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‘Natural’…or ‘Primitive’?

14 May 2015

‘Natural’…or ‘Primitive’?

David Gleave writes:

The debate about ‘natural’ wines continues to rage. But much of what I read is as cloudy and as lacking in clarity and precision as the wines themselves. As a result, it does little to assuage my doubts about ‘natural’ wine.  

Dealing first with the term ‘natural’, I find it imprecise when used in this context. The definition of natural is something that stems from nature. ‘Being in accordance with or determined by nature’ is one dictionary definition. If you believe this definition, then wine would not exist. Wine is made from a natural product, grapes, which can only be produced by husbandry, or human intervention; by crushing them using human intervention; by controlling fermentation, a natural process guided by the hand of humans (without which it would be vinegar); and then ageing or bottling, using human intervention. 

From what I can gather, those who champion ‘natural wines’ want minimal intervention. That is no longer natural. The correct term, as coined by Robert Joseph, is ‘primitive’, defined as ‘very simple and basic: made or done in a way that is not modern...’ The problem ‘natural’ wine supporters seem to have is with modern winemaking. A wish to return to a golden age, a prelapsarian period when all was good, is not new. It guides the poetry of William Blake and much writing that preceded him by thousands of years. Nor is it new to the world of wine. Wine has never been the same since vines were grafted after phylloxera arrived, since barriques were introduced, since temperature control and stainless steel became the norm. “Red Burgundy has never been the same since they stopped blending in southern wines,” says a friend. “Barolo has never been the same since they stopped ageing it in barrel for five years,” say others. True, the wines have never been the same. Some people think they are better, others demur. Wine, like everything else in life, has changed as our knowledge of the production process has improved and we have sought to control it more.  

I can understand how the primitive wine movement began. Anyone who has visited heavily-fertilised or overly-irrigated vineyards will know that they do not produce wines that speak of a sense of place. Equally, anyone who has read what scientists and professors were saying in the 1950s will know that quantity was their primary concern. Unsurprising, as wine was one of the main sources of calories for many French and Italians, and the depredations of the war had done huge damage to the countries’ vineyards. 

In 1970, per capita consumption in France and Italy was 120 litres per year. Today, it is closer to 40. Annual production was over 80 million hectolitres; today, it is about 45 million. In order to meet demand in the 1950s and ‘60s, while vineyards were recovering from the war years, the scientists developed higher yielding clones, planting on fertile soils and fertilisation to boost yields. As Italy and France prospered in the 1960s, and wine consumption began to fall in the 1970s, the more far-sighted producers realised that the model needed to change. This is when the reaction against a more industrial approach to viticulture began. It was also attended by an ability to sell some wines at higher prices, a trend that has continued for the past four decades.

As prices rose, producers were able to work on lower yields. The best realised that healthier vineyards – a move from plains to hills, less ploughing, cover crops, competition among insects rather than their eradication by sprays, more targeted spray regimes – produced better fruit. I’ve seen many of these changes over the past 30 years, and there is no doubt that it has resulted not only in better grapes, but also in a more sustainable wine industry, both financially and environmentally. Just as the pendulum swung back towards less intervention in the vineyard, so did it swing back in the same direction in the winery. A better understanding of what happened during the winemaking process ensured that steps could be taken to minimise additions to wines. Take sulphur dioxide (SO2), for instance. Levels have dropped dramatically as producers added it later in the process, when less binds with other elements such as aldehydes (produced during oxidation), and more remains free, or effective, against spoilage bacteria and oxidation. They have been able to do this by using inert gases like carbon dioxide and nitrogen, both of which are natural. This is progress, harnessing knowledge to nature, not primitive. 

That is where my biggest argument lies with the primitive wine movement. This thinking runs through much of the primitive wine supporters’ theories:  if you intervene, you are an ‘industrial’ producer. By that definition, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Domaine Roulot, Angelo Gaja, Bruno Giacosa, Fontodi, Pierre Gonon, Marcel Richaud and others are industrial winemakers. I find this an intemperate view, as top producers work tirelessly to produce the best wines they can, imbued with their own philosophy of minimal intervention. Marcel Richaud is a case in point. Marcel was one of the godfathers of the ‘natural’ wine movement, and is revered by many of its young practitioners. He largely eschews oak, as he wants the character of his grapes and vineyards to shine through in his wines. He flirted with very low levels of SO2, but pulled back when he saw them adversely affecting the taste of the wine. Bruised apples and cider (the character of aldehydes) were no substitute for the wild strawberry and liquorice characters he obtains from his superb old Grenache vines with correctly judged levels of SO2. 

Richaud’s approach is a triumph for pragmatism over ideology. He wants wines that are fresh, lively and beguiling, speaking of the vineyards around the village of Cairanne. So do I. I don’t want wines that reek of bruised apples, rotten eggs, sweaty horses or vinegar factories. This says nothing about the vine or the vineyard. Instead, it speaks of an ideological march back to a way of winemaking that existed before we understood as much about the science of wine as we do today. By all means, be suspicious of science, but we should be deploying its knowledge to intervene less and preserve what nature has granted, not ignoring it by intervening less and spoiling nature’s bounty. Don’t try and stop the clock.  

Equally, if your aim as a winemaker is to express the sense of place in your wines, to show the ‘terroir’, then aldehydes, reduction, brettanomyces and excessive levels of volatile acidity, along with the heavy-handed use of oak and high yields, all mask this expression. Let’s use our knowledge to amplify diversity through such expression, not reduce it by masking grape and vineyard characters through either too little or too much husbandry in the cellar.

Our buying team has some research into the use of sulphur dioxide in wines, setting our own definitions for ‘low sulphur wines’.  To learn more, please contact [email protected]