Until the mid-20th century, most vineyards were small and worked mainly by hand. After the Second World War, as French vineyards modernised and the industry grew into a global economic behemoth. To them, what seems like a story of technical and economic triumph is really the tragic tale of how wine lost its way. Before the War, France had just 35,000 tractors; in the next two decades, it would acquire more than a million, as well as US-made pesticides and fertilisers. At the same time, oenologists determined that wine should cease being a matter of chance, but should be based on science.
Vineyards are now soaked with pesticide and fertiliser to protect the grapes, which are a notoriously fragile crop. In 2000, vineyards used 3% of all agricultural land, but 20% of the total pesticides. In 2013, a study found traces of pesticides in 90% of wines in French supermarkets.
What happens once the grapes have been harvested is, to natural wine enthusiasts, scarcely less horrifying. The modern winemaker has access to a vast armamentarium of interventions, from supercharged lab-grown yeast to anti-microbials, antioxidants, acidity regulators and filtering gelatins, all the way up to industrial machines. Wine is passed through electrical fields to prevent calcium and potassium crystals from forming, injected with gases to aerate or protect it, or split into its constituent liquids by reverse osmosis and reconstituted with a more pleasing alcohol to juice ratio.
Natural winemakers believe that none of this is necessary. The basics of winemaking are, in fact, almost stupefyingly simple: all it involves is crushing together some ripe grapes. When the yeasts that live on the skin of the grape come into contact with the sweet juice inside, they begin gorging themselves on the sugars, releasing bubbles of carbon dioxide into the air and secreting alcohol into the mixture. This continues either until there is no more sugar, or the yeasts make the surrounding environment so alcoholic that even they cannot live in it. At this point, you have wine.
Making natural wine means going without the methods that have given modern winemakers so much control over their product. It also means jettisoning the expectations of mainstream wine culture, which dictates that wine from a certain place should always taste a certain way. (A part of an article in The Guardian, reproduced in The Week, 7 July 2018)
What has this to do with Epicureanism? I choose it, among a host of other dismal issues, because it illustrates a lack of moderation – the conversion of a simple procedure into a massive, modern, chemical-contaminated production dependent on science and fancy machinery. Pesticides in 90% of wines in French supermarkets? What is natural anymore?