Beyond Natural Wine

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As many of you know, the French Wine Authorities (shall we call them?) have recently acceded to a legal framework and definition for “natural wine”. For many years wine drinkers, mainly through social media and mainly those who bear some degree of antipathy towards natural wine, have used the lack of definition of what makes for “natural” as a stick with which to beat a different winemaking philosophy.

Whilst natural wine has captured the imagination of many, and has perhaps revitalised wine drinking and wine bars for a younger generation of consumers, and indeed for many of us has made us reconsider everything we believed about definitions of “quality” in wine, it has also created a heavy backlash from those who cannot contemplate its charms. Some people strike out angrily, as they would against anything they don’t understand, or against anything which appears to threaten their long-held belief systems, and these people, to be frank, probably don’t consider some of these beverages to be wine at all.

Many makers of wine without synthetic interventions etc have been forced to make their wines outside of regulated appellations. This has not usually been the fault of the winemaker. In France the appellations all have tasting committees, primarily made up of other producers plus so-called experts. These committees have been instrumental in excluding wines which “don’t fit in” from the club.

I think the first time this struck home for me was with the lovely wines made by Magali Tissot and Ludivic Bonelle at Domaine du Pêch. This domaine should be making wines in the Buzet AOP but they were excluded on, I believe, the grounds of lack of typicity (or was it because it was unfiltered, so potentially cloudy, I forget). The resulting cuvée became named “Le Pêch Abusé”. If you have ever tasted this wine against one of the standard offerings from the Buzet co-operative you may be inclined to raise an eyebrow.

Anyway, back to the rulemakers. The INAO, France’s governing wine body, was working on backing a natural wine definition as long ago as 2016 and this year it has given the green light to a Charter. I won’t say much about it because the details are not important for what I have to say here. What we have is called “Vin Méthode Nature“. It’s a Charter with a trade body and a label addition (in fact two, one for wines with less than 30mg/litre of total sulphites (that means both added and pre-existing) and one for zero sulphur addition, or “sans sulfites”). The label is not compulsory but the stickers may be used by signed-up Charter members.

When the Charter was announced it was clear that although a good number (several dozen) of French vignerons were happy to sign up, there was equally a good deal of resistance. This opposition to a charter seems to fall into several camps. There are those independently minded winemakers who just hate the idea of coming under the control of the man, of bowing to authority (on anything other than food safety, of course). There are equally those who habitually go beyond the Charter, and scoff at how it will make natural wine just another category.

I imagine that a good few natural winemakers suspect that some of those who are in favour of the Charter are larger producers who see a fast buck (a fast several bucks judging by the average bottle prices for natural wine) to be made from introducing and  marketing wine in this category. There is clearly gold in them there hills and some of the big boys are doubtless eager for a nugget.

I have to say that initially I had a lot of sympathy for the views expressed in the paragraphs above, and I was probably slowly siding with those opposed to the Charter. In any case, I am naturally drawn to those winemakers who are doing things at the outer limits of wine. I see progress as being forced on by creative people working at the margins (often across disciplines), and of course this does not just apply to wine, but to everything, surely.

Yet as the debate has developed I began to step back and look at the situation from further away, and as I did so my perspective began to change. One of the first catalysts for that was the brand new wine web site which I have written about recently, littlewine.co, but more of that later. My own developing opinions were brought most sharply into focus by an excellent article on Simon Woolf’s “Morning Claret” web site. As the writer of my Wine Book of the Year 2018, Simon’s site has become essential reading for me (if you want to know why, then read his own recent article on Japanese skin contact wines – where else will you get to read stuff like this, folks?). On 21 April he published an article by Hannah Fuellenkemper titled “Natural Wine is no Longer Enough”.

As Simon writes in his introduction, “Hannah argues that the new natural wine charter is a missed opportunity to make a radical statement – about how natural wine can push forward to the next frontier”. Hannah addresses the elephant in the room with natural wine. The definition is not only NOT one of quality, but equally importantly the Charter does not address all of the other issues around biodiversity and sustainability. Hannah puts it clearly when she points out that if natural wine producers are idealists, then why are they (and we) not asking for more than just a non-interventionist winemaking label?

Hannah says, quite rightly, that “sticking a label on something is rarely a way to generate change”, but she goes a lot further in identifying other issues which, in our post-Greta world, anyone in any production chain who professes care for our environment and ecology, and for the long-term health of humanity, should also be addressing.

I will begin by mentioning water. If, like me, you have made visits to countries like Australia (but equally in your case it could be California, South Africa etc), you will be aware that for many years water and water rights have been a big issue. Even back in the early 2000s I recall seeing a demonstration in Melbourne where farmers were complaining that the city was taking all the water they needed for crops (including vines, which are particularly prevalent all around Melbourne) and livestock.

That’s one perspective. Another, on the other side of the coin, so to speak can be ascertained from looking at just how much water is required to make wine, not merely for irrigation but for winery use (cooling and cleaning to mention two). In fact estimates vary but generally it can take six gallons of water to make one gallon of wine except where the producer is careful with this precious commodity.

Certainly there are parts of Australia, such as the Murray River and Riverland regions, where water use is so high that it will soon become unsustainable, despite the apparent end to the great Australian drought this year. Many Aussie winemakers are trying hard to adapt, often through seeking out grape varieties more suited to their warming climate. Italian, Southern Spanish and Southern French varieties can often be dry-farmed now, but for how long?

Water use is a major issue, but the author cites many more areas where producers need to step up and think about their wider production. Bottle weight, whether to use alternative packaging, plastic tape on cartons and other plastics uses, and cleaning products get a mention.

There are indeed many producers who are thinking about all of these issues, and have been doing for a long time. Some of the most empathetic winemakers I have met are thinking along these lines (people like the Koppitsch family, and indeed a host of other Burgenland producers, or the Porteret family at Domaine des Bodines in Arbois). It’s funny that so many of them seem to have small children, which perhaps focuses the mind.

I do remember way back in the 1990s an Italian producer in Emilia saying that he’d gone organic because he didn’t want his children breathing in agro-chemicals from the vines around the house. I probably shouldn’t mention the number of times I have read suggestions that breathing in synthetic sprays has had a terrible health effect in southern France among so-called paysan vignerons.

In the vineyard it is not unusual to see things being done to tone down the impacts of vine monoculture. There has been a rebirth in nature writing this century, picking up on the tradition of Gilbert White (one of our first nature writers from the nineteenth century) and WH Hudson and Edward Thomas (20th century), whose beautifully written books may not be about wine at all, but evoke an age when man was subservient to nature. A book which has had a great influence on me is Wilding by Isabella Tree. Few books have stopped me in my tracks in recent years as her book about the rewilding of the Knepp Estate in the south of England.

Of course you can’t rewild a vineyard, what is essentially a form of monoculture. But you can adapt it, and live in harmony with it. Whether this be with cover crops, allowing wild flowers and weeds to grow, or through planting trees in the vineyard, putting up bird boxes, introducing pest-eating insects, or even introducing sheep to graze. Indeed some farmers even make little effort to keep deer and wild boar (even bears in California) out of the vines, allowing others to share the bounty of the grapes. This takes a certain attitude, certainly to profit. It’s a lifestyle choice.

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Roos visiting the vineyard in Central Victoria

Those who allow grasses and wildflowers to grow between the vine rows have always received snide remarks from the napalm death producers whose soils are as dead as the soil in a nuclear winter, and usually compacted by heavy machinery, nutrient free. People like Jeff Coutelou in Languedoc and the late Stefano Bellotti in Piemonte both experienced vandalism from neighbours after the simple act of planting trees on the edge of their vine rows with a view to increasing a vineyard’s biodiversity.

However, it’s not all blind subservience to nature. Steve Matthiasson told a group of us recently that whilst he leaves the area between the rows to do their own thing, he does strim around the base of the vines. He does this to remove the cover which mice and other rodents like to use to nibble at the top of the roots, which causes problems beyond which a balanced vineyard ecosystem can deal with.

Yet have you seen some of the stunning ecosystems some farmers have created? If you visit, or meet, Bruno Schloegel of Domaine Lissner (in Wolxheim, Alsace), he will show you some wonderful photos of the extreme form of biodiversity he follows in the vineyard, where the only intervention ever is to reposition a few buds. His methods are similar to those of Jason Ligas, who loosely adheres to the teachings of Japanese biodiversity guru Masanobu Fukuoka in his vines on the slopes of Mount Paiko in Northern Greece. Or take a look at Meinklang’s Graupert vineyards in Southern Burgenland. These vines do their own thing as well, virtually growing wild, but the wine they produce is amazing.

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Some mindful wines

These are only a handful of examples of producers where the “bio” means not just biodynamics, but true biodiversity. A few years ago I saw my first ever vineyard full of sheep at first hand when I was taken out by André Durrmann (Domaine Durrmann, Andlau, Alsace). Here’s a guy who along with the sheep has planted trees among the vine rows, and owns two electric vehicles (one for vineyard trips and one for Paris, although I should add that neither is a Tesla because making enough money to own one of those isn’t on the Durrmann agenda).

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Part of the Durrmann flock, Andlau

I think these people have pretty much got the vineyard side sewn up, to the degree that it is possible to do so. No one is perfect. I mean I do know of people who harvest fruit from wild vines, in places as diverse as Georgia and Gascony, but they’re not making a living from it, nor indeed enough wine for personal consumption. These are people who try to live in harmony with nature, as much as is possible.

There’s an interesting parallel here. We were in Australia in November last year and as you may have read, we experienced the bush fires, though not to the extent that family did a matter of weeks after we had left. Bruce Pascoe in his famous book Dark Emu elaborates on how the indigenous peoples of Australia had learnt to co-exist with nature. This was not, as the colonialists argued as a way of claiming they had no rights to the land, as itinerant peoples, but as farmers who used the land in a different way.

This included their methods of burning back brush and undergrowth in order to lessen the affects of big fires, which were a problem as far back as the time of white European settlement in the eighteenth century (the First Fleet landed at Botany Bay in 1788). The refusal of the Europeans to learn from aboriginal practices almost caused the colony to starve before it had got off the ground. We appear to believe that nature is there to wage war against (as we speak of waging war against everything, Coronavirus included).

For a very long time before we imposed civilisation upon our world, which undoubtedly allowed us to produce enough food for growing populations, and freed people to work in areas other than food production, we had the knowledge of how to work in harmony with nature. This knowledge was retained for a long time, in Australasia, the Amazon, and on the Tibetan Plateau and the Mongolian Steppe, but we have lost it rapidly. In Isabella Tree’s book she speaks of conducting a survey of attitudes towards the Knepp project. Many middle-aged people didn’t like the wild landscape, but the elderly remembered that this is exactly what the land looked like in the early 20th Century.

Fascinating. Our idea of “the countryside” is a twentieth century construct and guess what, it’s the same for vineyards in most places. Of course, there were famous swathes of vineyard in the past but most viticulture was conducted as part of a polyculture, one of mixed farms, until very recently. Nowadays farmers plant whatever makes them money. Asparagus, apricots, vines.

Apricots is a case in point. You still find the best apricots in Europe in famous wine regions, the Wachau in Austria, and the Valais of Switzerland. Did you know that a very similar wine region in terms of topography, the Northern Rhône, was once famous for its apricots. Auguste Clape remembers when they were more lucrative than vines. Now they are more or less gone.

You still find winemakers who run mixed farms. The late Stefano Bellotti is one of the most famous, but Austria abounds with natural wine producers who keep some livestock, some chickens and a few crops or fruit trees. For most of them it’s a lifestyle choice.

As for in the winery, there is still so much to do. Water recycling and use can be tackled to a degree by anyone, as can plastics use, heavy bottles, chemical cleaning agents and the rest. Did you know that some wax used on bottle necks contains plastics? One thing that is more problematic is transportation. The impact of transporting wine is significant in a global market, and whilst producers can avoid heavy bottles by using lighter glass, or go down the route of the “bagnum” (Le Grappin), or kegs (Uncharted Wines et al), I think we all know that bringing wine over to the UK on a sailing ship is probably more a token gesture.

One thing we don’t hear a lot about, perhaps unsurprisingly, is producer travel. Natural winemakers are usually no better than any others when it comes to clocking up the Air Miles. I know, they have to promote their wares, and many slog around the tastings and on customer visits on foreign shores and in difficult time zones as hard as any young rock musician on tour. It’s no easy life for many, and the hangover from the regulation late night dinner perhaps not much less debilitating than the rock star’s usual excesses.

Yet many do see it as a perk of the job. Being feted by their importer makes a welcome change to the solitary months spent in the vines in all weathers. I read only recently a quote from Christian Tschida of Illmitz who said something along the lines that he only feels like a winemaker during harvest. For the rest of the year he feels like a poor farmer, except for the time around Christmas, when he feels like a “hippie on a road trip in a movie”.

I am in no way criticising any winemaker for the amount of travel they do. Customer contact is often essential for building personal relationships with clients, and this is even more important for struggling young winemakers than it is for those whose wines sell on allocation, and where an audience with the owner is sought like a knighthood among some wine lovers (those who would almost kill for a visit with Aubert). But at the same time I know many travel lovers who now say that at least in relation to flights, they will no longer do it. With family overseas on more than one continent I feel some degree of guilt, for sure, for not exactly committing myself fully to a flight moratorium.

So effectively what Hannah Fuellenkemper is advocating, with intelligent argument, is a new start. Okay, we’ve done “natural”, so now let’s take this to another level entirely. Let’s finally tie wine in with the whole subject of ecology, climate change, biodiversity and futureproofing the drink we all love. Sustainability.

Sustainable vineyard, Nepalese style

In the debate on social media Alice Feiring, one of the world’s fiercest proponents and most effective advocates for natural wine, did make a very valid and important point. She said “It should be kept in perspective that it took 35 years of waving the same old flag to be taken seriously and one should never be dismissive of that. The next step is the next step. So step up…it is indeed time for the next one”.

As others have said, the natural wine movement has been “transformative”. We who believe in these wines owe a great debt of gratitude to Alice Feiring, and indeed to people like Doug Wregg (Les Caves de Pyrene), Isabelle Légeron and others who have worked so tirelessly, facing ridicule and even hate in some instances (yes, the real anger merchants know who they are, especially the French and American ones whose language has often seemed to me to go beyond mere disagreement). But the time has probably come to move forward, to take another leap. Hopefully to put wine at the heart of the argument for a totally sustainable future.

So finally I come back to Littlewine, the new online venture from Christina Rasmussen and Daniela Pillhofer, as realised through littlewine.co. This is a new wine forum, which I’m sure most of you will be aware of, so much so that I won’t even bother to add a link to the article I posted up on 14th April (I’m assuming that most readers of this article were among the several hundred who read it in the couple of days post-publication). The word Christina and Dani use to describe the kind of winemaking they focus on is “mindful”.

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Mindful Meinklang (photo courtesy of Littlewine)

It’s not a perfect term, and I wouldn’t argue that all the producers they feature on the site are on top of all of the issues Hannah Fuellenkemper mentions in her Morning Claret article (which naturally I suggest you read in full at themorningclaret.com). But littlewine.co does provide a platform geared up for the discussion and promotion of approaches to wine that go beyond natural wine, beyond biodynamic. “Mindful” as a term may have certain connotations to some, but it does encompass a basis and framework for what needs to be discussed, advocated for, and ultimately achieved.

Everyone mentioned in this article, myself included, wants all of the issues of sustainability in wine to be addressed. As Hannah herself says, it’s not “either/or”, it’s a journey and a dialogue (as I try to point out to my children, with varying degrees of success, when it comes to my eradication of meat and dairy from my diet…but that’s not a subject for public discussion right now, if you don’t mind).

I accept that in some cases radical and immediate change is required, and in some cases revolutionary zeal is justifiable. However, I do believe that the most effective and long lasting change comes from building from the bottom up, from dialogue. As Alice Feiring will point out when looking at natural wine, it’s a long old slog, and the effort to engage and effect change on that subject alone is still far from over. Yet now does seem the time, post-Greta and during this global pandemic (which is of itself teaching us a multitude of lessons) to move the debate onwards and upwards. So it begins, Hannah.

As a final postscript, I am aware that not everyone will necessarily agree with me. Aaron Ayscough, someone I respect enormously, makes a good point (and I hope, Aaron, that I have not misunderstood your comments on Twitter). He says we have asked a lot of natural wine producers already. He suggests that what Hannah brings up are “the same whataboutist arguments regularly used by chemical winemakers to sow doubt about natural wine…”. I fully take this on board. It is equally true that many “chemical” winemakers do address other environmental issues that some “natural” winemakers don’t.

What I think Hannah is asking, and what I am looking for in the future, is for all wine producers, as part of a broader agriculture, to look at ways they can work both with nature and for a better environment. Biodiversity and sustainability. For me it’s not a question of asking “too much of natural wine”, its asking “enough” or “sufficient” of everyone, but bearing in mind that as Hannah and I both say, it’s a journey and a dialogue. But one we are due to begin in earnest, I hope.

The photo at the top of this article is from Bruno Schloegel’s tablet showing biodiversity in his beautiful, unregulated, vineyard (Domaine Lissner, Wolxheim, Alsace).

Hannah Fuellenkemper’s Article “Natural Wine is No Longer Enough” is published on Simon Woolf’s Morning Claret website, http://www.themorningclaret.com .

I would like to recommend to anyone who has not read it the book I mentioned written by Isabella Tree, “Wilding” (Picador, 2018). It’s certainly one of the most enlightening books I’ve read in the past few years.

For those who having seen the photographs of Nepalese vineyards have been interested in my several articles on wine and other alcoholic beverages in, and more generally on, Nepal, you might be interested in one of Isabella Tree’s earlier books, “The Living Goddess” (about the Newar child goddess known as The Kumari in Kathmandu)(Penguin, 2014).

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About dccrossley

Writing here and elsewhere mainly about the outer reaches of the wine universe and the availability of wonderful, characterful, wines from all over the globe. Very wide interests but a soft spot for Jura, Austria and Champagne, with a general preference for low intervention in vineyard and winery. Other passions include music (equally wide tastes) and travel. Co-organiser of the Oddities wine lunches.
This entry was posted in Artisan Wines, biodynamic wine, Natural Wine, Philosophy and Wine, Vegan Wine, Wine, Wine and Health and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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