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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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'.
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.
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
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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