So natural wine now has an official charter in France. Is it becoming a box-ticking exercise?
The syndicate did get something right, and that is that the status quo needs to change. Natural winemakers have been waving the same old flag since the 1980s. Back then, as agriculture sped full speed ahead into new tech like an army on pep, the Gang of Four’s return to old practices was radical.
But times are different now; the old way is the new normal. We understand about herbicides and pesticides and how you need great grapes to make great wine. The question for 2020 is: How to bring this movement up-to-date?
I understand that there are benefits to classifying. One is the advantage of writing the rules before someone else does. Another is that papers offer proof to people otherwise not inclined to accept what you do, think or believe. But sticking a label on something is rarely a way to generate change. Trying to stick a label on something without an endpoint is a fool’s game.
Sticking a label on something is rarely a way to generate change
Natural wine is a journey. It is a seed sown for the future; a spark to be fanned into flame. Hammering down a movement at one moment in time is as meaningful as seeing your destination on the signs for the first time on a long drive, with 200 km still to go. It gives a false sense of having arrived, a false sense of security. What we need is to be kept on our toes. Urgency.
Organic is just the tip of the glacier. The substantive stuff goes much deeper. What matters is not just the health of your hectare of earth but how you treat all of her. Not the way you treat your vines but how you respect all life. Organic is not, in case you missed the irony, a box-ticking exercise either.
If natural wine is a product of ideals and the people who make them are full of those ideals, why aren’t we demanding more than organic? If certification was something to be pinned on one’s heart with pride and not something to bury under bureaucracy, cheat or buy, what would it look like?
Perhaps we can’t codify spirit, but that’s no excuse for not doing what’s needed if natural wine is to make the world a better place.
So what needs to change?
Water footprints are the next big problem. I’ve worked in one cellar where the winemaker was mindful of capturing and recirculating water, but in many more where they’re not.
Plastic. We use and throw away tonnes of it.
A vineyard is a monoculture. A token peach tree amidst your vines is still a monoculture.
Bottling. We’ve come to accept this as standard, but it’s a relatively recent idea for everyday wine – and with so many wines being drunk within their first year, is bottling always necessary? Glass accounts for more than 40% of a standard bottle’s total filled weight, and adds considerable shipping costs plus the energy needed to recycle and reform. There are alternatives.
Wine miles. Does a winemaker deserve the karma of being certified organic when 80 per cent of their production is trucked across the planet?
Cleaning products. Some winemakers use just hot water. Others use bottles decorated with skulls.
These are actionable measures that in my experience can make a real difference day by day. For each there are choices to be made. How much you use if at all, when, how much you save. It’s not about all or nothing, good vs bad but about being mindful. These are the stripes we should add to the new flag we will wave.
In Latin, ‘radical’ is radix, meaning ‘root’. Certification is for consumers, but fundamental change doesn’t happen top down. It grows from the roots – from the bottom up.