Thursday, 26 November 2015

The natural choice is to drink natural wine



“It would spoil people’s perception of wine” is, both inevitably and ironically, what got me first thinking about ‘it’. Before I heard that, all I thought about when I thought about wine was taste. That and whether or not this should be my last glass.

These were the (subtitled) words of a (French) grower in a documentary about how we manipulate wine and, armed with the terms ‘extract of pig pancreas and dried swim bladders of fish’ and a word I have since learned how to spell (Polyvinylpolyryrrolidone), I set off to tell my wine drinking friends. Not that anyone seemed to care. Most people seemed to think that even if this was true, that it probably wasn’t for the sort of wine that they drink. In fact, there seemed to be a direct correlation between the people who profess to enjoy wine the most and a confidence that this didn’t apply to them. And because all I’d seen was a documentary, for all I knew, they were right.

And so I bought a book.

I figured that if it was difficult to learn about what was being added to conventional wine, then I should start with natural wines and learn about all the stuff that’s categorically not in them. This, to cut a long list of additives short, is everything except (in some cases) a little sulphite at bottling. There’s no added water, no sugar, no tannins, no gelatine, no phosphates, no added yeasts. No (surprise!) dimethyl dicarbonate, acetaldehyde and not even any hydrogen peroxide. There are no animal derivatives, no iyoszyme (from eggs) or casein (from milk). And there have been no pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, insecticides or fertilisers used to treat the vines. There is, incidentally, also no legal definition as to what counts as natural, nor is the addition of any of the above to wine, illegal. 

Awkward on both fronts then. 

Legal definition, even recognition, aside; the point is that at one end of the make-wine continuum there are those that manipulate wine via heavy processing, additives or aids, and those at the other end that produce wine without adding or removing anything.

And so, armed with this new information, I return to my friends who, grateful for my concern as ever (not), ask, How do you even know that stuff’s in this wine? 

I don’t. And that’s the whole thing (ok, one of the things): we don’t know what’s in our wine.

Let’s say you’re comfortable with the idea that there’s probably been stuff sprayed on and around the vines from which your wine comes. You think that’s likely but you think there probably won’t be too much bad stuff because you trust the industry to be looking out for you. You vaguely know about organic farming practices and certainly how your wife kicks up a fuss if you bring home the stuff she calls ‘Snow White Fruit’ (because of the poison); but if anyone were to ask, you’d probably say you’re ok with the fact your wine’s most likely coming from an agricultural monoculture with all the trappings: all the ‘cides’ needed to keep the monoculture functioning (more the merrier), the biological degradation of the soil that just so happens to harbour 80% of the world’s biomass (big deal), the resulting chemical degradation and desertification (not in my country! The Netherlands is on average 5m below sea level), the fundamental imbalance of the ecosystem (oh). What’s any of that really mean anyway? 

It’s ok, you wouldn’t be the only one. Certainly not the only one not to be thinking about all this when you’re pouring that nice glass of red. You deserved it: it’s been a hard day at work. But even then, wouldn’t you be interested in at least knowing what’s in your glass? I mean, you read the back of the peanut butter jar; you check the ratio of oat flakes to fruit in your musli (and make damn sure there aren’t any raisins). You don’t trust the ice pops that say they’re good for your kids, that they’re “100% fruit”, and you check how much percent apple your apple juice really is. So why not your grape juice? 

(Incidentally you might like to know that two separate studies in 2008 and 2013 found pesticide residues in the wines they tested, some of which were carcinogenic. The totals were tiny but the same amounts would not be accepted if it were in drinking water in the UK).

The fact is that much wine has become an agrochemical, homogenised product 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. And this, in a word, sucks.

So what now? No more wine? I’m not saying that, but it’s important to know some of what’s going on. And I know I just told you that you probably won’t be able to find out what’s been added to the wine you’re drinking, but if you keep this framework in mind you can sorta fill in the gaps:

  1. Know that the same principles that apply to your organic produce apply to grapes. 
  2. Know that wine made from organically grown grapes does not mean it's organic.
  3. Know that organically made wine is not necessarily natural wine.
  4. Know that natural wine comes from vineyards that are farmed organically and which is produced without adding or removing anything during vinification except, on some occasions, for a little sulphite at bottling. 

The second thing would be to educate yourself by talking to (and drinking with) the other side. Wester Wijnfabriek for instance (there’s only so much drinking one should do, organic or not, in a day, so we’ll cover Glou Glou another time) is a bar that sells only organic, biodynamic or natural wine in a tiny but high-ceilinged place on the Westergasterrein. It’s also a wine shop, organises tastings AND does a mean riff on a Cuban sandwich which is excellent even if you weren’t to know of my pre-disposition to Cuban sandwiches. So it’s not all bad. 




Photos by Sophia van den Hoek. Also published on Unfolded.


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1 comment

  1. Great read! Very interesting. Will definitely try out this place!

    ReplyDelete

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