Wines not bottled at source have a bit of a bad reputation for many people, and it seems the main reason is the lack of guarantee of origin and quality, something that is supposedly conferred by the producer’s bottle and label.
A moment’s thought however reveals that any guarantee is far from absolute. Bottles and labels can be faked, and they offer no protection from rogue producers. Also, wine can now be transported efficiently and safely in bulk, with traceability afforded by documentation and information technology.
The guarantee is really only required when there are significant distances between production and consumption – in wine-producing regions empty containers are often taken to a nearby producer for refill. The locals are of course in a great position to know the seller’s reputation, and may even make wine themselves.
As far as small producers are concerned, selling to locals is one thing, but bottling their wine is often the key to getting better prices from large cities, and possibly other countries. And once in a bottle with a label, wine can take a very different position in society. It is no longer a lightly processed agricultural product, only of local significance, but an international lifestyle product. The larger and cheaper brands are designed for the mass market, while more expensive wines available in smaller quantities become desirable luxury goods. At the luxury end of the market, connoisseurship is enabled by bottles and labels. They allow critics to write about a particular wine and vintage, and punters that are possibly in another part of the world can then buy what purports to be the same wine. Even if it is common knowledge that wine can vary considerably between bottles of the same lot, particularly for older vintages, somehow that variation is conveniently forgotten by connoisseurs when obsessing over wine. Thus, labels change how the product is regarded, and they can so easily mislead.
The culture surrounding natural wines largely ignores conventional wine connoisseurship, and I think in many ways would be more at home with the idea of bulk wine – something meant to be quaffed rather than sipped. Is not bottling one of the most unnatural things you can do to a wine? Even if you leave out the preliminary steps of fining, filtering and dosing with sulphites, squeezing wine into a closed space with little oxygen cramps its style. However, bottling is important to reach the more lucrative market city markets and their natural wine bars. Best not use a traditional wine label though – rather get a mate to design something funky and rebellious, so those connoisseur types know to stay away.
There are comparisons to be drawn here between en rama Sherries and natural wines. Strictly speaking an en rama Sherry is taken directly from a solera cask, and valued for its fresh and lively character. Which is all very well if you have access to casks in a Sherry bodega, but not so handy if you live in another country. So Sherry houses now offer the en rama experience oxymoronically from a bottle, where its contents have only minimal processing – perhaps a little fining, only coarse filtration, and minimal sulphite usage. And in doing so, unlike many natural wine producers, it seems they have a product with connoisseur-appeal.
If only for environmental reasons, we need to explore alternatives to bottling wine at source, even if there are huge image problems to overcome for most customers. The romance of drinking unbottled wine in situ might, just might, be a starting point to convince some people. It would work for me, but then I am a far-from-typical wine drinker.