Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Why most wine isn't natural: a guest blog from my other half

Confession time. It wasn't me who first got into natural wine it was my husband Trevor. He started taking an interest in it a good couple of years ago and to be honest I wasn't that impressed by some of the early bottles we tried - a reaction I see again and again in people coming across natural wine for the first time.

I actually tried to get him to blog about it, as he's frankly read a great deal more than I have about the subject but he's somewhat sceptical about the virtues of blogging. But yesterday, completely out of the blue, he said he'd pulled together some thoughts on why natural wines is so distinct from conventional winemaking. And here they are. My first guest blog. Who knows he may write more . . .

"On the face of it it's pretty easy to say what natural wine is. Natural wine results from processing grapes that have been grown without the use of chemical herbicides, insecticides and fungicides. These grapes are then processed with the absolute minimum intervention possible. There are no added yeasts, only yeasts that are natural to the grapes. No further chemicals are added, no mechanical processes are used and little or no sulphur is added at the bottling stage.

That's all true and measurable. But having said that you haven't really said anything special. Because most people would think that was pretty much what happened in all wine making  - by and large. None of that description of the natural wine making process seems particularly extraordinary. “What's the big deal?”

But the fact is that the bulk of winemaking worldwide is totally and utterly different to the natural process, and it is only by getting to understand just what is involved in non-natural wine making, that you can see how the natural winemaking movement's prospectus and objectives are so truly revolutionary.

The natural wine makers have as an over-riding objective to make the best wine possible in the terroir where they are working within the limitations imposed by the climatic conditions in any given year and with the minimal possible intervention. Whereas the objective of the wine business worldwide is to produce a uniform standardized product at the lowest cost year in year out by whatever means possible.

To produce the required result worldwidewine drenches the vineyards in chemical products. This is cheaper and simpler than the labour-intensive process required to create a balanced eco-system within which a healthy and natural equilibrium between insects, plants, nutrients, micro-organisms and, of course, the vines can be established and maintained. If you just slather the vines in chemicals you don't have to worry about any of that – there are no insects or plants or micro-organisms. There are just fragile denatured vines hanging on to a chemical wasteland by the skin of their teeth, And you can lay off a lot of agricultural workers.

When ripe, these grapes are then picked – mechanically usually - and carted away to the processing shed. And all of the grapes - in whatever condition they are in, however affected with rot or bruised or dessicated, are all put to ferment. Not a scrap has to be wasted as that would reduce yield and therefore profitability. And chemical additives exist to “rescue” fruit in whatever condition it finds itself in .  Any fault  in the basic fruit (and any other faults in the subsequent stages of the process) can be put right by chemical or bio-chemical or mechanical intervention. Like a fond parent “Daddy Chemistry” can always make everything alright . 

Or that's how it seems. For just as the poet Philip Larkin said  “They fuck you up your Mum and Dad.” And the resultant product is indeed truly “fucked up”. A Pan-European study of 2008 tested 40 different red wines and the results showed that the level of contamination by pesticides was 5800 times higher than that permitted for drinking water, And that was just the level of pesticides never mind insecticides and fungicides – all potential neuro-toxins and carcinogens,

By contrast the natural winemaker refusing chemical intervention will scrupulously cut out and jettison all but fruit in prime condition, as to leave it in would compromise the quality of the resultant wine. So no need of chemicals at this stage either. In every part of the process their objective is simply quality – the best quality that can be obtained with the fruit at their disposal from their chosen terroir in the  prevailing climactic conditiones. It is a matter of respect in the last analysis – respect for nature and the vinyards and respect for the consumer."
Trevor Vibert

And I'll get him to answer any comments you have on his post ;-)


  1. Boosh! The penultimate paragraph sure got my attention. 5,800 times higher, eh? A link to the study (or further information about it) would be great.

    Obviously there are shades of grey between total chem-head wine and 100% 'natural' — I'd expect that some better producers would go less heavy on the chemicals in any case (in the same way that some farmers may not be certified as 100% organic, but nevertheless aim to farm without excessive pesticides etc). Am I naive to imagine that the cheaper and more 'mass market' the wine, the more likely it is to be chem-stuffed?

  2. So, you admit to being partial, Fiona ! Your husband is allowed the f.... expressions, while poor little Fleming is denied that right. I know, pillow-talk, like willow-tree, covers everything - and I have definitely been a married-man in an unhappy previous life! Trevor sounds like Victor, and Vibert echoes to vi-brant. Lots of interesting views ... a bit angelic if you would allow me. Your blog, like any decent bicycle, is built for two! Go on.

  3. Well, I knew he'd have an answer. Here it is:

    The study in question was co-ordinated by Pan-Europe (Pesticide action network of 56-64 Leonard Street London EC2A 4LT - www. pan-europe,info,) with the support of a French campaigning organisation
    MDRGF. (Mouvement pour le Droit et le Respect des Generations Futurs).

    40 red wines were tested from France, Austria, Germany, Portugal, Italy, South Africa, Australia and Chile. 4 were organic. All the conventional wines were contaminated - none of the organic ones were. On average the wines contained residues of 4 different pesticides per wine. The most contaminated had residues of 10 different pesticides. The worst offenders contained levels of pesticides over 5800 times the level which is permitted in drinking water.

    This study reveals the effects of the intensive use of pesticides in vinyards, leading to contamination of the wine produced from those grapes.

    And yes, of course I'm partial, Luc ;-) This is a blog!

  4. That's as good a definition/description of the natural wine making process as I've read! Looking forward to your next post!

  5. The press release for the PAN Europe study is here.
    More details are available in the links at the bottom of the page. On a quick scan through I see no mention of the scary factor of 5800 - not that it means it is not true.

    Jamie Goode discusses the results here:

  6. This is the most enjoyably post that i ever read,
    i think that you described the natural wine making process very good Keep going.