Tim James: Wine, nature and possibility

By , 7 November 2022



The fervour of discussion (in our geeky little world, that is) about “natural wine” seems to have abated. No need to debate endlessly about what is and what is not “natural”. In South Africa there’s anyway not much genuinely natural wine according to the rulemakers, because there’s not much in the way of organically produced grapes to use. But there are many local wines that, from vinification onwards, are made with “natural” methods, and many more that have been influenced to some degree or other by the “natural” procedures. We all know now that some of what is thus made is a bit funky, some merely hipsterish – and both have their admirers; and some of it is not really funky or hipsterish at all.

In PR terms, wine in general benefits, as it always has, from the vague and often undeserved perception that it is pretty close to being a natural product. That’s why the international wine industry (especially in its most “industrial” quarters) mostly so dislikes the idea that it should be obliged to disclose ingredients – additives, that is – on labels, like any other processed food and thereby horrify some wine lovers by revealing just how unnatural it is growing grapes and turning them into stable, drinkable wine. Some wine does indeed get much more in the way of additives than others; and there are additives used just for processing that don’t remain in the wine, though the residues of most additives remain.

The earliest chemically attested grape wine in the world was discovered at Hajji Firuz, Zagros Mountains of Iran dating from circa 5400 B.C. Image: @ticiaverveer

It seems that this has been going on since the early days of winemaking. In the Zagros mountains of Iran, clay jars about 7000 years old were found with residues of grape juice – but also with traces of resin, which would have been used as an antibacterial preservative. There are signs of ancient storage techniques that would have minimised oxidation. Of course the sternest modern producer of “natural wine” would have no objection to these procedures.

That level of ancient winemaking is clearly already a bit further advanced than the fundamental origins of grape wine, which we will never know about. All we can do is wonder how it all happened – not all at once, presumably, as some of the classic myths have it. Some broken grapes forgotten in a dish begin to ferment, and a brave person sampled the result… perhaps. It seems somehow easier to account for the “invention”, the emergence, of wine than for the learning of how, for example, to make olives eatable or how to make bread out of grass.

If we are indeed in a restful time when “natural wine” is just easily accepted as one strand of a lovely tapestry, it is also a time when the idea of wine’s supposed naturalness has been reinforced in the minds and choices of both producers and consumers. It has underlined and merged with the long-established idea of terroir and the high-flown view that the winemaker’s role is simply expressing what the vineyard has to offer. Of course, simple is what it never is: ask the good (conventional or organic) viticulturist what is involved in getting a vineyard – a highly unnatural phenomenon in itself – to perform well; ask the good vinifier about the numerous crucial decisions that are made in the cellar once the grapes come in.

“Minimal intervention” is the great catchphrase now, and it does express some truth, and a goal. It suggests, though it certainly doesn’t specifically claim anything at all in itself, that additives to the vineyard are such as might be found in nature (and not imported in bags from the agrochemical factories), and that in the cellar certainly no radical additions to the wine are made – including acid or sugar adjustments and the flavours of oak or technological processes like revere osmosis.

But I can’t help noticing another type of phrase that is increasingly in use, with producers claiming that their wines are made “as naturally as possible”, or “with as little intervention as necessary”. These are, of course, basically meaningless phrases and should be interrogated rather than approvingly nodded at. Who’s to say what is found to be possible or impossible, or necessary? For one thing it’s a story that changes with time. The Swartland new-wavers don’t add acid to their wines, do they? But I strongly suspect that the number of 2022 Swartland wines without added acid will be closer to zero than we’re going to hear about in their publicity – especially given that the Swartland Independent Producers’ code stipulates no added acid (though, frankly, it’s not clear to me that the SIP still exists in any meaningful sense). And I dare say that some winemakers find it “necessary” to add acid every year – and some viticulturists and winemakers never find it “possible” to be “natural” at all.

No doubt it is a good thing that these phrases abound, insofar as it largely expresses a genuine winemaking aspiration. Which I’m sure it does – more often than being a mere bit of PR phrasemaking. But we wine drinkers, if such things are as important to us as they arguably should be, also need to be a touch sceptical on occasion, and to probe a bit deeper into what exactly is “possible” and what is not. 

Craig Wessels of the wonderful Restless River in the Hemel-en-Aarde spoke at a release tasting of how he’s going “more organic” in his vineyards. He realised that that was maybe an odd thing to say, but interrogated himself a bit about it. I liked another phrase he used – it’s not vastly more meaningful than “as natural as possible”, but approaches being so, and reveals more of the struggle involved. Any chemical inputs, he says, amount to “as little as we can get away with”.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.


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