So you think wine is either red, white or rosé and it comes in sweet, medium-dry or dry. Basically you’re right but the wine world is a little more nuanced and complicated. First of all it is a mass market and you can get anything from wine in a tetrapack to a ridiculously overpriced bottle from Chateau “Fancyfrenchname”. There is wine from the so called old world (France, Italy, Spain, Germany) and wine from the new world (California, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand) but again this is overgeneralizing as there is also wine from Eastern Europe, China, India and elsewhere in the world. With a changing climate some regions will be able to grow wine, others will struggle and some prestigious wine regions as for example the Rhone Valley may be forced to give up completely or need to invest large sums to keep up the quality.
Unfortunately as with any other mass market standardisation has found its way into the business. Most people in Germany buy their wines in supermarkets and if you stroll along the shelves you will find a vast array from every winegrowing country. You will also find a lot of wines from cooperatives, especially if you are looking for German wines. These wines are basic yet enjoyable, but nothing special. At least they concur with German wine quality standards. What gives me more of a headache are the wines from abroad with fancy labels, because not only the labels are fancy but also the contents. Most of these wines are ‘conditioned’ meaning they are produced in a way to taste the same every year. This is based on the belief that consumers demand the same quality from a product every time they buy it. Often these wines are not even bottled in their country of origin but in Germany. Also they are often a blend of grapes from different regions of a country. So you will find lots of additives in your bottle and you can compare it to your standard strawberry yoghurt where the strawberry flavour comes from sawdust. Anything is possible, hence these wines are sometimes far from being a natural product but more the brainchild of food chemists and classical trained marketing people.
I spent my teenage years in a German wine region, the Palatinate. At school, we had to learn how wine is made, visited wineries and we were taught that the taste of the wine is influenced by many factors among them the weather and the soil, or ’terroir’ on which the grapes are growing. This explains the differences in vintages and I always believed this to be an essential part of wine making. The aforementioned practice turns this upside down by making sure the wine tastes the same every year. This makes it boring in my opinion as it is with so many others products today.
Luckily there are many other options to buy and enjoy wine. Either directly from the winery or a good wine retailer for instance. As I am living rather far away from the next winery in Germany I am a regular at my local organic supermarket which offers a good choice of organically produced wines. What I wasn’t aware though but was made aware of by a friend, is even one step further: natural wine. Wine is a product of nature isn’t it? Yes, but my previous paragraphs challenged this notion. So what is natural wine?
Natural wine is wine produced, mind you some natural wine enthusiasts would even challenge the word ‘produced’, without any additives. As with organic wine or organic agriculture in general there is a disbelief in the application of pesticides and herbicides to control diseases and weeds. Instead the emphasis is put on a healthy soil which makes the ‘terroir’ such an important feature of natural wine. Bio-dynamic agriculture goes as far as only using herbal, mineral and organic preparations on the soil and work on the vineyard is based on natural cycles. Natural wine tries to be as natural as possible by not adding cultured yeasts, acids or sulphur dioxide (SO2). More information on natural wine and natural wine in South Africa in particular can be found here:
Information on bio-dynamic agriculture: http://www.demeter.net
Natural wine is a much discussed topic in the wine world and the friend who made me aware of it has recently started to grow natural wine on his family’s estate: http://notfined.com/
Being thirsty by now? If you live in Germany, go to either one of the two large organic supermarket chains and look for wines with a ‘Demeter’ label on the bottle. If you like South African wine, look out for wines from Stellar Organics (http://www.stellarorganics.com/). Don’t be surprised about the prices and do invest the eight Euro, they are well worth it.
I am currently staying in South Africa for a longer period and had the chance to travel the wine country, especially around Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. Reading the above mentioned article by Jamie Goode I also wanted to make sure to stop by at least at one of the natural wine makers he mentions. South African wines belong to the so called new world though wine has been grown here ever since the Dutch colonized the cape in the 17th century. It probably belongs to the “new world” because US and European consumers discovered South African wines only recently. The region is beautiful. Mountain ranges, valleys, lush green meadows and vineyards add up to a bucolic landscape. Unfortunately it was raining cats and dogs when I travelled the area but a few moments of clear sky and sunshine were enough to imprint that impression on my mind. The first stop was at Reyneke (http://www.reynekewines.co.za), a producer of organic and bio-dynamic wines.
It is a small winery and we were lucky to escape the pouring rain and entered their tasting room. We were warmly welcomed and tasted through their range. First of all they offer red and white blends which are made from grapes from surrounding wineries that grow organic grapes. This way they help other wineries fostering and promoting organically produced wine in South Africa where organic wine still holds only for a small fraction of the wine sales. Their signature wines are a Reserve Red and White. Both are made from grapes solely grown on the estate and are unique, down to earth in its literal meaning and absolutely gorgeous. I will not go into the details such as what blend they are and what tasting notes they have. This as well as where to buy them can be found on their website.
Our second stop was at Solms-Delta (http://www.solms-delta.co.za/). Not a producer of natural wine but a wine estate with a long history and a focus on social sustainability. The estate is 320 years old and a small museum on the estate displays the social history of the farm. Unlike other wine estates in the area which rather look like trimmed to perfection with their neatly renovated Cape Dutch Style houses, Solms-Delta kept its charm. Being aware of their long history which also involved slave labour, they invest through a trust in the historically disadvantaged tenants and employees by providing financial support for education and medical care. Again we enjoyed a formidable wine tasting and were surprised by their Solms-Delta Gemoedsrus, a kind of port wine: Shiraz desiccated on the vine, then fortified with Shiraz grappa.
A last note on wines in South Africa. The range is enormous and thanks to a weak South African Rand they are comparably cheap for a European wallet. What strikes are the sometimes funny names of wines and wineries such as “Goats do Roam”, “The Goatfather”, “Chocoholic”, “Allesverloren”, “Chateau-Neuf-du-Cap” and there are many more.
Being now over two months in South Africa I tried quite a lot of wines but must say Reyneke’s are among if not the best. As tastes are different, this is of course a subjective account and I am now eager to taste more natural wine from other wine growing regions. But if you are still in doubt, I like to compare it to a home-grown grown tomato or lemon. Just smell it, feel it and taste the difference. This should convince you.