Winemaking ideologies, my contribution to the Texsom debate

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Yesterday at Texsom I took part in a discussion on winemaking ideologies, with a very good panel. Each of us was asked to prepare something to say, so I wrote something. When it actually came to it, I didn’t cover all this ground, but I thought I’d share it, anyway.

Market segmentation is important here. For most people wine is simply a commodity, one that comes in a limited number of styles. Their assessment is often a binary evaluation, I like this or I don’t like this. There are very different rules in this market segment than there are in ‘fine’ wine.

Does authenticity matter? Yes. Consider Vermeer’s paintings. There are some 30 examples remaining, and people would fly many thousands of miles to see them. But it’s possible to reproduce them so well that these same people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the real thing and a replica. Yet no one would go to an exhibition of replicas.  In terms of the sensory aspect of viewing the paintings, the experience would be the same. The same light would strike the retina. But it wouldn’t be the same experience once you knew you were looking at a replica. Authenticity matters.

With wine, if I could replicate your best ever wine experience with a synthetic wine to the extent that you couldn’t spot the imposter in a triangle test, and then I offer you the bottle for 50 bucks, would you buy it? I suspect you wouldn’t enjoy it, knowing it was a synthetic wine, even though your sensory experience would be the same. You’d be intrigued, but even though it offered the same flavor in terms of the mix of flavor compounds, it wouldn’t ‘taste’ the same. Authenticity matters.

In the wine business, we sometimes forget the importance of the stuff around wine. It’s not just a liquid in a glass. Emile Peynaud is quoted as saying that great wines tasted blind often disappoint. It is our knowledge of what we are drinking that sets us free to enjoy it to its full extent. Reduce wine to a liquid with certain sensory properties and we are all doomed. It’s much more than that. Its social context and some understanding of what we are drinking are necessary for wine to be appreciated properly.

Wine is an aesthetic system, and like any aesthetic system, it is evolving and changing. Natural wine only began to a significant degree at the end of the 1990s. It has grown enormously since then, and it presents a challenge to the aesthetic system of the wine wine movement. How do we decide what is good? What is a great wine? It’s a community judgment by those who have the right skill sets: wine professionals taste together and discuss together, and come to a decision. We’re still in that phase because natural wines have broken all the rules: for example, how do we respond to a cloudy wine? Are wine faults ever good in certain contexts?

Natural is not just about sulfur dioxide. There have been some half-witted attempts by big companies to produce wines without added sulfites under the banner of natural. Sulfites are just a side show. Some of the natural wine zealots have gone a bit bonkers obsessing over sulfites. They can be very useful as a tool for helping wines retain their sense of place.

The issue is that working more naturally is a way to make more interesting wines. The process always has to be judged by the goal: what are the results? I’m interested in natural wine not from an ideological point of view, but because natural approaches tend to result in wines that are more interesting and show their place better. But there comes a point where natural can lead to wines that all taste the same, and this is disappointing.

There is a place for natural wine that is just smashable and is a bit placeless. But if you have good vineyards you want the sense of place to be in the wine somehow. If that is lost, it is a shame. Some wines just taste like natural wine, and not where they have come from.

People have misunderstood terroir. Terroir doesn’t mean that there is one specific taste from a place. There could be a family of tastes, all of which bear some resemblance to one another. These will differ according the the interpretive act of the winegrower. Terroir is a partnership between winegrower and place.

I think we are making a mistake in the wine industry if we focus on giving people what they want. Finding out people’s tastes and then trying to meet these ‘preferences’ by fashioning wines that we think they’ll like is a cul de sac. We’ll be trapped by this flight to simple hedonics. Instead we should be making wines that are true: that are a valid and intelligent expression of place. The first time people try wine they don’t really like it. It is an acquired taste. But so are all the interesting tastes. If we sweeten up wines to make them taste nicer, and start tricking around with them, we’re doomed in a race to the bottom in terms of pricing. Without a sense of place, wine is going to be dragged down in price. The result is that profitability is sucked out of the system and even good people with good intentions can’t afford to be good.

Do we need cheap ‘technological’ wine? Can’t we have cheap wine that is honestly made? Does cheap technological wine, tricked up to taste more expensive than it is, have a legitimate place in the market? Isn’t it essentially dishonest? Doesn’t that matter?

Is wine special in some way, and if so, why? I think it is. It needs to be kept special. It isn’t a manufactured beverage.

And the term ‘natural’? It’s not perfect, but it is just a banner. It isn’t meant to be taken literally: we know wine doesn’t make itself in nature. But sometimes we need banners to gather under – we need philosophical systems to organize our thinking and inspire our action, even if these are imperfect. Natural has proved a useful banner in this respect.

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