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Naturalness in wine: how much manipulation is acceptable?

Wine can be made naturally. It almost makes itself. At its most simple, the process of making wine involves harvesting grapes, sticking them into a vat, crushing them a bit and letting them ferment. When fermentation is complete, separate out the solid matter from the liquid, and you have wine.

But winemakers almost always add things to their wine. There are several reasons for this, some of them better than others, and this leads to a thorny question that’s at the heart of many of the most passionate debates in winemaking circles: just how much manipulation is acceptable?

There’s no simple answer. It’s a grey area and any attempt to proscribe permissible levels of manipulation is a line-drawing exercise. But just because it is difficult to make these sorts of distinctions, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to make them. Wine laws exist in virtually all wine producing regions or countries that outline which sorts of manipulations are acceptable and which aren’t. Some are stricter than others. To get an understanding of the issues involved, let’s consider four different positions and assess their strengths and weaknesses.

1. Anything goes
Should a wine be judged purely on how it tastes? Is drinking wine just a sensory experience? Some people argue that this is the case. If it is, then there are no real reasons to prohibit additives. The answer is in the glass, and if there are ways of making wine taste ‘better’, then they should be allowed. The weakness of this position is that it ignores the fact that wine is a discretionary purchase. Certainly, fine wine is something that people buy partly because it isn’t manufactured: the grapes aren’t just seen as the raw materials that act as a starting point in the manufacturing process. Grapes have a connection to the soil, to the vineyard they are from. Part of the appeal of wine is that it is a ‘natural’ product rich in culture, and its image will suffer if absolutely anything is allowed.

2. Add nothing
This is an extreme position for one reason – SO2. Sulphur dioxide (SO2) is intrinsic to winemaking because it’s hard to make good quality wine without it: it plays a vital role as an antioxidant and also as a microbicide preventing the growth of harmful bacteria and rogue yeasts. It is added during winemaking and at bottling. Some winemakers bravely attempt to make SO2-free wines for the sake of naturalness or for health reasons, but it needs to be borne in mind that SO2 is produced naturally during fermentation in non-negligible amounts anyway.

3. Add as little as possible
This is a laudable position, for the reason mentioned earlier that wine is perceived by consumers as a natural product, and this is part of its appeal. A sensible winemaking policy is only to add something if not adding it is going to compromise wine quality, and then only add as little as possible. It’s tough to make good wine with no SO2, but the effect of any additions can be maximized by smart use and good winemaking practice. Acid additions might be needed in warm climates, because high pH compromises wine quality and reduces the effectiveness of any SO2 that is added.

This raises the question of other sorts of wine manipulation. For centuries oak barrels have been used to make wine, and the use of them is uncontroversial partly because they are traditional. The use of new oak barrels certainly would count as an additive manipulation because they contribute important flavour components to the wine. Intelligent barrel use is a vital component of the winemaking process for the majority of fine wines, and it’s hard to imagine doing without them altogether. But consider what might happen if they’d never been used for wine and someone tried introducing them now: there’d likely be a bit of an outcry. So, is it hypocritical to allow barrel use but exclude newer high-tech manipulations such as microoxygenation and reverse osmosis? These tools are seen as pretty interventionist, but it is possible to use them with pure motives.

On balance, the case of accepting older, traditional manipulations and avoiding newer ones does have a sound basis: that of preserving product integrity in the eye of the consumer. The ‘adding as little as possible’ school would no doubt object to newer hi-tech manipulations, although at a stretch it could be argued that alcohol reduction by RO would prevent excessive alcohol levels from compromising wine quality and thus should be allowed.

4. The in-between position
The final position would be permit some manipulations but not those that could be deemed as ‘cheating’. Openness and honesty is the key here: adding most things is OK as long as their use is disclosed and wine laws don’t outlaw them. Where should the line be drawn? A strong argument could be made for banning manipulations such as non-traditional chemical flavourants but allowing the winemaker access to other techniques if they choose to use them. I can’t imagine anyone seriously arguing that fruit flavourings or non-wine fruits can be used and the substance still be labelled as wine. On the other hand, this more relaxed view would permit reverse osmosis and microoxygenation. They are, like other technologies, merely tools, and tools can be used well or they can be used badly. What counts is how well the tools are used, not whether they are used or not.

Ultimately, a relationship of trust exists between winemakers and consumers. I feel that where manipulations are used, they should be declared, and then consumers can make their purchasing choice with this in mind. If they want a wine that’s totally ‘natural’, with no SO2 added, then that’s fine. If they want a wine from a producer who uses as little manipulation as possible, this is also fine. If they don’t mind how the wine was made and only care about the taste, that’s their choice also. Currently, producers seem a little shy to disclose exactly how their wines are made. Is that because they suspect many consumers would be surprised by the degree of manipulation that does take place with some wines? Perhaps they are afraid to shatter the popular conception is that wine is a relatively ‘natural’, additive-free product.

The various means for manipulating wines are just tools: as such they can be used wisely, used badly, or not employed at all. Whether or not the use of these tools is justified is a decision that can’t easily be made globally and enshrined in legislation. Would you rather have a flawed natural wine, when a simple manipulation would have eliminated the fault? It’s a difficult, multilayered question (for example, what is ‘flawed’ in the context of a wine?). That’s why I would advocate a policy of freedom of operation for the winemaker, coupled with honesty about disclosing to the consumer if any ‘manipulations’ are used.

There exists a case for suggesting that different categories of wines should be treated differently. While manipulations might be necessary to help out a commodity wine made from less than perfect grapes, there’s less of a case for using more manipulation than is absolutely necessary for fine wines. Rules are important to preserve wine integrity and protect consumers from fakes, but they should be implemented locally rather than globally. Some manipulations, such as adding chemicals as flavouring agents (whether they occur naturally in the wine or not) are defenceless and should be banned altogether.

The danger with too much technology is that it gives winemakers too many tools to tweak their wines. Coupled with the increased influence of critics favouring certain types of wines, the temptation for winemakers is to use these tools to iron out any ‘edges’ in their wines. The consequence? All wines begin to taste alike, and variations in vintage and terroir expression – sources of interest – are diminished. A nightmare scenario for lovers of traditional wines.

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