“Natural winemaking” is taking South Africa by storm. Whatever that means. The only people who call it “Natural winemaking” are the ones who don’t practice it, which is odd, because generally it’s used condescendingly, as if the “Natural winemakers” are making wine with hemp barrels soothed by the vibrations (that’s an important hippy word) of a moonlit Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s also odd because it implies somehow someone else is making wine “unnaturally”, which brings to mind some Nazi-Indiana Jones scene: somewhere deep in a bunker in the Dyatlov Pass, neon blue light bulbs flash on and off in an otherwise darkened room, drums beat, Robert Parker chants lines from the Necronomicon in baritone and summons a batch of first fill wooded Cabernet from the netherworld – 96 points, should’ve chanted louder or culled a goat for those extra 4 points! Obviously this pertains to the capacity of your imagination, and obviously it’s ludicrous. We both know both camps make excellent and crappy wine.
Now that I have built a wall of preference equity, I shall assert my opinion; today I will take a dig at Natural/Minimal intervention wine. The idea occurred to me in some sort of jolting epiphany. I was trying to memorise the structure of a wood tannin (a taste chemical derived from wood often found in wine), and was struck by a sense of futility. I’ve spent four years learning chemical and biological movements in wine; furthermore, millions of Rands, Euros and Dollars have gone to yeast profiling, wine chemistry and Oenological research. Yet, this minimal intervention movement, whilst not rendering this research and technology useless, certainly makes it seem more like connoisseur’s trivia than practical knowledge. In a perfect scenario, the grapes would arrive healthy, and minus a timely addition of sulphur, all the heavy lifting is done by the microorganisms in the wine (and the vineyard workers who carried the crates).
As an example: your wine is starting to smell cheesy. Stick it in a barrel and let it sit for 12 months. Bob’s your Uncle; the smell blew off. Sure, it’s interesting to know that yeast produces toxic medium-chain fatty acids that smell like feet, but if we don’t even know what yeast species it is, and we’re not going to do anything (interventionally) about it, then who cares?
I suppose this is not an argument against Natural winemaking, but it does slowly seem to be turning into one opposing wine education. Whilst I sit here, I can think of a few winemakers off the top of my head who possess little to no formal wine education. Furthermore, I can think of many well known winemakers who probably use a mild fraction of the oenological knowledge they paid so many “Madibas” for in tertiary education.
It should be noted that my argument is very contextual (which sort of makes it bullet-proof). I think it would only be possible to make wine in this (scientifically) hands off approach in a small scale boutique winery. When the grapes are healthy, space and time are flexible, it’s much easier to make sure things run smoothly and no wine is spoilt. Conversely, as a friend of mine always says, co-op winemakers are the real winemakers, in the literal sense. They handle vast quantities of, often, very poor quality wine, diseased grapes, massive volumes worth millions in damages should spoilage occur.
Basic (and often the best) winemaking is a recipe, with as few ingredients as possible. As much as no one wants to admit they follow a recipe. It is a consumable food product after all, though the calories are about as functional as eating a pile of paper. The more ingredients/faulty ingredients require more background knowledge to handle, but as long as the grapes are good and the facility is well managed, the wine largely makes itself.