Wine, ideology and quality

Particularly in recent months this topic has been on my mind a lot, as I have been drinking more natural wines, thinking about them, and listening to what others have to say. I’ve been wanting to write about it for a while, but couldn’t quite find the right angle. I’m still not convinced, but here goes…

I totally understand that people like the idea of organic and biodynamic viticulture – that it is less harmful to the environment and vineyard workers for example, and results in better wine. I certainly do not agree on all points, but I see where they are coming from. Similarly with natural winemaking. Absolutely there are moral issues associated with wine production, and there is also the possibility that more ethical forms may lead to better-tasting end product.

However. I am increasingly getting the impression that the ideological sense of the word good is getting conflated with good as an indicator of quality. For some, if a wine is ideologically good then it tastes good, and if it does not conform to their worldview then it tastes bad. Not merely because ideology and quality are correlated, but almost as a matter of definition. This ideological quality, as I shall call it, has nothing to do with the smell and taste of the wine, its price, the environment in which it is served, or any number of other possible factors, but is almost exclusively dependent on the ideology of how it is produced.

I was being deliberately coy when I wrote “getting the impression that” at the top of the last paragraph, because it is difficult to find direct and unambiguous quotes. But when you hear some people talking about natural wines the implication is clear. The well-known proponents of natural wines may be a little more guarded in what they say, but by the time these ideas filter down to their followers the message can be a lot more blatant. Some really do believe that anything made with zero percent sulphites is delicious and everything else is crap.

Let me be clear that I am very aware that many lovers of natural wines do not espouse this ideological quality. And actually I am not even necessarily criticising those that do – I just find it an intriguing phenomenon that I am struggling to understand. In many ways it would be surprising if ideology did not colour our judgement of quality in a wine, but for me the shocking aspect is how massive the influence can be.

The idea of ideological quality seems at the moment to be most closely associated with the natural wine movement. But it can be broadened. There is for example the excellence of all wines awarded 100 points by [insert name of favourite wine critic here]. If it seems too far-fetched to regard points as being part of an ideology, just remember Parker’s rhetoric about the democratisation of wine. Also, stretching the concept of ideological quality possibly a little too far, some drinkers seem to worship wines only from the classical regions of France, while others make a virtue of drinking wines from more out-of-the-way regions, and from rare grape varieties.

I absolutely don’t want to tell you which wines you should like, and why. But I do firmly believe we should develop a greater awareness of why we like the wines we do. In that awareness lies the route to greater vinous enjoyment.

About Steve Slatcher

Wine enthusiast
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4 Responses to Wine, ideology and quality

  1. Hi Steve,

    Ideology in relation to natural wine certainly exists, but my experience (especially when in London) is very interesting.

    First, producers: many do espouse an “ideology” in the media. Some do it more loudly than others. But many say nothing at all, other than that they add nothing, or maybe that they use just a little sulphur…often without fanfare.

    The same applies to drinkers, but perhaps more so. I’m sure many who drink natural wines have their own reasons for doing so, but do I know any who preach? I’m not sure I do. I think many more just think they are cool wines (perhaps with cool labels) sold in cool places.

    I do know two importers who only import sulphur (and other additive) free wines. But most are flexible. Les Caves de Pyrène, who have done the most for natural wines, do not sell them exclusively.

    Perhaps the ideologues are those who merely shout the loudest, or at all. As in all things. Natural wine is obviously a growing trend, and as with anything which takes hold, you have to get the centre on board. The people I see drinking natural wines in London and the Southeast are usually office workers rather than the stereotypes often cited. It’s a beer substitute in many ways.

  2. Alan March says:

    It’s a valid point Steve and David. I do know some people who only drink natural wines, I know others who say they would never drink them. It seems to me that both are putting ‘principles’ / ‘ideology’ before common sense. I drink both, probably much more natural wine than most but there are certain ‘ideological’ producers whose wines I find undrinkable and would never buy, similarly there are some conventional producers whose wines I find undrinkable because they are dilute / over oaked / dull / international. I understand peoples’ ideology but why deprive yourself of good wine or interesting wine?

  3. Thank you David and Alan for the comments.

    I don’t think natural wine ideologues/drinkers usually preach or shout loudly. When I have been with them they normally tacitly assume that I share their views. Just occasionally do you hear comments about natural wines not causing headaches because they have no sulphites, and grapes being grown with no chemicals – comments I usually try to ignore believe it or not. I think usually they just follow the ideology without thinking about it too much at all. They are happy in the knowledge that natural wines are better that chemical-filled supermarket crap, and don’t even pause to consider that there may be conventional wines better than both.

    Yes, I think I agree with all that. I could (perhaps should) have used people who refuse to drink natural wines as another example of an ideology.

  4. Alan March says:

    I have certainly come across people who preach about natural wines, probably do somewhat myself.
    Interestingly a friend was told by her doctor in France that she should only drink sulphur free wine as the so2 was causing a rash. Somewhat surprising that the medical profession should think so.

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