Real wine versus industrial wine

Real wine versus industrial wine

When I go off and make wine, my decisions about what to make and who to make it with are guided by a simple idea: that good-quality grapes can translate into good, or great, wine with a bare minimum of interference. Assuming the grapes are tip-top, all you need to do is pick them, crush them, wait for them to naturally ferment, transfer the fermented liquid to a new container (expelling any oxygen) - then just leave it. Six to 12 months later, with a bit of luck, you will have a beautiful wine - an undiluted expression of terroir and vintage - which has more or less made itself.

TFWATH 2019 Bío-Bío país at the start of its natural fermentation. This wine was made in the simple, 'hands-off' way described above

'Bollocks,' some people will say, arguing that I am overlooking a thousand and one processes and interventions. But I maintain that, as long as you have clean, healthy grapes, and know when to intervene if things do start to go wrong, it can be very nearly, if not very really, this simple. Okay, you might need to wet the cap (the grape solids that rise to the surface during fermentation) once or twice to avoid volatile acidity, and maybe aerate the wine if it becomes too reductive (a chemical state when the absence of oxygen produces smelly sulphur compounds); and if you're ageing in barrel you might have to top it up now and again to compensate for evaporation, but that's it. It's winemaking at its most basic - and some of most enchanting wines I've ever tasted have been made this way.

Healthy grapes = good wine. In the absence of sulphur, meticulous sorting, ideally with a very serious face, reduces the risk of spoilage problems.

Proper wine - the kind I'm wanging on about, is made in the vineyard. It begins with healthy soils. These soils will be full of microscopic organisms which make nitrogen and other nutrients available to the vine plant, and networks of mycorrhizal fungi which attach to the roots and regulate nutrient and water supply. The skins of organically farmed grapes will have yeast populations living on them (agrochemicals used in conventional farming will blitz them). Once the grapes are crushed, these yeasts will start to feast on the sugars in the juice  - in other words, spontaneous fermentation. Fermentation will go smoothly because grapes from healthy soils are rich in sources of nitrogen for the yeasts to feed off. The grape skins will impart antioxidant tannins, giving protection against oxidation and structure to help the wine age. At a certain point, naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria (LAB) will trigger malolactic conversion, converting tart malic acid into softer, rounder-feeling lactic, stabilising the wine in the process...

200-year-old país bush vines in Bío-Bío. These vines have always been farmed organically, without irrigation or tilling, so the soil is full of microbial life.

As the wine ages, the fine lees (yeast residue) will absorb oxygen and contribute to the long-term stability of the wine (the low-oxygen environment the lees create will also encourage the lactic acid bacteria). Over time, the wine will sediment naturally, slowly clarifying and stabilising as tannins polymerise; so no need for fining agents, be they bentonite, albumen, casein, polyvinylpolypyrrolidone or isinglass (made from the dehydrated swim bladders of fish, traditionally sturgeon). If you're careful there’s unlikely to be much need for filtering either. Finally, the wine might get a small dose of sulphur dioxide (SO2) to protect it from oxidation as it goes into bottle (you might add it earlier, depending on how the wine evolves). That's it: nothing added (or next to nothing), and nothing taken away. It’s not always so simple, and you need to know what to do if things start to go wrong - but this is the standard I aspire to.

Dehydrated swim bladders

Contrast this with industrial winemaking. Though you would never know from those seductive labels speaking in pastoral tones about 'nature' and 'terroir', the production of mass-market wine can involve up to 200 processing aids and additives (in the EU, even organic wine can use about 70). It will almost certainly have involved excessive use of sulphur dioxide (used as an antioxidant and anti-bacterial agent). On top of that, there's sugar for chaptalisation or tartaric acid to acidify (if consumers knew how prevalent that was, it would cause quite a brouhaha), enzymes to encourage juice extraction, off-the-shelf yeasts to inoculate the must, yeasts nutrients to reduce the risk of stuck fermentations, powdered tannins to adjust texture and structure, and stabilise colour, oak chips to imitate the effects of oak ageing, colourants, clarifying agents, und so weiter... this is before you even get to the high-tech machinery: the spinning cone filters, reverse osmosis machines, cryo-extractors...

Reverse osmosis machines can remove alcohol from wine. They're like the opposite of Jesus.

This is not intended as a natural wine polemic - I'm pretty bored with the idea of natural wine as a matter of fact, and there are plenty of scientific and technological advances that have made winemaking easier and safer - it's just to let you know how I think about making wine, about how it is essentially made in the vineyard. For about 8,000 years up to the industrial food revolutions of the early to mid-20th century, it's the way it was always done. In a sense, industrial wine is getting wine wrong - you attempt compensate for deficiencies in the grapes, you make adjustments to ensure a consistent flavour, you artificially stun the wine with high levels of sulphur dioxide, then compound your errors by micro-filtering it, so that what you end up with is a lobotomised version of a wine, rather than the proper wine it should be.

Proper wine is to industrial wine what the pre-op Randall P McMurphy was to the lobotomised one

The 'minimal-intervention' way I'm talking about is the way most great terroir wines were always made in the past - and continue to be made, by farmers who are in the vineyards most days of the year and work in a very 'laissez-faire' way in the cellar. It can be a near-magical thing. The simplicity adds to the wonder: that such an expressive, nuanced and inspirational liquid could come from mere grapes. But the germ of that magic is the grapes. The winemaker is just trying to keep it going in the wine, trying not to deviate from what their labour in the vineyard has given them.
Back to blog