The RAW artisan wine fair has spun on for another solar cycle, putting some of us at Borough Wines in philosophic mood. What’s it all about, eh? Four-and-a-half billion years ago, some pointless lump of rock hurtling through the disorder of the early solar system crashes into a a larger pointless lump of rock at a speed of 14,000km/h, explodes, then partially re-coalesces and slips into an orbit around the larger lump of rock in a senseless, irresistible spiral. Thence biogenesis, microbes, plants, us, yeast, wine, winemakers, wine importers, wine retailers.
What does it all mean, really? Okay, let’s stick to what’s answerable. What, in this PR-dominated age, does ‘terroir’ mean? Of course many a winemaker’s rhapsody has rung out over ‘terroir’ – you know, the idea that the wine we drink is an expression of the specific geology and climate of the land the grapevines are grown on. Let’s face it though, most are backed up by nothing more than a commercial interest in that land.
The truth is the winemaker’s craft is almost always a matter of interfering with natural processes. Elaboration, chaptalisation, acidification, deacidification – the list of -ations that are part of the typical commercial producer’s routine goes on and on. As does the list of additives these processes demand. From the time the grapes are picked to the moment the bottles are corked, wine producers in the EU are allowed to use more than 200 (that’s not a typo) additives to make their wines ‘just so’. In other parts of the world the number is even higher.
The use of these additives makes a nonsense of the idealised notion of ‘terroir’. If you’re buying your wine from a supermarket, forget it: fancy labels, probably written in fine italics, speaking airily of “enduring philosophies”, “greatness” and “unique expressions”. A heady cocktail of horsepiss and bullshit, in other words. (You’ll notice that with most of the wines in our shops, the labels favour practical information about the producer, the soil, the climate and the grapes). There is one place, though, where use of the term ‘terroir’ is not in the least romanticised: that is in the field of natural winemaking, which is what RAW exists to promote.
What on earth is ‘natural wine’? Natural wine is wine made organically or biodynamically (more on this in a moment) with minimal intervention in the vineyard (no synthetic fertilisers or pesticides) and the cellar (only low levels of sulfites (max: 70mg/l)). The RAW Charter of Quality also insists that no yeasts be added, except in the case of the second fermentation of sparkling wines, when neutral yeasts can be used (in other words, wines must be fermented spontaneously by ambient ‘wild’ yeasts). It’s not the best term because it’s not perfectly accurate, but it’s the best that’s been suggested so we will continue to use it.
Biodynamics is a funny one. It emerged as an agricultural method in 1924. European farmers, worried that industrialisation had weakened their soils and enfeebled their crops, turned to Rudolf Steiner, social reformer, esotericist and all-round Enlightenment man. Influenced by the holism of Goethe, astrology and occultism, Steiner came up with a way of cultivating crops that did away with the synthetic chemicals and mechanisation of large-scale agriculture. Instead it was guided by the phases of the moon and the positions of other celestial objects, and used only natural aids – organic compost, biological green manures, herbal treatments – to grow crops.
Steiner’s aim was to produce a sustainable system of agriculture that would enhance the quality and flavour of whatever was grown – and make people feel healthier in body and mind. The methods are undoubtedly bizarre from an uninitiated point of view. Filling cow horns with manure and burying them for six months before dissolving them in to homeopathic solutions to spray on crops; ‘dynamising’ such solutions by stirring them in an infinity-symbol pattern – and that’s before we move on to spiritual interstellar beings that transmit generative forces to the earth and super-sensory consciousness.
Many people of a scientific frame of mind will have trouble accepting such ideas. But whatever one thinks of them, they do overlap with a basic cosmological awareness and ecological virtue, which is about promoting life and health and sustainability. They also overlap with the making of some extraordinarily good wine. So much so that, a couple of years ago, a Decanter magazine debate concluded that the wine trade should promote biodynamic methods. So much so that, without offering anything but an anecdotal explanation, Tesco and Marks & Spencer now have a strict policy of only holding wine tastings on auspicious days in the lunar calendar.
So what does it all mean, really? Yes, some of this is sheer trendiness, the latest buzz for the Crunchy Granola Set, but then it just might be part of something more fundamental, something more elemental, something more… listen to me – it’s funny what a few glasses of wine at an artisanal wine fair will do.
Special thanks to Frank and Gerlinde John (Das Hirschhorner Weinkontor, Palatinate, Germany), Judith Beck (Weingut Beck, Burgenland, Austria), Tamara (Kmetija Štekar, Brda, Slovenia), Ernesto (Costadilà, Treviso, Italy), and Philip and Sandra (Château Tour Blanc, Gascony, France), for inspiring us at our post-RAW dinner at L’Entrepôt on May 19, 2014.
Photo credit: Thangaraj Kumaravel (acquired under Creative Commons Licence).