A few weekends ago we saw the return of RAW Wine Fair to London. Hundreds of winemakers table-to-table, sampling their wines under a fog of alcohol and impassioned conversation. This year's slogan was, “grown naturally, made naturally”. And if you crowded round those tasting tables and met with those producers you could reasonably expect to learn as much about the geographical and agricultural circumstances of their production as the flavour characteristics of the wine in your (£5 deposit) glass.
It is a common natural wine trope. Keep your interventions minimal and you’ll arrive at something that speaks more vividly of the unique qualities of its place rather than its process: grape varietal, vines, climate, aspect, soil composition etc. And in a bid to legitimise the integrity of that wine with the integrity of their farming, some may even display an organic or biodynamic logo: "grown naturally, made naturally".
The word that the trade has come up with to package these ideas is terroir - the essence of place. It is often so lazily invoked in food so as to have been emptied of meaning. But are its rules still applicable? With a very quick google search of ‘viticulture’ over coffee this morning, several hits came back with the definition, ‘a wine grower’. Which is an interesting misnomer. And, as you may have guessed, this got me thinking about cheese: can cheese be understood in the same way? What lessons can cheese learn from wine?
Well, both wine and cheese are essentially made by the separation of a raw ingredient. And that single ingredient is the product of an agricultural system where certain human choices have been made. Milk or grape are then collected/harvested, fermented, processed and aged by skilled people. And, starting at the farming level, there are an infinite number of variables that could affect that raw ingredient's character, and flavour potential, before the juice is even extracted or the curd separated.
In this crude way the production of wine and cheese share many of the same sets of variables, at similar points in the process. They are both products of agriculture and of microbiological transformation - they have the potential to express place in the most fundamental way. Yet the wine industry has arrived at a far more sophisticated definition of terroir - where farmer and winemaker are working towards a common goal. And crucially, certain more progressive areas of the market have evolved in a way that is sensitive to and engaged with that dialogue.
I would argue that this conversation has only recently begun to gather a head of steam in the context of milk and cheese. We are however at a very exciting moment.
For the month of April my blog posts will take the form of an attempt to tie up some of these ideas through the example of Holden Farm Dairy - home to an organic dairy herd of fifty milking Ayrshires in the Welsh Cambrian mountains.
Our next post will look at the farm. Thereafter we will look at their cheese, Hafod, and the wider market.