Rebellion against refined sensibility

London recently played host to the seventh annual edition of Raw, the most influential wine fair of the decade. We’re all familiar with Raw’s polemical stance on natural, low-intervention wine – it has generated a lot of strong feeling in the wine world. But leaving aside the question of whether such wines really are healthier for us or the planet, it is now clear that we are living in a post-natural wine world where traditional assumptions about wine are being decisively challenged.

The motivation behind natural, low-intervention, organic and biodynamic winemaking is primarily a response to industrialised winemaking. It is also a protest against the increasingly homogenous way in which we define good wine. It is a rebellion against what I’m going to call the refined sensibility, a way of thinking and talking about wine so dominant that it is necessary to define it, if only to remind us that it is also a belief system, although one that is rarely questioned.

The refined sensibility maintains that good wines are expressive of their grape variety and speak clearly of their origins, while being free of faults and capable of improving over time. Industrial winemaking, an offshoot of this way of thinking, has used every trick in the book to replicate these fine wine principles on a budget. Deep colour? No problem, bring in the Mega Purple. Missing a bit of varietal typicity in your Chardonnay? Just email through an order for some Lalvin CY3079. Ironically, without the blueprint set by traditional fine wine production, the industrial winemaking fraternity wouldn’t know what tricks it needed to pull to achieve the desired result. Fine wine or industrial wine, we are measuring with the same yardstick within the parameters of the refined sensibility.

This world view in wine is so pervasive that it can be hard to see it is every bit as dogmatic as its defenders claim natural winemaking to be. It has become almost heretical to say that wine can be great without having ageing potential, or that aromatic explosiveness could be more important than length of finish. But why not? If winemaking is indeed an art and not a craft, then it must be willing to have space within it for different kinds of winemaking practices, and that means different ways of judging success.

The disruptive natural wine movement has made these conversations possible, and is opening up a new horizon in our understanding of wine. Like most philosophical step changes, this is something that is easier to understand in retrospect. Perhaps that first taste of yeasty, sour pét-nat isn’t so different from those who first read Finnegan’s Wake or looked at Duchamp’s urinal. Initially it would have been shocking and perhaps outrageous, but it was also an early sign of something new coming your way.

Like it or not, everyone who engages with wine beyond its alcoholic content is navigating between the traditional understanding of the refined sensibility and the radical reimagining of wine that has come about through the natural wine movement. Now vins de soif can be as highly prized as vins de garde, and old Burgundy can find itself on an equal footing with old vine Carignan.

Yet neither the refined nor the Raw sensibility has all the answers. Both have their limitations. To become a cheerleader for either style is to swap one set of dogma for another. The reality is that both sides have something important to contribute to the evolution of the world’s most complex drink.  Posing difficult or controversial questions about wine only strengthens its capacity for pleasure and surprise.

Jason Millar is the retail director at independent wine merchant Theatre of Wine. He can be contacted at  jason@theatreofwine.com and found on Twitter @jasondmillar

Related articles: