Posted: Dec 09, 2017
And how it unseated wine-drinking habits across the globe; especially in France.
There’s a revolution rattling the Parisian wine world.
You catch glimpses of it in the windows of brasseries across Paris, where promises of vins naturels appear scrawled next to the plat du jour. It incites quiet rebellion in the average wine bar du coin. Entire menus devoted to it litter the city.
Natural wine is the enfant terrible of a hidebound industry—it flouts pedigree and bucks the rules. It wears artsy labels with flashy colors and thumbs its nose at tedious points-based rankings.
So what makes a wine “natural?” Is it the sediment swirling at the bottom of an unfiltered bottle? Or perhaps it’s the deep, fermenty funk of the nose, the fresh acidity, or the mellow alcohol levels. Asking a sommelier or a vintner turns up more questions than answers. For starters, natural wine is typically organic, made with grapes farmed without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. It’s also often biodynamic, the product of ecological, sustainable farming and composting practices. But the rest gets characterized by what natural wine isn’t: no chemicals, filtration, additives, or sulfites. A natural wine confronts you with the realities of the earth—dirt, time, and constant change.
“[It’s] less square,” says Cle?ment Jeannin, sommelier at Parisian hotspot Vivant. “More atypical and surprising, with unusual notes as compared to wines from the same place in so-called ‘conventional’ culture.” Vivant is French for “alive,” so it follows that every wine in its packed cellar—orange or sparkling, from the Languedoc or Chablis—is natural. “For me, [natural wines] have more depth, and what some call faults,” says Jeannin, “but of course when well controlled, you can call it complexity.” Critics suggest that natural methods cover up defects, hindering the expression of the grape and terroir. But for Jeannin, defects are in the eye of the beholder.
To know natural wine is to dispense with handy generalizations that have defined generations of the industry. How to label the flexibility and experimentation of natural winemakers? How to sum up the work of farmers and producers who privilege listening and learning over manipulation? When Mathieu Lapierre, the second-generation proprietor of Domaine Lapierre, an important natural wine house in Beaujolais known for its flagship Morgon cru, discusses his craft, he prefers to go deeper on philosophy, focus, and aim. “The word natural is not a word that I like,” says Lapierre, “because it’s not sufficient to explain the work we do.”
Domaine Lapierre entered the field in the early 1980s, when Jules Chauvet, a Beaujolais scientist, challenged locals (Lapierre’s father Marcel among them) to create wines without sulfites. While experimenting with carbonic maceration—fermenting whole grapes with carbon dioxide before crushing (typically, grapes are crushed before fermentation)—Chauvet discovered that he could produce standout wines using native yeasts and without adding sulfur dioxide. “Part of the philosophy of natural wine is about working like before,” says Mathieu Lapierre. “There is no recipe: every vintage is different, and you have to adapt to it.”
For Vivant’s Jeannin, natural wine is about “the energy, motivation, and different possibilities that winemakers and the world around them have at the moment.” He points to Xavier Caillard in the Loire Valley, Michae?l Georget in the Roussillon and Aure?lien Lefort in Auvergne as some of his favorites; Caillard plows his plots by horse and took eight years to release his first vintage. Georget restored a vineyard abandoned for 20 years, where he now grazes sheep, keeps bees, and plants chamomile as a natural fertilizer. Lefort, once an engraver and lithographer, draws his own wine labels. The three share an obsessive curiosity about natural winemaking and are deeply committed to nurturing their land.
Most natural wines carry the blanket label vin de table, or table wine, no matter where the grapes are grown, just as most lack vineyard-specific designations and appellations (Domaine Lapierre is a notable exception). French natural winemakers have adopted vin de France as a way of “sticking it to the man,” a point of pride for resisting the powers that be. But without labels as guidance, selecting a good natural wine can be a shot in the dark for consumers. “Natural” does not promise high-quality or delicious. “It really depends on the seriousness of the winemaker and the wine,” says Lapierre.
Same goes for the seriousness of the cellar. Natural wine must be stored at low temperatures, since lacking preservatives, it’s more sensitive to fluctuations in light and heat. While responsible purveyors take extra precautions to keep these wines safe and fresh, the constraints of temperature make shipping a tricky business. Lapierre exports to Europe, the U.S., and Canada, but only when companies have a cooling system to ensure quality control.
Some distributors, especially beyond New York and California, simply don’t have the necessary infrastructure for natural wines. “In Japan, the wine travels with the fish!” laughs Lapierre. “Not with the shoes, like in the U.S.A.” In Japan, where most restaurants don’t have cellars, wine is delivered daily by scooter, a detail that’s made it an unlikely mecca for the stuff.
In recent years, natural wine fever jumped from continent to continent. While the movement began in France in the 1980s, restaurants, shops, and bars across the U.S. have started paying attention, stocking their cellars with earthier, cloudier, and unexpected bottles (think San Francisco’s The Progress, New York’s Wildair, and Chicago’s Bad Hunter).
That’s because natural wines are fun. Artistry aside, when it comes to drinking, they are unfussy, affordable, easy to drink, and unapologetically social. “It’s more like beer drinking,” says Lapierre of Domaine Lapierre’s beloved Morgon, “wine that’s good to drink with friends.”
And maybe it’s just that we collectively crave something less-polished at this moment, something true. Wine made with a little less business and a little more heart. Food—and wine—that feels revolutionary.
By Olivia Ware Terenzio
December 8, 2017
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