There is a lot of buzz floating around the world regarding the naturalness, organic qualities, and sustainability of various wines and vineyards. It’s confusing and to a certain extent, it’s a bit of a marketing ploy. Look, I too want the world to be clean and pure, and I also want to ride unicorns through rainbows and have all my wines taste like Starburst and Skittles. (Insert tires screeching sound effect)
Photo courtesy rkramer62 via Flickr/CC
What is also certain is that many terms are being bandied about with little understanding. They are being used more as weapons (to slay the big evil wine producers) or shields (to deflect criticism regarding defective wines) than ways to relay valuable information to consumers. For example, part of the foundation of natural wine, which I will explain further in a future edition of this series, is that the wines be made using naturally occurring or indigenous yeasts in what is known as a spontaneous fermentation.
Yeasts are one of the great culprits in today’s homogenization of wine, imparting their own aromas and textures over those of the grape. One can take perfectly beautiful organic grapes and produce a rather characterless wine by simply using an assertive yeast. You see, there is no silver bullet here. There is no magic recipe that will create a great wine simply because the grapes have been farmed organically, or the wine made organically. Yes, there is a distinction.
Farming and winemaking all come down to discussions made by winemakers. They are decisions made with a vision in mind. The laudable concept of a cleaner, healthier planet is at the core of many of the choices made. Though that is to be applauded, in and of themselves they do not produce great wines. Great wines are made in the coming together of the minds. The winemaker makes his or her choices, and the consumer responds.
I hope that you all choose to at least taste organic, natural, or biodynamic wines so that any decision you make about buying wines is informed. I’ve tasted plenty of rather obviously modern, fruit forward wines that were produced using organic or sustainably farmed grapes, and while they are not what I look for in a bottle, they are far better for our environment than the alternative.
On the flip side, many of my favorite wines were produced from intensively farmed vineyards in the days before we realized what we were doing to our fields. The wines are brilliant, again because the winemaker made a choice that produced a wine that fits my palate. Many, if not all, of these producers have ameliorated their farming methods over time, sometimes resulting in a discernible difference in their wines. Ultimately, it was the winemaker making the wine, not the grapes.
That of course seems to run counter to the old adage that a great wine is produced from great grapes, but to me that adage is far from the truth. For better or for worse, there are a number of ways to get great grapes. Today we are learning about the differences in great fruit. These are incremental improvements that farming can provide us. Some farmers go whole hog, others use a more cautious approach, but the world is rapidly moving toward less intensive, less interventional farming methods.
While you may not be terribly concerned where your wine comes from, maybe you should be. We share this world and it’s the only one we’ve got, so the less harm we do, the better off we all are. It’s worth knowing the myriad of wine terms being bandied about in regards to this change. It’s also worth knowing which are being bandied about as a marketing tool, and which really mean something!