amarchinthevines

Learning about wine, vines and vignerons whilst living in the Languedoc


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Is it natural?

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Autumn is the time of  the Foire Aux Vins in France, supermarkets and other large stores discounting their wines. One advert stood out and that was Carrefour’s, offering 10 wines which they called «Nature». Interesting to see that they feel there is a demand for such wines (something UK supermarkets clearly don’t see) and that natural wines have a market. However, on closer examination it turned out that the ten wines on offer were «Nature» only in the sense that they were «sans sulfites ajoutés» (no added SO2). Only three of the ten were produced organically, so are they truly natural wines?

There are, of course, some pedantics (including one well known British wine writer on Twitter on Nov 7th) who would argue that no wine is natural, that it does not make itself. The word natural has indeed become something of a millstone around the bottle neck. So, what do we understand by the term?

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One definition which carries some weight is that of Doug Wregg, a director of the UK’s biggest natural wine importer Les Caves De Pyrene:
1. Vineyards farmed organically or biodynamically (with or without certification)
2. Hand-harvested fruit
3. Fermentation with indigenous yeasts
4. No enzymes
5. No additives (like acid, tannin, colouring) other than SO2, used in moderation if at all
6. Light or no filtration
7. Preferably no fining
8. Preferably no new oak

The RAW Wine Fair of Isabelle Legeron adds two other qualifications, a limit of 70mg/l of added sulphites and “no heavy manipulation” such as micro oxygenation or flash pasteurisation.                                                                                                                  (see more here)

I think those definitions hit the main points though perhaps are a little too broad themselves, points 6-8 are especially vague and Legeron’s 70mg/l seems very high. They would, however, exclude the Carrefour wines which have seen flash pasteurisation.

At Mas Coutelou Jeff adds nothing to the wines, does not filter or fine and the only oak used is from old barrels. There are NO added sulphites. Is he an extremist? Are his wines unclean or unstable? The answer to both is no.  They are sent in bottle around the world, to Japan, Australia and all parts of Europe. And then there is the USA.

The Americans have much tighter rules and restrictions for their certification. Wines which are classed as organic have to be recognised as such by regulating bodies such as Ecocert. In addition, in the USA, organic wines must be sulphite free. Wines which have sulphites added can be described as grown with organic grapes but not organic. (see more here)

Jeff’s wines can be classified as organic in the USA, the back labels from two cuvées are shown here. In effect they are being identified as natural wines by the USA. This is not a costly process, Jeff’s importer, Camille Riviėre, pays a fee of around $250 to be able to use the title “organic wine”.

Other people have started to campaign for certification of natural wines to help consumers make informed choices of just how “natural” are the wines they drink. Writers such as Antonin Iommi-Amunategui have set out the arguments for such certification however many are still reluctant to head down that route. Some, for example, fear that rules and regulations fly in the face of the outsider role and rebellious reputation of natural producers.

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Antonin with his manifesto for natural wine including regulation

In my opinion perhaps the time has come for certification. Consumers should be able to buy with confidence. Look at this article from the newspaper “Liberation” describing some of the many processes and additives which can legitimately be put into wines.

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Should the consumer not be more protected? I do understand the desire of winemakers to be left free to make wine in the manner they choose but standards need to be established.

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The US Department of Agriculture shows the way, natural wine must be organic and then interfered with as little as possible. The SO2 regulation there deters some producers from organics as they feel it is not worth their while to be organic at all if they intend to add sulphites thus preventing their wines from being classed as organic. Some, like Jeff, might insist upon that restriction, others would be more liberal. In addition, Wregg’s list forms the basis for rules, if tightened up a little.

Natural wine is often completely dismissed by some on the experience of one or two bottles not being correct, a level of criticism not applied to more conventional wines. Not all natural wines are good, I personally like some more than others. In my view, it does need to be clear about what it is and that certain standards are being met, otherwise it risks being an easy target for many, however unfairly. And wines which are not natural (as most would understand the term) will continue to be sold as the same as those of Jeff, Barral, Texier, Foillard and many others.

Further reading

Le Figaro

Vincent Pousson

 

 


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Natural terroir

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En français

The choice of my recent wine of the week, Olivier Leflaive’s Burgundy Oncle Vincent 2012, made me think about how wines change. When I used to regularly visit Leflaive and Burgundy in the 1990s the style of wine was very oak influenced, a response to the New World oaked wines and to the influence of Parker / Rolland in Bordeaux. The wines smelled of vanilla and tasted of wood. Subtlety was often lost, especially on the lower ranked wines. Happily those days are in the past (though I still come across some very heavily oaked wines even in the Languedoc) and this bottle was zesty and fresh with a little oak adding creaminess.

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Similarly if I choose to drink a Riesling from Alsace I can find two wines from grapes grown side by side in the same vineyard which will taste very different. One producer might prefer a lean, dry style of wine whilst his/her neighbour makes wine in a rounder style with more residual sugar. The same can be said of wines from any region of course. So where does that leave the notion of terroir?

Terroir is that elusive term which describes soil, micro-climate, slope etc. Effectively it means the location, the ‘in situ’ of the wine. However, some will also add the influence of the local culture upon the winemaking in the concept of terroir, Alsace with its traditional residual sweetness for example. However, different winemakers choose different methods and styles according to not just local tradition but outside influences, wines tasted, travels etc.

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Amongst those influences has been the growth of the natural wine movement. I have read and heard numerous accounts by natural winemakers of how they came to choose this philosophy for their métier. Most include their discovery of a natural wine which made them tear up the rulebook and decide that this was the style of wine which they wanted to make because of their freshness, drinkability and flavours. A typical account can be found here.

Yet those who still find fault with natural wines are wont to declare that natural wines mask the flavour of grape and place because they often taste of natural wine and nothing else. Take this remark by Rosemary George*, English wine journalist and Languedoc resident, “if there is one thing that I reproach natural wines, it is that they all, irrespective of provenance, have a tendency to a similarity of style.  The best have that delicious mouth-watering freshness, but that somehow seems to mask their origins.”

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You will not be surprised to read that I disagree. I do accept that some, less well made natural wines do have aromas and flavours which resemble each other regardless of origin. However, I think in the vast majority of cases that natural winemaking has progressed and reflect their terroir and grape(s) much better than most conventional wines. How can it be otherwise? If a winemaker adds enzymes, artificial yeasts and SO2 how can than not be adding an extraneous element to the flavour of the wine which is nothing to do with the place? If you add oak chips or staves does that make the wine more Burgundy, Bordeaux or Barossa? Or does it simple meet the established concept of what a wine from those areas ought to taste like?

Winemakers will often aim for a flavour, they want their wine to be the same year after year. That is how the big companies retail Yellow Tail, Blossom Hill etc, the customer expects a certain flavour if wine and that is what they will be given. Like Coca Cola. This does not reflect terroir or vintage at all and, to be fair, the big companies would not claim otherwise. However, I do get the impression that many smaller winemakers follow a similar recipe.

A recent visit to a wine fair in Vouvray was a very disheartening experience. I tasted wine after wine which lacked character but did taste very much like the next sec or demi-sec from the next producer. The conformity was alarming. There was a Vouvray style common to most producers but it was bland and dull. There were one or two exceptions where a winemaker had taken deliberate steps to change their winemaking and vineyards, D’Orfeuilles for example.

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Healthy wines come from healthy soils including microbial life as here at Mas Coutelou’s Rome vineyard

So give me a wine of character. Give me a wine with nothing added where the vineyards’ health is reflected in the grape juice which makes the wine. Give me that grape juice with nothing extraneous added,  natural yeasts for example. Let that wine be carefully nurtured and not messed around with, no added flavourings. If it is aged in barrel then I would expect it to reflect that influence but not be dominated by it. I want to drink wines which reflect the vitality of healthy grapes in healthy vineyards. The wines will alter from year to year because nature alters from year to year. That is terroir and why natural wine reflects terroir in as pure a state as possible.

*(To be fair to Rosemary she does like some natural wines and it was her writing that first introduced me to Jeff Coutelou so I have much to thank her for.)