Act Natural

I’ve been reading a lot about natural wines recently. This style, as distinct from organic winemaking, which bars chemical intervention in the vineyard, requires a more or less additive-free approach to the brewing process itself, barring added yeasts, sugars, and various other chemicals and techniques which have become standard in the industrial wine trade. While I wouldn’t call myself a fanatical convert – for one thing, I’ve barely tried any natural wines – it’s certainly been interesting to learn about the various practices which are allowed, and frequently used, in even very high-end wine making.

The wine industry, more, perhaps, than any other part of the food industry, is a large, efficient, modernised engine which still masquerades as small-scale, artisanal, somehow, in essence, natural. Much is made of terroir, of vintages, of the vast differences which aspect and soil and wind make to each bottle; but when yeast can be added to practically guarantee a certain body and mouthfeel, when wine can be physically ripped into its component parts to correct levels of sugar, water, alcohol, how much can terroir matter? The various DOP groups exist more to guarantee a certain quality and adherence to a sort of imagined local style than to actually ensure local individualism.

The real triumph, in fact, of modern winemaking – as with industrially brewed beer – has been the slow annihilation of variance from the norm, the sad reliance on weather and air – in other words, quality control. Even bad wines, now, aren’t really bad. They might be bad for you – the high levels of sulphites allowed in industrial wine can cause health problems – and they are certainly bad for the environment, especially in France, where their natural tendency to shoot or poison anything that moves is given free rein in vineyards; then again, they never claim not to be. The assumed ‘natural’ component of winemaking is much more nebulous than that.

Part of the current ‘clean’ ‘natural’ eating movement is a railing against processed foods, which is patently ridiculous. Nearly everything which ensures the continued existence of our species is processed in some way. As yer man (citation needed) found when he tried to live like a chimpanzee, we simply aren’t good enough at chewing to live off raw foods; without cooking and further processing, we would die. Bread, for example, is heavily processed, the base ingredient dried, ground, fermented, and held at various temperatures before consumption; because of this, it is pretty much a complete food, the staff of life, rightly holy to various cultures. The problem with industrially-produced bread is not that it has been processed, but that it has been processed very badly, with little reference to taste or nutrition.

The same could be said of wine, of cured meats, of cheese and of pickles. All of them have undergone a heavy process of industrialisation, resulting in a product which is much worse for you than it should be; but I don’t think that necessarily means the idea of industrialisation is bad. Cheaper, larger scale food production can only be a good thing, right? Maybe not. Maybe it’s inevitable that industrialisation throws out the good parts, the ferment, the yeast, the bacteria; perhaps, though, the success of natural winemakers, of raw-milk cheesemakers, who combine traditional techniques with a scientific understanding entirely born of industrial food processing, points a way for today’s artisans to feed us all.

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