Some things are just instinctive, like chasing that shoplifter the other day who burst into the shop just before we closed and helped himself to a six pack of someone else’s wine, boxed up earlier that day and awaiting collection. There was no thinking required, it was just obvious. It was simply the right thing to do. Naturally I hadn’t anticipated the cuts, bruises and ruptured Achilles tendon I sustained as I tried to chase him down, nor the extended period which still lies ahead of me with my foot in a sweaty support boot. However it does present the opportunity to write this long-planned piece on Sustainability and Natural Wines (whatever they are…). It feels like the right time.
My father was always eager to stress the importance of “doing the right thing”, almost to the point of obsession, and in all my years in the wine trade I have met many wine producers of like mind. These are people making wine responsibly, from the point of view not only of the wine, but also the environment, their customers, employees and the wider community. The effects of their irreproachable standards reach way beyond the vineyard; this approach now has a name that’s becoming a buzzword in the trade - Sustainability.
In recent days it has surely become obvious that there are two contradicting ways to react to our planet’s need for us to live in a more sustainable way; we can either dig up lawns, block roads and generally make a nuisance of ourselves in the vain hope that our misbehaviour will persuade others to behave better (still not sure how that’s supposed to work), or we can lead by example with each of us doing our bit towards a more sustainable lifestyle. I know which I prefer, I know which I do and I know which I think others will find more persuasive. People choosing the latter course tend not to bang on about it though. For most wine producers it’s not even a commercial choice to seek some sort of advantage in the marketplace, it’s simply the way it should be done. I thought it worth illustrating what just one of our producers is doing to help.
Those who have been there (and admittedly I haven’t) say that Emiliana’s holdings in Chile feel more like a nature reserve than a winery. Organic and Biodynamic practices have been part of their ethos for years. They also seek to minimise carbon emissions by adding organic matter to the vineyards which helps to stabilise carbon that would otherwise be released to the atmosphere.
Emiliana began their conversion to organic status in 1998 – several years before Saint Greta was born - and are now 100% organic. They were the first South American winery to produce Biodynamic wines (in 2006) and are now 100% biodynamic. They produce an annual Sustainability Report and run a Bio-intensive Garden programme which now extends to 12 neighbouring vineyards. They have an Employee Programme which sees the production of both alpaca and sheep’s wool as well as natural honey and olive oil from their own trees. Returns from the sale of these products goes directly back to the employees. Plastic and glass is all recycled and whatever can be composted is. They track their CO2 emissions and constantly monitor water, electricity and gas consumption. They don’t harp on about it (though this information is on their website) they simply see their methods as the right course to take.
In many ways it reminds me of the early days of organic wine (or, more correctly, wine made from organically grown grapes) where guidelines eventually emerged that many winemakers realised they were already working to, and which were formalised by a set of rules, policed by a governing body of some sort, with certification awarded for people doing it properly.
We’re not at that point yet with “sustainability”, although embryonic certification now exists, or for that matter “natural wines”, which is the second subject of this article. Neither concept yet has an official definition, but it is not hard to have a stab at what the terms mean – essentially they both really amount to just doing the right thing.
A few people have had a bash at defining what the term “natural wine” means, though I’ve yet to meet a customer who really knows what they are asking for when they enquire about them. Some people are preoccupied with sulphite levels, others with fining agents (vegans mostly…one once asked us what the glue was made from that stuck the label to the bottle) but nobody has yet come in with a question about cryoextraction. Any yet-to-emerge definition for natural wines is likely to include such things as the following which is the Natural Wines Charter of one of our suppliers. In the absence of a recognised definition they drew up their own you see. Here it is:
· No irrigation
· No added sugars, yeast or bacteria
· No adjustments for acidity
· No external flavour additives other than those imparted by barrels
· Minimal or no fining
· Light filtration (or none)
· No heavy manipulation, such as micro-oxygenation, reverse osmosis, spinning cone or cryoextraction
· Total sulphites typically less than 70mg/litre
Now it turns out that many of the people we buy from were already following some, if not all, of the guidelines that potentially govern what a Natural Wine is, they just don’t shout about it. They’ve never felt the need. They’ve always done it this way because it was the way their forbears did it and it worked for them, so why change? In the early days of growing interest in organics, I remember trying to assemble a list of our producers who were growing organically and sent out a barrage of emails, “Right chaps, who’s doing this then? Customers are asking you see…” A few responded but the overwhelming response was silence. Especially from France. They just didn’t relate to the question and one could sense the collective shrug of the shoulders from across the channel and mutterings along the lines of “My farzer, ee made ze wine zis way, and his farzer before ‘im. Zay ‘ad no chemicals or machines. Just ze soil, ze grapes and ze love of ze wine and zum friends to ‘elp out picking ze grapes.”
Be careful though folks, it is a common assumption that if a bottle of wine is labelled “natural” it’s got to be better because it sounds wholesome and reassuring but it is definitely not a guarantee of quality. It can also suggest that any bottle not described as “natural” is somehow unnatural, which is not the case: it’s made from grapes and what could be more natural than a cleanly grown piece of fruit?
What you do, or don’t do to that piece of fruit will affect the quality of your finished wine and there’s an incredibly fine line between “natural” and unstable. Turn down the sulphite level for instance and the risk increases greatly that wines will re-ferment, oxidise or just be spoilt by bacteria, and nobody wants to drink wines that look, smell or taste as if they’ve been drunk already… You’ve got to be prepared to poke up with sediment, and potentially higher prices which are the inevitable consequence of lower yields. On the other hand, you’ll be able to count your purchases as part of “doing the right thing”.
This is all very well but it’s important to remember that the Wines of Interest approach has always been one that puts quality above all else. You would rather buy clean wine of purity and character than some oxidised bottle of lightly cloudy, cidery white that has been buried in clay amphora and costs £18.95, labelled “natural”. Badges for “organic” or “natural” or even “sustainable” are nice to see certainly, but if the quality isn’t there, and with it value for money, we won’t list it. “This wine is delicious and, by the way, it happens to be organic”, goes down much better than “This wine is organic but tastes awful”.
Our priority is for lovely, well made wine first and foremost. That won’t change. Good wine and good value first, anything else is a bonus. That’s always been our approach, but we are seeing an increasing number of producers who are doing the right thing, in terms of the environment, their employees and the wider community and it makes sense for us to tell you about them, as and when they think of telling us…