Published Sat, Jul 30, 2022
History Lesson: The Origins of Natty Wine
Despite the modern consumer’s understanding of the term “natural” that has hurtled into the zeitgeist, once upon a time, all wine was natural. In Ancient Georgia, circa 6000 B.C. people were making wine. The process, tending to wild grown, native varieties that populated the landscape and pressing these grapes into large clay vessels called qvevri. Sealing them with beeswax, under the ground, to ferment until they returned with an alcoholic elixir. The Romans, Greeks, Chinese, Persians and the Ottomans all followed the same principles.
Much of the production from ancient winemaking tradition remained the same, until the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Mechanisation, pesticides, herbicides, preservatives, additives. These things not only increased output, but they could ensure the quality of the fruit by protecting it from the weather, pests, disease. But, we didn’t quite understand the toll it was taking on the Earth.
Technology enabled a vast network of international growers, commercial wineries and distributors, establishing a global wine system. The ability to make bulk wines allowed cheap, over-processed wines to flood the market, and wine made in smaller quantities from prestigious regions, sent to auction and drank in the finest restaurants, fetched exorbitant prices. If you didn’t reside in these regions, your best bet was to make bulk, cheap wine. This caused massive problems with oversupply, or pushing smaller, generational farmers into obsoletion. A good historical reference for this impact are the Languedoc riots, i Lots of people out of desperation gave up their independent dreams and sold whatever the market dictated to these huge commercial wineries.
Then, a shift. Though more and more wine was being made, there was a complete oversight in the population that was consuming it. As one generation began to replace the other, those previously using wine as a marker for the elite with their auction house Burgundy and Bordeaux, or the rest of us submitting to whichever commercial critter wine had monopolised the pub we sat in, there was a stirring in the water. People started to ask for more. Including the winemakers themselves. We can attribute the call to action vaguely to Beaujolais, France. A region that was known for the churned out “Beaujolais Nouveau” a harvest style wine that was cheap to produce, or the new-oaked styles of Beaujolais that tasted like candy bananas. A group of four winemakers known as the “Gang of Four”, decided to return to their roots. Recognising the quality of the fruit and the site they sat on, they pared back their practices, focussed on expressing the fruit as it was without intervention, and thus, a lower alcohol, fruit fresh and drinkable style of Beaujolais was born. It blew the world up.
Suddenly, the call wasn’t for “better” wine, based on price point or prestige or bougie provenance, it was asking for more “thoughtful” wine. Wine that aligned with generational values around climate change, ties with community through supporting local makers, and also, wine that didn’t look like the homogenised plonk they had sitting in their tumblers. We started looking outside of what we were told to “expect” from wine, and instead followed ethos. There was also a call for lower alcohol, more mindful drinking and less punishment on the body itself. Suddenly, calibre wasn’t related to overt marketing practices or a recognisable name on a bottle, it was about ingredients, the vines themselves, and the prospect of a future and a history when it came to what they were drinking. The feeling was one that was tied to an increasing connection and understanding of the land that we existed on, and how once upon a time, it could take care of itself.