The good, the bad, the ugly: artisanal wine

Some of the most heated battles in the wine world in recent years have revolved around ideology. Are wines made by small wineries always going to be better and more ‘real’ than ones from big companies? And is natural winemaking – using minimal or no sulphur – simply a fad, or is it making wine that’s more in harmony with nature?

A distinguished panel came together at Vinitaly 2015 to thrash out these and other questions, under the banner of ‘The good, the bad and the ugly of artisanal wines’. Introducing the session to a packed audience, Stevie Kim, managing director of Vinitaly, explained its title. “The good guys are wine writer and winemaker Monty Waldin and Pedro Ballesteros Torres, Spain’s only Master of Wine and an EU administrator. The bad guy is the mad professor, Ian D’Agata, Vinitaly’s scientific adviser.” Kim paused. “And the ugly guy? That’s Robert Joseph,” she said, pointing to Meininger’s Wine Business International’s editor-at-large.

Definitions are important
First up was Ballesteros Torres MW, to give the legal framework for natural, organic and biodynamic wines. “There is a lot of confusion about anything related to the environment and even a bit of abuse of the names,” he began. “Let’s be clear: there is a legal definition in the European Union about biological or organic wines, but this certification is exclusive to the EU. The Americans use a different one.” Torres pointed out that this certification is not a quality mark. “It simply states that the wine follows certain technical specifications.”

Then there are private seals. “Demeter [which covers biodynamic wine] is very well known, but there is no public audit. It’s a private audit.” Within the EU, Torres continued, there is no recognised definition of ‘natural’. “Some people say you can do natural wines using sulphur, others say you can’t, but this is the realm of ideology and philosophy.” Torres says that when it comes to understanding different types of artisanal wines, it’s often a matter of understanding the people who make them. “My recommendation is not to generalise a lot concerning these types of wines, because there are no clear definitions.”

Dr Ian D’Agata, who’s also a specialist in paediatric medicine and a noted wine writer and author, rose to discuss the scientific aspects of artisanal and natural wines. “There are many aspects to artisanal wines,” he said, listing such criteria as small producers and hands-on involvement. He said natural wine producers typically talked about their wines as being fresher and more respective of terroir. “I’m not totally sure that’s true,” he said. When speaking about ‘freshness’, what most people really mean is ‘volatile acidity’, he said. “There’s nothing wrong with that – it does add freshness.” There’s only a problem when the VA becomes pungent, but it can be avoided with sulphur. And when sulphur isn’t used? “The aromas are remarkably similar– the wines all smell of volatile acidity. It can be from unhealthy grapes and diseases, but it can be very healthy grapes hit by bacteria.”

D’Agata then got into the nitty gritty of sulphur, noting that SO₂ is a traditional element of winemaking. English wine traders, he explained, were burning sulphur candles centuries ago when they transported wine barrels, a technique that was pioneered by the Romans. “Sulphur’s an antiseptic,” he said, questioning why its use has been “demonised” of late; he noted that dried fruits have far more sulphur than wine ever will, and that less than one percent of the population are sulphur sensitive. In any case, sulphur is natural. “It’s the third-most-common element in the body, surpassing even calcium. It is essential for life as we know it.”

He noted that sulphur will also bind to acetaldehyde and turn it into an odourless compound; “without it, you get the smell of bruised apples. The smell of cider.” D’Agata’s point – which was made by other panelists – is that the risk of sulphurless winemaking is that terroir is not only not brought out in the wine, it’s erased altogether. “When you allow oxygen to do its thing you tend to form molecules found in all wines. In red wines you get a note of prune.”

He also explained that oxidative winemaking works better in some varieties than others. “Thiols are important. A grape variety like Piccolino is very rich in thiols. If you use oxidative winemaking techniques you burn those off, so I’m not sure you’re defending the grape variety.” Pinot Blanc, on the other hand, is low in thiols, so it doesn’t matter so much.

Then it was Robert Joseph’s turn to look at the issue. He took a slightly more cynical approach. When someone says they make sustainable wine, he proposed, they are suggesting that they want to be a better person: “I don’t use as many chemicals. I’m nice to my staff – and I follow rules that vary depending on where I happen to work.” To be ‘artisanal’ simply means “I’m better because I am small – but I make my own rules.”

Organic and biodynamic producers, Joseph noted, must answer to someone. And while a lot of biodynamic practices didn’t make any sense to him, he said he’d never come across a producer who insisted that biodynamic was the only way to grow grapes. Whereas many of the natural wine producers, he said, often treated ‘conventional’ winemakers with contempt. In any case, he said, thundering somewhat from his pulpit: “There is no such thing as natural olive oil or natural wine. Grapes want to be wine like cows want to be steaks.”

Finally, Monty Waldin took to the stage. A well respected writer, he was also the star of a British reality television show, Chateau Monty, which focused on his journey to produce a biodynamic red wine in the Roussillon region of France. “What I like about the green wine movement is that it’s shaken up the industry,” he started. “The rise of organics, biodynamics and natural wines have offered consumers a choice.”

Waldin particularly liked the independent certification covering organic and biodynamic winemaking which does not exist for natural or other types of ‘artisan’ wines. He said the regulations and policing actually forced winemakers and growers to focus on what they were doing, in ways they may not have in the past. “It helps growers see what they’ve sprayed, when they’ve sprayed, and how much. Are they effective? Are they wasteful?”

And life without certification? “I’ve worked for conventional vineyards and in every case, bar one, I was asked to break the law.” But, he’d also seen the law being flouted in the winery of “someone incredibly well known in the natural wine movement.”

Waldin also tackled the issue of cost, looking at the issue of EU funding to help farmers go organic. Such subsidies, he said, have led to complaints that farmers are getting unearned money. But, he argued, this wasn’t a fair criticism. “Think of the cost of conventional farming; the runoff, the neurological problems that we and animals are having from spray residues. We’re having real problems with our bees – how do you put a price on not being able to eat any more?”

Waldin also dismissed the criticism that it was easy for bigger producers to go organic or biodynamic, because they have more money. “They’re taking a bigger risk – they’ve got everything to lose,” he pointed out. In any case, he added, the vast majority of organic winemakers worldwide are small producers who struggle to compete on price. “Finally,” he concluded, “what the organic and biodynamic industry needs is more science. We need science to prove that the methods work.”

To have been truly balanced, the panel should perhaps have included a passionate supporter of natural wines, but its members agreed that neither the number of bottles produced nor the ethical or philosophical aspirations of the winemaker had any necessary bearing on the quality of the liquid in the bottle. It was a point that the many attentive Chinese members of the audience seemed to find of particular interest.

This article first appeared in Meininger’s Wine Business International.