The totems and taboos of natural wine

The totems and taboos of natural wine

We will never stop appreciating wine, not just drinking it, but also talking about it. Every time we touch on the various aspects of a subject, this amazing human invention thrills us, gets us all fired up and then, wham! it brings us back to milder considerations. If the road is the teacher of life, the vineyard bows down to humility.

Human invention. Let’s start with this simple assumption to introduce a theme that came up during a meeting with Monika Christmann, president of OIV, (Organisation Internationale de la Vigne et du Vin), and researcher at the prestigious viticulture and winemaking institute in Geisenheim, on the Rhine. We took part in a debate with Christmann and other leading exponents in the sector, on the subject of additives in wine and rules for labelling. It would seemingly be enough to make you fall asleep. But, on the contrary, after a couple of hours we had food for thought on many important themes.

Does it make sense to indicate additives on the label?

As we were saying, wine is a human invention. Our debate on additives quickly slipped into so-called natural wines, i.e. those that should not contain any foreign agents (except for a dash of sulphur dioxide, which not even the gurus give up using). Many claim that to be transparent, you need to indicate on the label all the external substances used. Others, seeing that none of these substances are harmful to health (otherwise they would not be allowed on an international level), feel it doesn’t make sense to weigh down labels that are already difficult to interpret and risk driving away many consumers. Wine is already a “complicated” product in the eyes of the common people (95% of drinkers).

The first taboo of natural wine: the only “natural” thing about it is vinegar

For Christmann (and many others) “natural” is the wrong adjective and demotes all the rest to “non natural”. It must be remembered that the natural product of must fermentation is vinegar. Wine is man’s invention and he discovered the beauty of a phase when sugars that have turned into alcohol preserve an inviting aroma and balanced flavour. Our aim is to prolong this phase as long as possible.

The aesthete and the health fanatic

This leads to a wider consideration, whose extremes occupy two fields of speculation that are very different, if not complete opposites: aesthetics and health. If we wanted to find their extreme supporters, we would have on the one hand, the D’Annunzio-style aesthete searching for the perfect wine, regardless of the methods, and on the other hand, the Savonarola-style health fanatic who doesn’t accept any kind of manipulation of a product that can come about naturally. If it doesn’t always come out well, too bad.

Alcohol is the most harmful substance

It is clear we are dealing with extremes, despite the fact that the health fanatic could (and unfortunately does) reach the conclusion that the most harmful substance in wine lies in its very essence, i.e. the alcohol, therefore the discussion dies out before it even starts. Unfortunately, extremes monopolise the debate today. It would make more sense to look for the utmost healthiness without losing sight of aesthetics, because we drink for pleasure and not to warm or nourish ourselves.

No totems or taboos

It shouldn’t become the totem for a sect of followers of (different and contentious) “natural” wine movements. Wine should unite, not divide. Some religions have already made it taboo, but we risk giving ourselves the coup de grace, with ideological battles. In other words: we enthusiasts (5%) risk fighting for causes that interest a small number of us (let’s say 2%), with the result of damaging and driving away the remaining 95% of consumers. Basically, it’s mad.

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