Authentic or natural?

Review of Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop MW, Authentic wine: towards natural and sustainable winemaking, University of California Press, 2011

The debate between natural and conventional wine makers is normally something of a shouting match between two sides who really do not want to meet and find a middle way.  On the one hand the natural tribe pride themselves on a rejection of the many and complex interventions of modern grape growing and ‘industrial’ wine making. In addition, the true believers bolster their position with various semi-philosophical stances and value systems.  On the other, conventional wine making gets ever more sophisticated in the winery with a technical solution for just about every difficulty, while claiming that the best wine is really made in the vineyard.  Into this debate and occasional slanging match, Authentic wine is an attempt to evaluate the claims of both sides of the argument from a scientific and a classic European-formed quality wine perspective. Its plea is to move the argument on – deeper and wider.  Deeper because it wants to get behind the slogans and wider because the authors take a ‘vineyard to the end consumer’ view.  Curiously, some supposedly natural wine makers don’t farm organically, while few commentators take wider sustainability and ethical working considerations into account.  So full marks here for taking a really broad look at these important questions. 

Any one who has talked to more than one natural wine maker will know that they belong to a very diverse and loosely defined tribe. There is no agreed definition on what ‘natural’ means.  The term refers more to a general mind-set than a formal standard. In fact some almost perversely insist that it can’t be defined.  But there are some big low vinesblind spots. As Authentic wine points out, nearly every new vineyard is planted with grafted vines – hardly very ‘natural’ – and the supposedly ‘traditional’ copper and Bordeaux mixture treatments are chemical interventions which includes a heavy metal which would never pass the test if it were a brand new treatment today.  On the other side of the divide, conventional wine making is much more intelligent than it was. It uses many fewer products more carefully under the influence of the natural wine movement and the cost of treatments.   One of the strongest points of this book is to show how virtually all wine makers are making decisions on a spectrum of intervention or non-intervention. Very few belong unequivocally in one camp.

The diversity of view on what constitutes ‘authentic’ or ‘natural’ can easily be illustrated by a comparison of two highly intelligent accounts, Goode and Harrop (p. 3) on the one hand and Giovanni Bietti’s in the introduction to his book on the natural wines of Italy:*

Goode and Harrop

Bietti

  Wines made in an artisanal manner – one or more people to guide the entire productive process in field and winery
Sustainable viticulture – vineyard as an agroecosystem, use beneficials [eg local composts] and cover crops, vine spacing and trellising to all vine to find natural balance The health of the vineyard – wines made from healthy grapes not treated with pesticides, systemics or weeding agents but from living vineyards.  Healthy vines can defend themselves
Naturally made – add as little as possible, fewest interventions possible Respect for the grapes in the winery – the more you add, the more you intervene, the less natural the wine.  Natural wine is made from grapes with, if necessary, minimal added SO2
Sense of place – allow vineyard to express itself in the wine  
  Difference – wines should be different year to year and taste different from conventional wines (though not all natural wines are well made). Less flower/fruit, more earth, vegetation, meat flavours
Fault free – wine faults obscure the sense of place  
Environmentally sensitive – minimize carbon footprint at every stage from grape to shelf. Packaging and transport are as important as vineyard and winery.   
Appropriate ripeness – pick early enough to retain freshness and avoid high potential alcohol  
  Digestibility and nutritional value – wines should go well with food and aid digestion, give energy; natural wines have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities; not a matter of hedonism, prestige and ‘absolute quality’ as wine

Of course the head lines conceal quite a lot of agreement.  Both would certainly call for environmental sensitivity and a sense of place in wine. But the differences are quite marked too.  While Bietti insists on the importance of artisan production, Goode and Harrop argue strongly that this is an unrealistic luxury which would confine good wine to the rich.  They might find some common ground on ‘fault free’ but they come at if from opposing starting points – for Goode and Harrop wine quality and commercial viability come first, while for Bietti being ‘natural’ is an absolute.  In another area, Bietti, much influenced by Michael Pollan’s food philosophy, emphasises the ‘digestibility’ and superior nutritional value of natural wine, which is not discussed at all in Authentic wine. Rather, the latter has a broader pragmatic sustainability agenda, and a singular focus on high alcohol levels as a wine fault. In summary, Bietti is promoting the natural wines agenda, while Goode and Harrop argue that we have to expand the category to the wider one of ‘authentic wine’.

new woodAs an English pragmatist I am of course in favour of a ‘both/and’ position.  Organic and biodynamic growers are among the most inspirational people you will find in the world of wine. They are responsible for some of the world’s best wines many of them at reasonable price levels.  My profiles of Massa Vecchia (Tuscan) or of Maison Cazes (190ha vineyard in Roussillon farmed biodynamically)  are outstanding examples. At the same time, if we are going to change the world of wine in general we certainly need approaches to tempt large producers to change their ways substantially.  Here I am entirely with Goode and Harrop.  

Apart from its overall argument, this book is a valuable set of discussions of many of the most important topics in the world of wine – organic v. integrated management of vineyards, wild  v . selected yeasts, wine faults (including high alcohol – wines with high levels of alcohol tend to taste the same wherever they come from and so lack tipicity) and ways in which to reduce wine’s carbon foot print (reducing our dependence on heavy glass bottles for example).  There are substantial chapters on the vexed subject of sulphites in wine where they take the line that for most producers it is better to use effective amounts of SO2 at the key points in the process than try to reduce usage in general terms.  They argue that the real answer to high levels of alcohol is better vineyard practice so that the grapes which are picked have the correct sugar levels and balancing acidity.  At the same time, more controversially,  they are prepared to countenance removing alcohol by the invasive reverse osmosis process, rather than having an over-alcoholic final wine.  This shows that ultimately the authors back quality and commercial pragmatism, rather than a simple principled stand.

In this context it is worth adding that in general this book is written in a highly accessible style. Dr Jamie Goode is a scientist by training but for some reason – presumably to make the book look less intimidating? – he has appears here without his title. This is a bit misleading as one of the strengths of the book is the attempt to explain complicated matters to non-scientists. For example, the chapter on natural wine making is mostly a discussion running to nearly 30 pages of both how sulphur dioxide works in the chemistry of wine and how some artisan and commercial wine makers are attempting to do without adding it.  Just occasionally a technical term is used without explanation (‘anabolism’ p. 193) but in general the arguments are accessible for quite a demanding subject matter. There is the occasional editorial lapse too: there is no brief description of the key differences between organic and biodynamic viticulture before the long evaluation of their approaches; the average weight of a glass bottle is given as 400g on p.227 and 500g on p. 225.  These are minor glitches.

The scientific bent is important. For example, we learn that despite the recent trend for biodynamic viticulture, there are remarkably few unimpeachable studies of whether it has benefits over organic viticulture.  John Reganold’s study of 1993 found higher soil quality with more organic content and microbial activity, but didn’t separate out the organic elements which contributed to the better biodynamic results.  Some studies were not published in peer-reviewed journals and thus the standard of scholarship is open to question. While organic and biodynamic approaches are reported to outperform conventional agriculture in terms of soil quality and biodiversity (p. 64), Goode and Harrop can only report on one study, Jennifer Reeves (2003), which directly compared organic and biodynamic viticulture, screening out other variables. The study reported no significant advantage for the latter. 

This state of affairs points to an urgent need for substantial research in this area before any reliable conclusions be drawn.  A big part of the problem is that individual artisan growers are just not interested in scientific research. In fact they can see science as part of the enemy – reasonably enough give that science (allied with agribusinesses) resulted in the systematic overuse of chemical products in earlier decades.  On the other side, scientists don’t want to deal with people whose value systems are, or appear to be, anti-scientific. Meanwhile the world of wine needs the two hostile tribes to park their differences temporarily and risk meeting on neutral ground. You would think that with the number of growers getting into organics and biodynamics there should now be a commercial demand for some proper studies. 

All-in-all this is an excellent book which can profitably read at a number of levels.  It will certainly be of use to wine students (Diploma to MW level) but as long as you can cope with (or skip) the substantial scientific sections, it can be enjoyed by a much wider audience.  I doubt that the proposal for a formal kite-marked ‘authentic wine’ category will catch on. But it is vital – for wine quality, for the health of the industry and, not least, for its contribution to a sustainable approach to living on this planet – that this debate makes progress. 

 

 

* G Bietti, Vini naturali d’Italia, Manuale del bere sano, Volume 1, Italia Centrale, Edizioni Estemporanee, Roma, 2010, pp. 20-7

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