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17 April 2024

In wine’s culture war, we’ve all been winners

The natural movement took on the rule-choked wine establishment, and has changed drinks culture for the better.

By Andrew Jefford

Wine was overdue a culture war. It endured a century of trauma between 1850 and 1950: almost annihilated by disease, then scourged by industrialisation and war. Recovery took time, but flowered from the 1980s, driven by scientific advances in vineyards and wineries. Wine globalised, too, losing its European hauteur as it did so.

The 8,000-year-old culture settled as the millennium turned. The technical revolution meant that drinkers no longer had to endure bad wines, though plenty of boring wines had taken their place. “Fine wine” had become easy to decode and locate, via the point scores that festooned expensive bottles. Great wine scuttled into the luxury-goods cage. The door slammed behind it; the golden key was turned.

You could smell conflict coming. Like any worthwhile Kulturkampf, it was founded in ideas of agency and control. Whose wine was it anyway? Did it belong to the new multinationals and their boring, safe brands? Did it belong to arriviste owners, ploughing their fortunes into the tax-haven heritage of fine-wine landholdings? Did it belong to the academic oenologists that the “wine industry” relied on, armed with their battery of technical interventions and clutching their magic analysis figures? Or did wine, somehow or other, still belong to honest, sweat-stained smallholders, practising their ancestral, artisan techniques? Could we not return to innocence? Could we not return to purity? Could we not dispense with industry, and find our way back to agriculture?

This is the battle that the natural wine movement, the 21st century’s most significant wine development, has tried to win. Like all wars, it has many fronts. Some were almost amicable: the push for environmentally respectful viticulture was universally desired. It has been influential in the mainstream, though has some way to go: wine production – including organic wine production – still uses far more fungicide, for example, than other agricultural sectors.

The natural movement also helped wine culture more generally by propelling white wines macerated with their skins – and hence deep gold, orange or amber rather than “white” – back on to dinner tables. We had forgotten this technique almost completely, yet the wines it produces are unique and, at best, thrilling: hauntingly textured and perfumed; languid, detaining. Orange wine deserves its acclaim as wine’s sixth genre (alongside red, white, pink, sparkling and fortified). 

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The most aggressively waged front in natural wine’s culture war was its demonising of the use of sulphur dioxide as part of a drive towards zero additions. It also urged the avoidance of physical manipulation, and of fining and filtering. In skilled hands, fetchingly scented and juicy wines could be made this way. But many were not so skilled, and the results looked like pond water, and smelled and tasted coarse and cidery. They created outrage and were derided for claiming to express terroir (a sense of place) when all they expressed were failures of method. Such wines quickly became outlaws, a countercultural status they revelled in with anarchic labelling. Yet the quest for “purity” is a chimerical one for a biochemically complex beverage such as wine, and many definitions of natural wine have softened of late, rather than insisting on radical exclusion.

The greatest victory of wine’s culture war has nothing to do with organics or SO2. Natural wine succeeded because it sent a tank battalion to demolish the agonisingly complex, rule-choked edifice of wine knowledge. The tanks, driven by dudes in ripped jeans and pork-pie hats, smashed through wine’s heavily patrolled barriers by making simple messages cool. Natural wine quickly built scenes in the world’s major wine cities, chic Paris included. Those who drank natural wines didn’t have preprogrammed, fine-tuned palates; they were unscripted innocents who loved the exciting chaos of flavours on offer. Most importantly, “natural” promised wine you could believe in, wine that was “pure” and “good”. Ethical booze: trump that.

Those in the natural wine world won agency for themselves. Control is a different matter: the spoils are divided; lessons are being learned on both sides. This is one culture war, though, that has taken us all forward.

[See also: A brief history of “woke drinks”]

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This article appears in the 17 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran