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The Natural Wine Movement
Food article / commentary

Reviewed By

Sue Dyson and Roger McShane
Country: France

The natural wine movement is gaining momentum throughout both the old world of wine and the new world of wine. Although often misunderstood, it is a movement back to traditional vineyard practices and traditional wine making techniques.
This article explores what natural wines are, what the vineyard practices should be and how the wine is made.
The article was first written by Sue Dyson and Roger McShane in mid-2009 and has been edited since to remove some typos and to add a couple of explanatory notes relating to places that are no longer operating and other minor issues.
 
     
 

We first became aware of the natural wine movement during visits to France and Italy over the past five years. It was in wine bars in Paris such as Le Chapeau Melon (note: now closed), La Cremerie, Les Papilles and Le Verre Vole where natural wines are the norm rather than the exception that our eyes were opened.

Le Verre Vole Wine Bar in Paris

Sign outside Le Verre Vole in Paris

It's a familiar tale - many other natural wine aficionados we've met had their Saul to Damascus moments in exactly the same places.

Chapeau Melon Paris

The iconic Chapeau Melon in Paris where the food is great and the wines natural

We then found even more hard core adherents such as the passionate Pierre Jancou at Racines, also in Paris (he has recently sold the restaurant but the new owners will continue to serve natural wines) who only served very edgy natural wines such as Claude Courtois and Eric Pfifferling.

Racines Wine List Paris

The wine list at Racines, Paris

If you want to see what Jancou has to say about natural wines have a look at his Web site here:

More Than Organic

As we learnt more, we found the movement was wider than just Paris. We loved Terroirs in London and Terroir Natural Wine Bar in San Francisco.

Terroirs wine bar in London

Terroirs wine bar in London

Unfortunately, on a trip to New York late in 2008, despite staying round the corner, we didn't find recently opened Ten Bells, which has quickly become New York's natural wine bolt hole. Even in country France we've found obsessive bars, especially Le Cercle Rouge in Angers in the Loire Valley, one of the epicentres of the natural wine movement, where only natural wines are served.

Even tiny towns such as Valaire on the plains above Tours sustain restaurants that serve only natural wines. L'Herbe Rouge serves the wines of locals the Puzelat brothers and Herve Villemade along with an impressive selection from throughout the Loire and beyond.

l'Herbe Rouge in Valaire

The wine list at L'Herbe Rouge

Even more exciting for us, because it's 20 minutes from our house in France, is Le Bonheur Suit Son Cours (note: this has now had a change of ownership 12/9/2016) in the quaint old Roman town of Vaison la Romaine. There are no doubt many more equally as committed and special places - and it's great fun to continue the search.

Le Bonheur Suit Son Cours in Vaison-la-Romaine

Le Bonheur Suit Son Cours in Vaison La Romaine

This got us thinking about the many parallels between fad and fashion in the food industry and the wine industry. Currently we are seeing a bewildering array of technologies invading the kitchen to transform, disguise and manipulate food in ways that render it unrecognisable in some instances. The molecular gastronomy movement has been on the rise for the past decade and still has some 'miles to go'.

A similar trend has also been occurring for the past few decades in wine making. Stainless steel started to replace wooden barrels, chemicals became the norm for controlling weeds and disease, additives became the norm rather than the exception, technology such as reverse osmosis machines and rotofermenters became the tools of winemakers and commercial yeasts started to stamp their indelible flavours on wines.

The natural reaction to the molecular gastronomy movement has been the revival of a deep interest in traditional cooking methods such as braising and a fascination with elemental aspects of food preparation such as butchery and foraging.

The parallel reaction to the industrialisation of wine has been a movement towards 'natural' winemaking as espoused in France by Jules Chauvet and his many disciples. Although many writers are eulogising this movement as being new and radical, it is little more than a return to methods of viticulture and wine making that have been practised for centuries.

So what is a natural wine? There are two main stages in the making of a wine and both present opportunities for a wine not to be natural. The first stage is the growing of the grapes. To be 'natural', in this stage the viticulture should be organic or even biodynamic. No insecticides, no artificial fertilizers and no herbicides should ever be used on the vines. Tractors should be used with care to avoid compacting the soil and hence reducing the diversity of organisms present in the soil. Some adherents only use horses for that very reason.

Mechanical harvesters should not wreak their damage to the vines, instead grapes should be picked by hand so that the bunches are preserved and the natural yeasts on the fruit are also preserved.

In the winemaking, fermentation should only ever be carried out with the natural yeasts that are present on the fruit and in the air. Commercial yeasts are not used because these mask the flavours of the grapes and impart their own foreign flavours. No other enzymes or chemicals or sugars are added during the wine making process.

Indigenous yeasts may well be one of the keys that explain why it's easy to get hooked on 'natural' wines. In a recent excellent discussion started by renowned Rhone winemake Eric Texier, he documents Chauvet's belief in an aromatic fermentation, occurring at the same time as the alcoholic fermentation, and the importance of indigenous yeast in contributing to this aromatic fermentation. Doesn't this sound familiar? It's the raw milk cheese debate transformed to wine. Raw milk cheese is largely about aroma and liveliness. Bacteria and other organisms that are naturally in the milk contribute to this life and are killed by the pasteurisation process. The story of honey is the same.

You can read the significant 'conversation' thread started by Texier at Texier Natural Wine Thread.

Chauvet also espoused using some form of carbonic maceration, particularly for gamay grapes in Beaujolais, where whole bunches are fermented in a carbon dioxide rich environment. This seems to preserve the polyphenols better than other fermentation methods, although there is some conjecture in the literature about whether this approach sufficiently respects terroir. Again, this all comes back to looking after those precious natural yeasts.

For similar reasons, filtration is also a no-no. As Tasmanian (formerly French) honey maker Yves Ginat explains it with his product, filtration would remove many of the organisms that give it complexity. With wine, the clarifying effects of filtration strip away complexity as well, even if they may make the wine easier to sell to a mass market.

And finally to the point of most discussion and disagreement about natural wines - the use of sulphur. Many winemakers are taught to dose the harvested grapes in sulphur to kill off those pesky natural yeasts that hitch a ride on the grapes into the winery and introduce risk. There is general agreement in the natural wine movement that this is a really bad idea because these natural yeasts appear to be the critical (albeit risky and less easily controllable) vehicle for transforming the grapes into a wine with life and preserving the flavours of the terroir from which they came.

But natural wine enthusiasts are not united in their approach to adding sulphur to the bottle. It is beyond argument that sulphur dioxide is a natural by-product of the winemaking process and there is always some sulphur in some form present in wine.

As far as we can tell, Chauvet never espoused not using sulphur (note the double negative!) to preserve wine once it is in the bottle. However most natural wine proponents prefer to keep the level of sulphur very low to ensure that the freshness and vibrancy of the fruit flavours shine through. Some add none at all.

So the easiest way to describe a natural wine is one where nature has been left to take its course.

It is, of course, possible to have grapes that have been grown according to strict biodynamic principles but then the wines can be made using commercial yeasts and hence do not qualify to be called 'natural'.

While the European natural wine movement is decades old, and many of the winemaking techniques it encourages are very traditional, as a phenomenon influencing a broad wine drinking public rather than just a small number of aficionados, it's surprisingly new. Even newer than we thought. We were surprised to read Benedict Beauge and Edward Behr write in the Fall 2009 issue of the wonderful magazine The Art of Eating, in an article called 'New Ways to Be a Restaurant in Paris' that at the type of restaurants they were writing about (the likes of Le Chateaubriand, Afaria, La Gazetta, Jadis, Les Papilles and Racines) the sommelier will:

propose some interesting 'new' wine, and if you want the ritual glass of Champagne, then it will be a 'grower' Champagne (a Champagne de vigneron). Throughout the meal the emphasis is generally on little-known 'natural' wines. 'They are much more alive, easy to drink,' says Aizpitarte [proprietor of Le Chateaubriand], and so many others'.

Le Chateaubriand in Paris

The wine list at Le Chateaubriand in Paris

We thought we were late in discovering the joys of natural wine but it seems the movement is still in its infancy. Without wishing to take away a reason for you to visit Paris, we're delighted to be able to play our small part to make it easier for Australians to try these wines and get in on the act. We are also lucky that Andrew Guard is also bringing many iconic natural wines into Australia as well. His website is:

Andrew Guard Wines

To learn more about natural wine in Australia, it's also wise to also pay close attention to Max Allen's writings (e.g. in the Australian and Gourmet Traveller and Gourmet Traveller Wine magazine). He's probably done more than any wine writer in Australia to promote these wines.

More reading

Internationally, some of the best writing about natural wine is on Alice Feiring's blog. She is as alive and passionate as a natural wine and a great writer:

Alice Feiring's Blog

And she has written an entertaining book about the natural wine movement which you can order by clicking on the link below."


There is also a good introduction to the topic in the Real Wine book below.

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