Lammershoek Back to Nature - The natural wine movement is producing vibrant vintages rooted in authenticity

Wednesday, 9 January, 2013
Lammershoek Private Wine Cellar: Isabelle Legeron
IF YOU HAVE BEEN KEEPING ABREAST OF WINE developments in Europe over the last few years, you may have come across a term that has been taking the wine world by storm and polarising opinion within it: natural wine.
France and Italy alone boast hundreds of examples and natural wine producers have even begun to pop up in the technological wine powerhouses of the New World: the US, New Zealand, Australia, Chile and of course SA.

Wine drinkers in Paris, New York, San Francisco and Tokyo have gone mad for the stuff, with dozens of bars and restaurants today featuring “all natural” wine lists, and London is close on their heels. I, for one, have converted a few lists, including the 350 bin list at Hibiscus, a 2-star Michelin restaurant in Mayfair, which I converted to nearly all-natural a few years ago (it was the first fine dining establishment in the UK to do so) and it has been going strong ever since.

Given all the media hype, therefore, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a new phenomenon, and in some senses the category is, but the wines themselves are not. When wine was first “invented ” some 8 000 years ago, it was certainly natural - grapes were picked, they fermented into wine and were drunk. Nothing more. But it may surprise you to note that this is no longer the case today.

Most wine today is heavily processed and made using dozens of different additives that ensure consistency and speed. While permitted by law, none of these additives or processing has to be listed on the label (bar the mention “contains sulphites”) thanks to the fact that wine is one of the very few food industries exempt from ingredient labeling laws. Incredible, I know, but true.

We have a romantic view of wine. We think all wine is natural when it isn’t. In fact, most wine isn’t (be it cheap or iconic) but we are sold the illusion through successful PR and marketing (pretty labels, rows of green vines, sunshine).

Meanwhile, back at the vineyard and winery, all sorts of stuff is added and lots of heavy processing is used to manipulate or alter the wine: pesticides, herbicides and fungicides are routinely used in vineyards, which is not only questionable for biodiversity but can also end up in the wines we drink; the wine’s “wholesomeness ” is often fragmented through sterile filtration and/or fining; or its structure altered using micro-oxygenation, reverse osmosis or spinning cone machinery. Cryo-extraction, for example, is routinely used in Sauternes, in France, to freeze grapes before pressing them so as to extract sugar only, although most producers deny this.

In short, wine today is far removed from its original definition of fermented grape juice. It is the by-product of a chemically-induced fermentation, which is tightly controlled through the aid of additives and structure-altering equipment. Why? Because the bottom line is now what the vast majority of wines is all about. It is no longer about terroir, or a sense of place, or of the land, grapes or weather, it is about producing more and more wine for less and less cash. It’s about producing it as quickly as possible and then flogging a brand illusion.

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