The conundrum of Natural Wine
Most of us now live in an exclusively human derived environment; we grow up exposed to an increasing array of technology which eventually becomes seen as essential to life. Through formal education we are imbued with the sense of mastery of the human mind and its’ ‘scientific’ achievements which serves to create in us an acceptance of the needs and benefits of the technology that flows from this ‘science’. Our institutions- both public and private mandate various technologies in our lives, starting in our very earliest moments so that, for example, young children may not access publicly funded childcare unless they are subjected to a vast array of vaccine technologies.
All of these experiences create and nurture an expectation of the incompleteness of nature, such that we approach interactions with the nonhuman world with the assumption that use of technology is required in order to successfully achieve the desired outcome. This expectation is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history, and whilst fundamentally altering our behaviour, it has also fundamentally changed the outcomes of our endeavours, nowhere more so than in the most nature dependant of them, the production of food and drink.
All life exists within an almost infinite series of complex relationships both between living organisms and even the nonliving elements, such as the heavenly bodies (the lunar influence on life is uncontroversial). For life to flourish, it is essential that these relationships are in balance.
This concept of balance has been recognised across cultures throughout human history, and has always provided the foundations of the best and most worthwhile of human achievement. It has been integral to many disciplines, such as architecture, government and governance, urban planning, interior design and so on. It was once the defining consideration in agriculture, but has now long been supplanted by technology, to the extent that as a concept, it no longer influences the conduct of conventional agricultural practices.
Understanding the complexity of the interrelationships of life within the whole of creation and the need for balance in these relationships lay at the heart of Rudolf Steiner’s impulse to articulate the biodynamic method of agriculture. Through the detailed methodology developed by others, chiefly Alex Podolinsky here in Australia, we are able to farm in a way that continually regenerates balance in soil, repairing the damage inevitably produced by any farming method.
When the living and physical relationships in soil are balanced, it is soft, crumbly and structured, full of air and life, and containing large amounts of carbon in the form of humus. The presence of this humus, as nutrient-rich, colloidal organic matter, allows plants to access nutrients according to nature’s design. Vines growing in such soils produce nutritionally balanced fruit, which is discretely different from that produced in conventionally farmed soil.
And here we finally arrive at natural wines. A much misused term, but the most reasonable definition would start with grapes grown using biodynamic or organic methods (i.e. without synthetic inputs) , vinified without any additives and without the use of intrusive technology.
The things excluded by this definition are those used to compensate for lack of balance in soil, fruit, and wine. It’s no surprise then that attempting to produce ‘natural wine’ from fruit grown in unbalanced, degraded soil is responsible for many of the adverse tasting experiences often cited in discussion of natural wine.
From an initially fairly chemically, although low-tech, approach to winemaking, we (Hochkirch/Tarrington Wines) have progressively discarded the use of all amendments in winemaking, as the completeness of our fruit gradually asserted itself after the adoption of the biodynamic method in 1999. We’ve done this not because we sought to produce ‘natural wine’, but instead, to produce wine undistracted in its expression of our terroir. We’ve found that Pinot Noir and Riesling show best with a small addition of sulphur at bottling, whilst the remainder of our wines suffer no detriment from the absence of sulphur, thus we usually elect to bottle them without the addition of SO2. Fundamental to our approach is to produce the best wine possible, most brightly reflecting our terroir, unconstrained by dogma and with minimal intervention. It’s been fascinating to find that balanced fruit from balanced soil produces wine complete in itself as a direct reflection of nature’s design.