Millar's Tale: Natural selection
If you’re hanging on to a rising balloon, you’re presented with a diffi cult decision — let go before it’s too late or hang on and keep getting higher, posing the question: how long can you keep a grip on the rope?”
I was reminded of Danny’s sky-high meditation towards the end of Withnail & I by — of all things — the establishment of a Natural Wine Union in France earlier this year, in collaboration with INAO.
My relationship with natural wine has been very much like my relationship with the human race: generally in favour, but worked out strictly on a case-by-case basis. In part, it’s because I’ve always had sympathy for those who wanted to liven the wine world up a bit. Since the start, it has been a deliciously radical movement that appeals to anyone sick of faceless corporates and focus group wines, not to mention the Livex hounds in the City.
At the same time, it is the opposite of pluralism and accessibility with its deliberately uninformative labels, truculent flavours and high prices, and it is by far the most snobbish part of the wine community. No one is more likely to judge you based on what you drink than the natural wine fan.
But, aside from the human problems around it, the liquid itself can still bring great joy. I remember downing a bottle of achingly natural Fleurie in a Parisian cellar and it was glorious — a wine moment I will never forget. It was the sort of wine that was so good, so primal, so fundamentally thirstslaking and restorative that I didn’t give a damn about the fact that the owner was the worst kind of French wine snob, and the worst kind of natural wine snob, rolled into one.
And so, ambivalent as I have been about natural wines throughout my career to date, I also find myself ambivalent about the formal legitimisation of natural wine in French law, like I might be seeing some old left-wing rock star accept a knighthood
from the Queen.
Natural wine is now to have its Domesday Book, to be pinioned and dissected like a laboratory frog, until the Napoleonic brilliance of French bureaucracy has defiled all of its secret places and carried it, rationalised, codified, legalised, to your nearest spermarket. Here, the hipster somms with their questionable moustaches won’t be needed as gatekeepers, because the wine will have a little sticker on it that says “sanssulfi tes ajoutés”.
The titans of the current natural wine scene will have nothing to worry about. Ganevat isn’t coming to a Tesco near you. However, when it comes to sales it will be brilliant for people who don’t really get natural wine as a movement, but say they want to buy healthier wine — wine that doesn’t give them headaches, wine that comes with a clearer ethical conscience. It will help to take natural wine beyond a devoted but vocal coterie and into the mainstream.
But natural wine was never really about sulfites or yeasts, nor even viticulture – only one of the 12 new tenets is actually about farming – or even wine.
It was about principles and people — natural wine lovers’ cult of personality around the movements of leading winemakers makes Robert Parker’s fetishisation of certain consultants look pale by comparison — and, yes, being part of something small and special that not everyone has access to, except, maybe, through you, the influential mediator.
“They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworth’s man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over.” Who will keep holding on to the rope?