In February, Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer for England, made the horrifying announcement that she thinks about cancer whenever she has a glass of wine and so should we. Despite all the bad news that has erupted on to our screens and pages since, I can’t forget this statement, which seems to highlight the contradictory nature of humanity. After all, good wine has very few drawbacks. Why focus on the main one, thus ruining your drink without improving your health? Why not just become teetotal and be done?
Finding comfort in toxins is a human foible, as is a dislike of moderation. At its worst, this combination causes addiction. The rest of the time, it causes arguments. Think, for instance, of “natural wine” – a term that should be a tautology, given that even Two Buck Chuck is fermented grape juice. Certainly, we are an idealistic species, forever fruitlessly trying to create perfection. We have meddled at points with every step of the winemaking process except the weather – and it turns out that our interference is affecting that, too. Many of us want each bottle of our favourite wine to taste exactly like the bottle before it, and some producers try very hard to supply this certainty, as if an agricultural product consumed by creatures who change and age imperceptibly every moment of their existence could ever offer such reliability. It’s an unreliable world, people: that is why we drink.
It’s also why we use sulphur. The element that Pliny called “nature’s wonder” occurs naturally during fermentation. In addition, most vintners add a small amount to stabilise their wine and prevent faults.
Isabelle Legeron, a master of wine and natural wine’s most vociferous advocate, points out that in wine’s infancy, millennia ago, there were no pesticides, cultured yeasts or other such inventions. Back then, wine really was natural. Maybe so, but that didn’t stop people adding very dodgy substances to it, from honey to myrrh to seawater: “In Greece . . . they enliven the smoothness of their wines with potter’s earth, or marble dust, or salt,” wrote Pliny, which certainly puts a few sulphites in context.
Why is sulphur so demonised? Some people have an unpleasant reaction to it. Lovers of natural wine also claim that wines without it taste better – and maybe some do, but I have tried others so damaged by oxidation or sundry faults that they tasted decidedly nasty. Sulphur zaps bacteria, as the ancient Greeks knew. “Bring sulphur, old nurse, that cleanses all pollution,” said Odysseus, after killing his wife’s suitors. Who can argue with a substance that neutralises love rivals?
Some natural wines that I drank recently, such as Lo Sfuso di Collina, a Cabernet Franc from Veneto, are lovely, though its label did bear the telltale words “contains sulphites” – a legal requirement for sulphur content over ten milligrams per litre. Still, before picking that wine, I had sent back another that was just too funky. “Yes, the natural ones take getting used to,” said the waiter, which is just nonsense. Wine is not medicine or greens: it is, as Dame Sally tells us so forcefully, carcinogenic. If there’s no instant gratification, what is the point?
Perhaps our palates will have evolved by the next millennium in favour of funkier wines, because people, like wine, are endlessly perfectible, if never perfect. Or perhaps the possibility of bacteria or excess oxygen in one’s wine will have trumped the certainty of sulphur. Pliny’s mira natura can be dangerous in excess: the great man died from inhaling volcano fumes when Vesuvius exploded in 79AD. But everything is dangerous in excess. Moderation is the answer. Sulphur is not the problem. As usual, we are.
Next week: John Burnside on nature
This article appears in the 10 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, From the Somme to lraq