Connotation is everything – and with it, context. You would not want the syringes in which you receive pre-packed medication to be handcrafted and hand-filled or your computer microchips to be hand-soldered. With wine it’s different. It’s something you put into your mouth – and so you relate to it differently than you might to soap powder, for example. You choose to imagine that the place where it’s produced is clean, as a food factory should be. You don’t want to know that spiders and the odd chameleon could land up in the crush. When you drink wine, the romance of thousands of years of craft is part of every sip.
Wine is deeply embedded in the human psyche – which is why it is part of so many religious rituals. It exists because of the apparently miraculous transformation of fruit into alcohol. For most wine lovers it is something pure and unsullied, the result of art rather than science, of intuition rather than technology, of fair play rather than chicanery. In a way, it’s the perfect product for the weird and wonderful world of organic, biodynamic and 21st-century witchcraft.
In the early days of the organic wine revolution, it wasn’t easy to gather evidence to support the claims being made about the virtues of organic farming and winemaking. For a start, there was no such thing as a control sample. Growers in regions conducive to organic vineyard management were often newcomers to the wine scene. Even those who had been using the full panoply of chemicals prior to conversion were not running parallel operations to test the efficacy of the organic approach.
Those in many of the traditional high-quality appellations found changing over to organic almost impossible. High mildew risk in summer rainfall areas is a strong disincentive to abandon chemicals when the market is not yet ready to pay a premium for the result. At much the same time, the emergence of what was initially seen as pure mumbo-jumbo – the Rudolf Steiner-inspired biodynamic movement – made the fringe seem even flakier than the mainstream chose to paint it.
Much of this has now changed. Even in places where organic viticulture is diffi cult, producers endeavour to manage without chemicals. The discovery that over-treated soils were ‘dead’ to the plant life being cultivated led to a more sensitive approach across whole appellations. Anxiety about whether or not organic still sounds a little too wholegrain and healthy still prevails: many producers – who could legitimately claim organic status make no mention of it. They would rather be thought of as mainstream than as fringe.
Yet even this is changing. In the late 1990s, Aubert de Villaine, proprietor of Romanée-Conti and La Tâche, told me he had initially adopted an ‘organic +’ approach without complete conviction.
While much of it – in his own words – made great sense (such as replacing mechanised vineyard equipment with horses to reduce soil compaction) he couldn’t vouch for the logic behind everything he was doing. However, when it came to the quality of fruit he was harvesting, he was sure it was better than anything that had come from the equally well-manicured vineyards of the pre-organic era.
This pretty much parallels what is said by Johan Reyneke, one of the Cape’s pioneering organic and biodynamic producers. Most of the organic regulations refl ect sound and rational vineyard practice, he said. It’s the biodynamic injunctions – which work empirically – that he can’t explain. What is agreed – certainly by the likes of Reyneke and De Villaine – is that once there is a commitment to abandoning chemicals as a fix-it for problems in the vineyard, viticulture becomes a much more hands-on affair. Where this coincides with the very best sites, the wines that emerge are palpably more luminous.
Tagged Ultra Brut