Food

'Natural' Wines Are on the Rise in France

"Natural wines," which are a step up from simply organic are being embraced by many for a combination of environmental and hedonistic concerns.

DEAUVILLE, France—When Marcel Lapierre took over the family vineyard in Burgundy decades ago, the pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and other chemicals used in farming had made the wine “simply horrid.”

“I couldn’t drink the wine on the table,” said Lapierre, an easy-going man who wears worn, country-style corduroy and a hat. “So I decided to rethink the whole process to produce the kind of wine my father and grandfather made.”

Nowadays the 59-year-old Beaujolais winemaker is viewed as a pioneer of a new trend creating a buzz on France’s food and wine scene—the “natural” wine movement, or as the French say, “vin nature.”

At a two-day food festival this week in the posh Normandy seaside resort of Deauville, where dozens of cutting-edge world chefs gathered, “natural” winemakers toasted the cooks with reds and whites and bubblies from vineyards across France.

Some 200 makers of these tipples, a step up from the simply organic, have banded together to promote their cause, which embraces environmental issues as well as purely hedonistic concerns.

“Natural wines are minimalist wines produced with as little intervention as possible,” said London-based wine consultant Isabelle Legeron. “They are the closest thing to 100 percent grape.”

It is no secret that many of the world’s wines are made from grapes grown on soils stuffed with chemicals—and that the bottle on the shelf can contain yeasts, sugars, and even flavors or wood chips added to produce a predictable finish to please the average consumer’s palate.

“People tend to think wine is a natural product,” added Legeron. “They need to be made aware wine is not always pure.”

Lapierre, who produces a respectable 60,000 bottles yearly of Morgon in a 100 percent organic vineyard, says green-friendly farming is far easier than in the past thanks to scientific advances, such as using bacteria to combat grape worm.

But he readily admits that a lot of work—and an occasional dose of sulfur dioxide, an antioxidant that stabilizes the wine—is needed to turn grapes into wine, which otherwise would become vinegar.

“We don’t use sulfates in the wine-making process, but sometimes use them at the bottling stage for wines that are going to travel a long way or be subjected to heat.”

A third of his production is exported to places as far off as Brazil, Singapore, and Taiwan. Bottles shipped to California contain zero sulfates, while others sent to Florida contain small quantities of the product, known as E222 and E224 in listings of food additives.

“We’re all careful about what we eat, and the same is true of wine,” said 32-year-old Lise Jousset. A wine waiter turned winemaker, she works in the Loire valley of central France where more and more young winemakers are going for “natural.”

“We didn’t go into this because it’s fashionable,” said Jousset, who bought a vineyard with her husband six years ago and now produces 25,000 bottles. “It’s a philosophy of life. There’s such a thing as respect for the soil, for the earth, and there’s also such a thing as respect for health. People after all are going to be drinking your wine.”

Wine critics such as Legeron laud the new vintages as “easy to drink, immediate, complex, more pure and more digestible,” but the drawbacks remain their higher price, shorter shelf-life, and lack of certification.

Because of the added hours of people power put into producing a natural wine, the yield per hectare on Jousset’s vineyard at Montlouis, where she even makes “natural” bubbly, is only half the maximum allowed yield per hectare.

“But wine isn’t just a question of soil, grape variety, or climate,” she says. “It’s also the winemaker. It has our stamp.”

Like these lesser-known wines, many of France’s top vintages are equally natural, or even organic, but choose not to use the organic certification because of lingering wine snobbery.

“Natural winemakers need to get together under a certification,” said Legeron.

As for the cooks, star California chef David Kinch, who runs the Manresa restaurant outside San Francisco, said, “Organic and natural wines need to be good. It’s nice as a political statement, but they must also taste 100 percent good.”

A new French guide to “natural” wines, “Carnet de Vigne Omnivore,” has just been released.

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