine” would have no objection to these procedures.
This level of ancient winemaking is clearly already a little more advanced than the fundamental origins of grape wine, which we will never know. All we can do is wonder how it all happened – not suddenly, presumably, as some classic myths claim. Broken grapes forgotten in a dish begin to ferment, and a brave person tastes the result… maybe. It seems somehow easier to account for the “invention”, the emergence, of wine than to learn how, for example, to make olives edible or how to make bread with grass.
If we are indeed in a period of rest where “natural wine” is simply accepted as a strand of a beautiful tapestry, it is also a period where the idea of the alleged naturalness of wine has been reinforced in the spirit and the choices of producers and consumers. . It emphasized and merged with the long-established idea of terroir and the haughty view that the role of the winemaker is simply to express what the vineyard has to offer. Of course, simple is what it never is: ask the good winegrower (conventional or organic) what the good performance of a vineyard entails, a phenomenon in itself highly unnatural; ask the good winemaker about the many crucial decisions that are made in the cellar once the grapes are brought in.
“Minimum intervention” is the big slogan now, and it expresses some truth and purpose. She suggests, although she certainly does not claim anything at all per se, that the additives to the vine are those that can be found in nature (and not imported in bags from agrochemical factories), and that in the cellar certainly no radical additions to the wine are made – including acid or sugar adjustments and oak flavors or technological processes like revered osmosis.
But I can’t help noticing another type of expression that is increasingly used, producers claiming that their wines are made “as naturally as possible”, or “with the least amount of intervention necessary”. These are, of course, fundamentally meaningless phrases and should be questioned rather than nodded in approval. Who can say what is possible or impossible, or necessary? On the one hand, it’s a story that changes over time. Swartland new-wavers don’t add acidity to their wines, do they? But I strongly suspect that the number of 2022 Swartland wines with no added acid will be closer to zero than what we’re going to hear in their advertising – especially since Swartland’s Independent Producer Code states that there is no of added acid (although, frankly, it’s not clear to me that SIP still exists in any meaningful sense). And I dare say that some winemakers find it “necessary” to add acid every year – and some winemakers and vintners never find it “possible” to be “natural” at all.
No doubt it is a good thing that these phrases abound, insofar as they largely express a real wine-growing aspiration. Which I’m sure it does – more often than just being an expression of public relations. But we wine drinkers, if such things are as important to us as they should be, we also need to be a little skeptical on occasion and dig a little deeper into what exactly is “possible” and what is not.
Craig Wessels of the wonderful River Restless in Hemel-en-Aarde spoke at a tasting about how he is going “more organic” in his vineyards. He realized that might be a strange thing to say, but wondered a bit about it. I liked another phrase he used – it’s not much more meaningful than “as natural as possible”, but it comes close and reveals more of the struggle involved. All chemical inputs, he says, amount to “as little as we can get by”.
- Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution was published in 2013.