Marcel Lapierre passed away last night, apparently due to cancer. I was stunned and saddened by this news. Part of my shock comes from the
fact that I just saw him in July, and other than looking a little tired, I had no idea something like this was happening to him. He was partying and enjoying the company of few hundred friends and looked as content as could be with no indication of the struggle he must have been going through.
Marcel was a man who didn't just make brilliant wines. He was a gentle, caring, and fun loving soul who charmed everyone I saw him come into
I first met him when I was introduced to him at a tasting in New York. At the
time my French was so rusty that my friend Phil had to do the talking for me. He told Marcel that I was a young student of wine who wanted to learn
about wine, and asked if I could work for him in the coming harvest. Marcel didn't bat an eye and immediately said yes, but went a step further and said I
must stay after and learn about vinification too. I had just met the man, we didn't even speak the same language, and he took me in just like that.
That pretty much sums up every interaction I had with Marcel. You could ask him to do anything you could think of and he would try to help you, even sneaking you in to the really cool VIP only after party at a food festival.
Marcel always seemed to have a mischievous glint in his eye, and his whole family had that quality too. You got the feeling that a whole lot of fun was always just around the corner. There was a real zest for life in that man, and it communicated itself throughout his community. Whether he was throwing a giant party in the vines for hundreds of his friends, or just sitting down for a beer, that zeal was infectious and everyone around him had a great time.
I'll miss him a lot and can only hope that I can have an inch of that spirit he had in droves.
Picture this: Two giant tents in the middle of the vines, with a lovely lake just nearby. Then add 4 massive pigs on a rotisserie. Oh, and how about huge tanks of 2009 Morgon, so much that even a thousand natural wine guzzlers couldn't polish it all off? Ok, then add on top two great rock bands, a set-break with a Villié-Morgon-populated, 40 person drum band, and a crowd of dancing onlookers. How much would you pay for this natural wine festival? 50 bucks? More? How's free sound? That's right, Marcel Lapierre is so generous he throws this party every year around Bastille day for free!
In an earlier post, I tried to describe the spirit and joie de vivre involved in working the harvest with the Lapierres. This is something that doesn't really communicate itself when you open a bottle of their flowery-scripted, wax-topped, fancy-looking wine. But next time you pop open a bottle, I hope maybe this article will put a different spin on it for you. Because this wine really is meant to celebrate with friends, and heck, even total strangers.
First, let me start by introducing the lovely and talented Kristin Sazama, pictured above. Here's a little video of Kristina and I made to give you the flavor of what was going on at this bash:
So the big tank was being used to fill the little kegs, which were placed at each table for easy access. Plenty of glasses were on hand, and whenever you wanted you could just head over and fill up in a couple seconds. The wine had a little bit of spritz to it, because its yet to be bottled, and as I've explained before, natural winemakers often like to keep a blanket of CO2 in the tank to help protect the wine from oxygen. Some people, including me, like the taste and feel of that spritz. Others, like Phil Sareil of Kermit Lynch fame, prefer to use another special technique to get the spritz out:
Ever wonder what it looks like when 4 cooked pigs get butchered?
These chefs made short work of these beasts. I've been lucky enough to have a few whole roasted pigs in my time, but this was the only one I had in France, and I have to say that the style really showcased the flavor of the pig itself, in a simple, one might say natural, way. It was seasoned perfectly with plenty of salt, but there weren't a lot of herbs or spices to get in the way of that beautiful piggy flavor. They had been smoked all day over coals inside a box-like contraption that had a rotisserie spit inside it, but there was just the subtlest hint of smoky flavor going on here, nothing compared to the firepower of American BBQ. The meat was just wonderfully tender and juicy, a perfect compliment to the copious quantities of 09 Morgon flowing all around us.
How about some music?
Looks like a rock concert right? Between set breaks, the local drum band (what, Villié Morgon, a teensy weensy country town has a whole drum band 40 people large?) played a killer set that had everyone up and dancing.
In fact if you look closely, you might spot the two Lapierre children, Mathieu and Camille, banging away. Here's a little taste (for those who are wondering, yes the smiling blond woman to the left is Marie Lapierre, Marcel's husband):
Well, maybe it all sounds a bit cacophonous on the video, but I assure you, live, it was amazing and remarkably well coordinated, even though it seemed to be 100 percent improvisational.
The party was also a who's who of natural winemakers--Philippe Bornard, Thierry Puzelat, Pierre Overnoy, Jean Foillard, Yves Métras-- you name it, they were there. And everyone was really really friendly. This isn't normal for France. But in the natural wine scene, it is pretty normal. The party started around 3 in the afternoon, and stretched on and on, throughout and after dinner, until the wee hours of the morning.
Why does Marcel do this, you might ask? I can't even begin to fathom what it might cost to put on a party like this. Is it some kind of marketing strategy? Does he use it to wine and dine important clients? Definitely not. Most of the people there were just locals stopping by to party. I think he does it because he's just a really nice guy, who likes to have fun with his friends. This is pretty typical of most of the natural winemakers I've met. You really feel welcome there, which is really saying something when you're in France.
Here's a post of mine that's also being run as day 9 in Cory Cartwright's 32 days of natural wine series. You can read it here or there, but make sure you read every other day on saignée, there's some really thought-provoking stuff going on there.
a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true
Lately, natural wine lovers have been accused of being overly dogmatic. If you say your wine is natural, you're implying that other wines are less natural, and therefore inferior. Traditional wine fans bristle at this comparison, and assert that their wines are the best in the world, and they have a lot of books and articles on their side to back that up. But isn't that just dogma of another color? In my opinion, if we natural wine fans are being dogmatic, it's only in response to an overbearing dogma that's been the order of things for quite some time. The old school dogma is one that needs a bit of toppling, and the insane prices of the "top" wines of this world are proof enough of that for me.
My training in wine began at the Wine Spirit Educational Trust (WSET), a British-based organization that is almost universally accepted as the most professional and widely available wine training out there today. I'm going to be a bit critical of the WSET here, but let me first say I think it is a fantastic place to start from. You can't beat the palate training you get there, and it gives you a very solid command of the basics of how wine works all over the world. The problem I have with it is that it's not a truly objective view of what wines are good.
You see, there's an established order of the top wines of the world. This includes the top growths of Bordeaux, the best parcels of Burgundy, Barolos of Piedmont and such other similar fine-wine producing areas of the world. And the WSET teaches this established order. The WSET education is full of ideas like, "Chardonnay reaches its fullest expression in Burgundy, France" (not a direct quote, I'm paraphrasing from memory here.) Now doesn't that sound like dogma to you? Anyone out there prefer the chardonnays being made in the Jura right now? Not to mention everyone out there who loves a tropical oaky chard from California much better than a steely minerally one from chablis. They also make it sound like you can't make good wine without sulfur, and that indigenous yeasts are unpredictable and dangerous. You could argue that they're just teaching about the bulk of wines, and don't have time to cover a very small minority of wines being made in different ways. But in my opinion, that skips out on some of the most interesting and complex wines being made today. The further I've gotten into learning about natural wines and meeting with the winemakers, the more I've had to discount most of what I learned about winemaking at the WSET. Seems like a pretty big omission to me.
As someone who worked in retail, the point where this old school dogma really falls apart for me comes when we start to talk about price. Of course there are some very fine chardonnays being turned out in Burgundy. But they cost 2-3 times as much as the natural stuff from other areas. Even if the prices of Burgundies somehow magically came down to equal the other wines, I would still prefer some of the crazy, funked out, natural wines I've tried. Now, of course, as with everything, some of this does come down to personal preference. I don't think Kermit Lynch, for example, would always agree with me. I like crazy funky wines. I like them a lot. I think he probably prefers wines that are a little more "normal" than I do. Others prefer their burgundies oaked to the max. And that's ok, there's room for all our palates at the table. But if it's a question of personal preference, why all the dogma?
So imagine you're someone like me who prefers the crazy wines. In fact, you think they're your favorite wines in the whole world to drink. You like them so much you decide to start making some of your own. Maybe even your father made wines like this, and your grandfather before him, and you see yourself just continuing their work the way it's always been done. Then you have all these people saying that the way you make wines isn't the best way, that theirs is instead. Don't you think it would be natural for you to get some friends together and start talking about how your way is better instead?
So what we have here are two competing dogmas. According to the definition of the word, both of them can't be right. In fact, I don't think either of them are right, for everyone. It just depends on what you like. But I think you can understand why it happens on either side. People like to categorize and rank things. They like to make top 10 lists, and they to disagree with other people's lists perhaps even more. It's just the way we work.
Truthfully, in my experience over here in France, if you ask most winemakers if they make natural wine-- even if you're talking to them at a natural wine tasting-- they usually won't say yes. They might even belong to the AVN (Association des Vins Naturels). They're not particularly dogmatic people. They tend to be people that like to do their own thing and don't follow along with existing trends just because lots of other people out there are. They resist pigeonholing and stratification. It's really mostly the writers, bloggers, critics, and fans that come up with all this anti-dogma dogma.
Natural wine as a term certainly is full of flaws. You can't pin down exactly what it is, and it's ripe for big commercial business to come in and pluck for their own nefarious marketing plans. But you could say the same thing about any other wine marketing term out there. How about Grand Cru? Does that mean it's the best wine? Even the WSET wouldn't argue that. So does natural mean good? Absolutely not. How do I know when a wine is natural? I can tell when I taste it. Or I buy it from someone who I trust to know what natural wine taste like. Simple. No need for dogma. Just drink it and see if you like it.
I've been doing some translation for the AVN (Association des Vins Naturels), and I just finished translating this article, which is an old text dating back to the 1930's or so, some advice from a winemaker to his friends. I think the article is a really fun read, for a couple of reasons. For one, it's amazing how accurate it is to the current thinking about natural wines, and really about how to store and drink all wines in general. I also love the occasional antiquated term, especially the importance of keeping horse stable odors out of your wine cellar. I mean, everybody knows you don't let your horse poop where you drink, right?
I think it' also somewhat of a window into the thinking about medicine and nutrition, before we got all caught up with modern science, Michael Pollan's "nutritionism" and all the food studies that overload us every day. Some of it may be accurate, and some of it may be pure magical thinking, but I like thinking about wine as "bottled sunshine."
I hope you enjoy the read. I'm working on translating AVN's site bit by bit, so hopefully eventually the whole thing will be available in English. Here's the full english translation now, and it'll show up on AVN sometime soon:
I discovered this superb text, written by Louis de la Barronie, which dates back to the time bewteen World War I and II. It is is a summarized version taken from a booklet provided by Chateau Laroque, at the time. I transcribed a copy kindly given to me by Jacques a few years ago. The domaine been organic since 1987 and biodynamic since 1993.
I find that it has a surprising amount of accuracy and common sense. There isn't much to add, other than that it is valuable information for all "natural" wines. I hope that these counsles of a winemaker to his friends inspires you and assures your bottles are kept in good condition to share with your friends. Happy reading.
Francois Dumas, member of AVN, and wine merchant in Japan.
Le Vin Nature
TOKYO / JAPAN
Advice from a Winemaker to his Friends
How to buy, treat , and drink wine.
Louis de la Bardonnie
Owner - Winemaker
Teleph. No. 3 - St. Anthony of Breuilh (Dordogne)
To start, what is wine?
Wine is the product of complete or incomplete fermentation of pure fresh grape juice.
The complete fermentation, ie the total transformation of the sugar content of grape juice into alcohol, makes dry red and white wines. Incomplete fermentation, which preserves some of the sugar of grapes, makes half sweet, sweet, and very sweet white wines depending on the proportion of sugar.
Everyone knows that this drink - following varietals and terroir - varies in taste, if not in appearance, but few know the elements that make "the healthiest and most hygienic of beverages" according to Pasteur.
A little bit of medicine
Wine has been attacked because it contains alcohol, but can we say that wine has the same effect as a solution containing 10% alcohol? Who can argue against this?
The denigration of wine in the past has been due to the disastrous effects of fraud and the presence of bad products on the market.
So, drink only wine guaranteed PURE and NATURAL, and insist that your provider has paid for a formal guarantee on his invoices.
"Wine is the best way for healthy people to avoid becoming sick, and for the sick, the best way to regain strength and health," says Dr. Goizet of the Faculty of Paris. Indeed, all the major functions of organic chemistry are represented in wine ,and no substance in our food offers, through this point of view, such beneficent complexity.
It is a living solution, an environment for chemical equilibrium vitalized by its yeast, its enzymes and its richness in vitamins. The acids in wine have the most beneficial effects on digestion and have a powerful bactericidal action. Glycerin combines with phosphates to form glycerophosphates, essential for the bones. The organic phosphate found in wine is alive and does not behave the same as the dead phosphates sold in products pushed as medicine. The assimilation of these organic elements into the body is complete and its effects are much more active.
Among the many salts contained in wine, bitartrate of potassium has a favorable influence on the blood system and sulphate of potassium is a useful diuretic.
The ancients, from experience, noticed that aged wine was a valuable element in any recovery.
Wine is, of all things we consume, richest in the infinitely small minerals and all the chemical and magnetic particles found in the analysis of the solar spectrum.
It contains all these elements in a living form. There is sun inside the grape juice and we can say that the wine is in fact, bottled sunshine. This is not only a metaphor, but the definition of a real thing.
For your enjoyment and your health, drink wine, but wine guaranteed as natural stating on its invoice "completely pure juice made from fresh grapes."
How to buy wine?
How to treat them?
How to drink them?
It happens very often that professional buyers are not sufficiently aware of differences between the wines of the same cru, ones made in a different year, or even between wines of the same vintages that are very different from each other. They often place their orders on the basis of memory alone.
Many have only sketchy ideas about how to treat the wine and may, by their inexperience, totally destroy wines of excellent quality.
It is unfortunate! Too often, for many, "to drink" is equivalent to "to swallow", anywhere, anyhow. Monumental mistakes can happen that deny buyers and their guests a considerable amount of pleasure.
It is to overcome these drawbacks in part that we wrote this little text, and we will be happy if reading it can help save you some hassle.
How to buy wine?
CHOICE OF WINES.
The personal taste of consumers comes here first, and the intended use of the wine. Ordinary table wine for everyday use, something a little more special for a small party or gathering, aged wine for the sick, summer wine, winter wine, fine bottles for large meals, etc ...
In red, we might like soft, light fruity wines, or we might like somewhat harsher wines, very full-bodied, needing many years in the bottle.
Lighter wines can be consumed fairly quickly, but are limited in time and fall rapidly after reaching their maximum smoothness.
Harsher wines, however, need time in the cellar, to digest the natural tannin that they have in surplus. They are a particularly popular subject for amateurs who want to build a "library" for special occasions.
It's a mistake to wait until the last minute to order wines. Transportation fatigues them and it is necessary to let rest for ten to twenty days before they will taste well.
How to care for wine?
If possible wines should be kept in a cool, constant temperature and free of odors (acids, oils, horse stables, etc. ...).
It is not enough that the original wine be healthy when it leaves the cellar of the producer. It is vital that someone who receives it knows how to watch over it and gives it all the necessary care.
Wine is a living thing that can not survive, without damage, changes in temperature or season. Therefore some precautions are necessary.
One must not alter the stone cellar. What matters above all is to avoid sunlight, because it breaks down the wine.
A constant temperature is required. In a cool cellar wines age perfectly, and very slowly. In a warm cellar, the wines age too quickly. Dry red wines may maderize, and sweet wines may begin to ferment again. As well, large temperature changes are very detrimental to good wines. A difference of 5 degrees between winter and summer is a maximum. The average optimum search is 12 degrees in winter to 17 degrees in summer.
The big pitfall to avoid is the proximity of boilers. White wines will ferment again and red wines will dry out when temperatures reach 25 ° to 30 °. No normal wine can survive these conditions.
In summary, one must place the bottles in a cool, constant temperature, which is dark and free of vibrations.
How to Drink Wine?
First, avoid agitation, always manipulating the bottle gently and carefully.
It's a mistake to believe that old fine wine can be drunk in any glass. Wine is best tasted in glasses made from pure crystal, which highlights its body and bouquet.
"The glass is made for wine, not wine for the glass."
Choose a wine glass that is large enough, very thin, clear, and bulging, whose sides are narrowing upwards, and do not pour the wine more than half way up the glass. The bouquet, hitherto prisoner, then emerges in good conditions. To appreciate it better yet, swirl the glass, and then breathe in the aromas. It is then that we see the pleasure of the palate is undeniable, because it allows one to find a thousand pleasing resemblances in these perfumes.
The temperature of the wine to be drank plays a prominent role in the taste and the pleasure that results.
White wine should be served chilled, but not too cold. If it is too cold, the flavors are hidden.
Red wines, in contrast to whites, must be drunk at room temperature. Room temperature means that they are not warmed at all.
If older wines, due to their advanced age, have a bit of deposits, we recommend putting the bottle upright for a day or two ahead so the deposits fall slowly to the bottom.
After carefully uncorking the bottle without jolting the wine, we must take great care to serve the wine carefully without shaking it.
And now, HOW TO FIND GOOD WINE?
This question is really the only interesting one to the consumer.
It is really unfortunate that wine, an essential element of good humor and a balanced temperament, rarely reaches consumers in its original pristine purity as the product of natural fermentation of fresh grape juice.
For reasons that have nothing to do with the interests of customers, it seems that it has been decreed that the wine must now be a product of chemistry, where the defects are corrected by ... other defects. The result is a "standard" drink that looks like wine and has the same color, but does not have the virtues of an authentic wine from France. This policy of mediocrity has polluted the taste of wine in poor for the consumer.
Nevertheless, we are still only people who sell the wine we harvest, and we sell it as the vine provides, producing a wine only from our terroir, with it its soft, velvety bouquet. It's a wine that is frank, pure, and natural, that is not made to burn the palette or the stomach. We can find wines that suit all kinds of taste and some are good for those who are health conscious. Those who wish to appreciate the delicious qualities of our excellent wines will find everything they need for celebrating, and will not only drink a healthy wine, but one that will go well with food and is guaranteed to made from pure fresh grape juice.
Personally, I want and am only able to provide natural product that I draw from my vines. I work with old vines exposed to the south, noble grape varieties, small yields, and small parcels receiving water only from the sky.
I offer it to you, with the certainty that you will find what you are looking for, if you want to stay faithful to the greater good, your health.
French wine labeling laws are one of the things people who work in wine spend a significant amount of time studying in wine class. Everything is legislated for what were originally very good reasons. Even more complicated than the laws behind the labels though, is the complex systems of appellations that the label expresses. It's one of the biggest complaints non-wine professionals have about French wine. If you don't know the appellation, you just don't know much about the wine. For example, most people know if they see Bourgogne somewhere on a label, that means it comes from Burgundy. But what if it says Chorey-les-Beaune (also Burgundy), or Condrieu (the Rhone Valley), or how about Saint-Emilion (Bordeaux). None of these, or the thousands of other appellations you could see on a bottle, even gets close to telling you what the grape is inside that bottle. Sigh.
Of course, there's a good reason for all that complicated silliness. It's because French wine (and a lot of French things, like cheese) are based on a sense of place. People in France got to know products way back when based on where they were from. They know that the little village of Saint Marcellin makes a really nice creamy soft cows-milk cheese and that Gevrey Chambertin (another Burgundy) makes super prestigious wines. When people started making wines in the US, they didn't have any of that sense of place branding to build on, so they decided to go with grape names instead. That's why lots of people have an idea of what Chardonnay and Pinot Noir taste like. But in France you hardly ever see the grape on the label.
The French wine laws came about originally because some really shady people, desperate during the dearth of wine in the phylloxera epidemic, started making fake wine out of sugar and fruit juice and other weird things, passing them off with labels that said wine. The AOC system definitely worked to protect consumers against that nastiness. They set up all kinds of requirements like maximum yield restrictions, grape varieties allowed, and chaptalization standards for every appellation. They also set up tasting panels to test the wines, to make sure they are typical of what the appellation is supposed to be like.
Now that all sounds well and good, but it can become a problem when it gets to that tasting panel. Especially when the panel is made up of a bunch of people who taste an unusual natural wine, say it's not typical, and reject it from the appellation. Now this particular natural wine may indeed not be typical, but that doesn't change the fact that there are lots of consumers, sommeliers, and wine shop owners who think the wine is great, and think it should sell for $15 or even higher. But once the wine has been rejected, the winemaker is probably going to have to lower it down to the Vin de Table (VdT), or table wine level, like the one you see pictured up top of this post.
Vin de Table is supposed to be really cheap crap basically. They usually cost around a dollar or two per bottle, the grapes can come from anywhere in France, and they can be a blend of as many grapes as wanted. There are no rules against chaptalization, no yield maximums, and even different vintages can be blended, if you've got some really old juice lying around that you don't know what to do with. It's not permitted to even put a vintage on the bottle. Thus we end up with a label that looks like this:
This wine is made in the Macon area of Burgundy by Gilles and Catherine Vergé, and it goes for somewere over $25 a bottle. It's fantastically made, super duper funky, and most definitely not recommended for any new-comers to natural wine. You'll see it on the shelves on the best natural wine shops all over Paris. Notice how it says Lot 02 04 on the top? That means it was harvested in 2002 and bottled in 2004. How do I know that? Because the winemaker told me that's their "code" for showing the vintage. Lots of natural winemakers have come up with tricks like this to indicate a vintage and squeeze it by the laws that govern these things. If you look at the bottom it does say the postal code where it was made, but how many French zip codes have you memorized? So not only does this wine not say a grape variety, or a place it's from, it can't even really say when it was made. Needless to say, these wines are even harder for the average consumer to understand than the old-school ones.
This wine probably adhered to all those standards I mentioned required by the appellation. It's not made with any funky non-allowed grapes, and it certainly had a minuscule yield compared to most Macon wines. So why go VdT? Well, to get to the point where the tasting panel will test your wine, you of course have to pay a fee. Then you also have to make all the labels. Sometimes the tasting panel is made up of a bunch of old fuddy-duddies that don't enjoy a cloudy and funky natural wine, and the wine will get rejected. Then the winemaker will have to make all new VdT labels, and is out the fee plus the cost of all the labels. So a lot of these winemakers just elect to remain free of the system, and do what they want without worrying about the government. They could probably make more money and charge more per bottle if they had an AOC designation on the bottle, but a lot of them don't want the hassle and prefer to do their own thing instead.
Here's one the worst examples of a hard-to-understand wine label I've seen yet. In case you're wondering, it's a light and cheerful pineau d'aunis made by Pascal Simonutti from the Loire valley. I'm still not really sure what some of that scrawl towards the bottom says. It's almost like some of them don't even want you to know what their wine is. It's kind of similar to the speakeasy trend in bars going on in New York, places with no sign out front that you just have to be cool enough to know how to find. And it actually does seem to work that way.
So how do you read natural wine labels? You don't, unfortunately! You really just have to know the producer, or know who you are buying from and trust their advice. This puts the focus back on who is making this wine, which is really what natural wines are all about anyway. And a certain amount of mystery can be a good thing, as long as you have an open enough mind and palette to handle some experimentation.
Natural wine is different as far as the wine making process is concerned, mainly because of it's exclusion of sulfur. Sulfur is used in the production of 99% of wine in the world today because it has a preservative effect. It protects the wine from the effects of oxygen and can kill off some nasty bacterias that live in the vineyard and threaten the flavor of wine. It's also used to kill off the wild yeasts living in the vineyard, so cultured yeast can be added in its place. A little sulfur is also used at bottling (even by quite a few natural winemakers) to help protect the wine during it's trip to where ever it's going.
Natural winemakers would rather take the risk of letting some of these bacterias in. That's because they prefer to use the wild yeasts, saying they add another essential element of terroir that makes each of their wines unique and different. I've also been told by a natural wine maker, who I consider quite extreme in his natural-ness, that I would be able to tell the difference in flavor if I tasted the same wine, one sulfured and bottling, and one not. I can't really say whether or not that's true, because I've never been able to carry out that experiment. But I can say the winemakers here in France that use zero sulfur make some of my most favorite natural wines.
So if most of the wine world thinks you have to have sulfur in there to keep the wine safe, how do the natural guys do it? The first and probably most popular technique in use today is Carbonic Maceration. Whether it was Jules Chauvet, or Jacques Néauport who made this method popular for natural winemaking, it doesn't really matter. In carbonic maceration, the winemaker tosses the whole bunches of grapes in the tank, rather than destemming and pressing them for their juice. The tank is sealed on top, and the grapes just sit there. The weight of the grapes starts to crush some of the grapes on the bottom, and fermentation starts naturally. The tank is sealed, so as carbon dioxide is produced, pressure is exerted on the remaining grapes, which pops any skins still not crushed. The resulting wine is usually quite fruity, light in tannins, and easy-drinking.
So, how does carbonic maceration help the winemaker avoid using sulfur? The answer is that the carbon dioxide gas released acts as an alternative protection against the evil forces of oxygen, by forming a protective blanket over the juice. The winemaker leaves the tank sealed until it's time to bottle, and then will usually let the gas escape right before putting it in the bottle. Sometimes they will even leave a little of the gas in the wine, to act as an additional preservative while the wine travels to its final destination. That's why sometimes you'll feel a little prickle for the first few sips of a natural wine.
Sounds simple, right? The thing is, as always with wine, it's not quite that simple. There are those winemakers who do strict carbonic maceration, but then there are also those who something called semi-carbonic maceration. These winemakers do the traditional fermentation I've described, but then they let the skins soak in the juice for a while longer to extract more tannin and structure, making a heavier, perhaps more serious, and age-worthy wine. They're still working under the cloud of protective gas, but then they're adding another layer of more traditional wine making on top, to make a very different style of wine.
And of course, it's not so simple as those two methods. There's really a whole continuum of people in between. Some will de-stem the bunches of grapes and then do a carbonic maceration style fermentation. And some will do a completely normal fermentation with a pressing, but then just leave the tank sealed to keep in the protective gas. So, for a wine professional who's trying to understand why a wine tastes a certain way, it can be pretty complicated. Basically, these winemakers do what they feel like and what they think will make the style they're looking for, with total disregard to all the established rules of winemaking you read about in books, and that's what makes it interesting. Basically you could say there are as many natural winemaking techniques as there are different natural winemakers. But what most of them do have in common is this use of carbon dioxide as an anti-oxidant, instead of sulfur.
At it's essence, natural wine is an attempt to return to a more traditional way of winemaking. But just how traditional do you need to get to be natural? There are some winemakers going back to fermenting their grapes in Amphora, large ceramic jars buried underground, like they used to do in Ancient Greece. Do we have to eschew all technology to make good wine? If that were true I bet the Amish would be pumping out some really good stuff!
Unfortunately, when it comes down to it, natural wine is just another marketing term. The people who make and enjoy these wines would like more people to know about them, so they feel the need to differentiate it somehow from the rest of wine. And along with that comes a certain amount of propaganda too. Natural winemakers become champions of nature and traditional ways, and big businesses using pesticides and synthetic yeasts become anti-terroir oppressors. Just like every other marketing term applied to wine, you can punch it full of holes pretty quickly.
For example, the French Appellation Origine Controllé (AOC) system was set up to tell consumers which wines were better. A Grand Cru is better than Premier, which is better than Vin de Table, and so on. But does it work out that way? No way! There are plenty of Grand Crus resting on their AOC designation making average wine, and there are plenty of crazy talented winemakers doing their own thing in the Vin de Table AOC making amazing juice. And there's no difference with natural wine. It would be great if you could come up with a definition, slap it on the label, and then you'd know you were getting a beautifully cloudy, original wine with real terroir. But alas, that's not the case. People can't even agree on what the term means in the first place.
The term is frought with ambiguity and misunderstanding, but that's just like everything else in wine, so might as well make an attempt. Alice Feiring, one of the most outspoken natural wine proponents, has proposed one here. The idea for her is that the winemaker should make as little intervention as possible into what nature does. And, I must say, in every wine class I took, and every accepted wine book I've read, this conforms to how they say a wine of terroir should be made. It's not the winemaker's job to impose flavors or techniques to make it taste a certain way. The winemaker is supposed to step out of the way to let nature express itself through the wine.
Having said that, when you really look at it, the winemaker has to impose some control. If he (or she) was really non-interventionist, he would just let the grapes grow like crazy, come back in the fall, pick them and let them sit in a barrel until they were ready. The fact is vines don't make good wine left to their own devices. The best wine comes when vines are stressed just enough. They have to think they're dying, so they pour all the energy into their fruit, and thrust their roots deep into the ground, pulling out the complex nutrients and minerals that make just a few potent grapes, which make complex wines. The moment the winemaker decides to prune to reduce the amount of fruit produced, he's intervened.
The person who is usually credited with starting the natural wine movement is Jules Chauvet, a biochemist and négociant who worked in Beaujolais. The chauvet method, as it's been called, is to vinify using carbonic maceration, with dry ice on top of the grapes during fermentation. Dry ice, which is really just carbon dioxide in solid form, is a natural by product of fermentation, so it would be there anyway eventually. The layer of dry ice acts as protection from bacteria, and allows the winemaker to avoid the use of sulfur. There's nothing harmful about it, but does this sound natural and non-interventionist to you? Nevertheless, many natural wines (some of my favorites) are made this way .
Unfortunately, like with everything else in wine, the term natural wine pretty much becomes useless when we try to examine it closely. So if you want to find good wines that express terroir, how do you do it? My answer is, find a good retailer! Or read a lot. Or turn the bottle around and buy by importer. In spite of all the confusion, when you find a person that dedicates themselves to tasting lots of wines and presenting what they think is the best to you, you'll end up tasting some amazingly made wines, each more individual than the next.
What if there was a vast, big-business conspiracy in wine, a dirty little secret that no one wanted to talk about? What if the wine you'd been drinking your whole life and thought of as a natural product was actually made in a laboratory full of test tubes, centrifuges, and other nefarious industrial devices?
If you're the kind of person who cares about eating organic fruits and vegetables, who is concerned about the proliferation of genetically modified food and beef injected with hormones, you might want to know if this conspiracy existed. Most people I talk to have no idea that such a controversy could exist in the wine world. People drink wine they like, and they don't think too much about how it was made, and there's nothing wrong with that. On the other hand there is also a very small niche of the wine world that talks about "spoofulated" mass market wines that all taste the same and don't display any real terroir. So who's right?
My answer to this question basically is, it depends. It's not a simple question, so naturally the answer won't be simple.
Let's start by laying out a few basics of winemaking. First of all, you should know that most wine in the world today is made with the use of sulfur during the winemaking process. If you took grapes right from a vineyard and let them sit in a vat, the natural yeasts living on the skins from the vineyard would start to eat the sugar inside the grapes, converting it into alcohol--fermentation. But the modern method of making wine is to put some sulfur in the vat, which kills off those natural yeasts. The winemaker then adds a synthetically produced strain of yeast to the vat and lets it do the job of fermentation.
The key question at this point is: why? If you talk to the majority of winemakers today, they'll tell you it's because synthetic yeasts are predictable and controllable. In fact, there are many many different synthetic yeasts developed for this purpose, each one subtly changing the flavor of the resulting wine. It used to be quite popular for Beaujolais nouveau winemakers to use a certain strain that gave the wine flavors of bubble gum and bananas, for example. Modern winemakers say that using natural yeasts can be dangerous. Sometimes, the yeasts will be weak and they'll die before all the sugar has been fermented, leaving a sweet wine no one wants to drink. Other times, fermentation might take months to finish, or maybe it'll never finish at all. If you use a synthetic yeast, you can be quite sure fermentation will happen in x number of days, every time.
If you talk to most natural winemakers and enthusiasts though, they'll tell you that making wine is not a science, it's really an art, and the winemaker needs to be willing to step out of the way and let nature do its thing, to make some really amazing wine with special terroir. They say the natural yeasts add another element of individuality and terroir to the wine. Sometimes their wines might turn out a little funky in a bad year if they\'re made this way, but other times they might produce something totally amazing. Either way, they say, each wine will taste a lot more different than the way it did the year before, and each vineyard will produce it's own unique flavors, satisfying palettes yearning for uniqueness.
Modern winemakers also like to fine and/or filter their wines. They pass the wine through very fine metal mesh, or they might also add a soluble material like egg whites, which collect solid bits and help to clarify the color of the wine. This makes for clear wine that looks nice in the glass. Natural winemakers often don't filter their wines at all, and you'll find the wine quite cloudy, with a fair amount of gunk sitting in the bottom of the bottle. They say the filtering removes another level of unique flavor from the wine.
Then you have lots of other modern techniques, which modern winemakers hail as the benefits of scientific advancement, and natural wine fans declare chemical and artificial. There's micro-oxygenation, in which little bubbles of air are slowly introduced to a young wine, to speed up the aging process and soften harsh tannins. And there's reverse-osmosis, where wine is put into a huge centrifuge, where alcohol or tannins can be removed if there's too much.
And on the natural side, you have biodynamic winemakers burying cow horns filled with manure, talking about the importance spiritual frequencies, and deciding when to harvest based on the cycles of the moon.
Modern winemakers say there's nothing wrong with any of these new advances. They point to the stainless steel tank, which many natural winemakers use, as a scientific advancement that everyone is ok with, and say fear of the other techniques is just fear of change and advancement. And the biodynamicists say that while some their stuff sounds a little crazy, it actually has some scientific basis. That cow horn is mostly calcium, which is a natural pH balancer and fertilizer, so it helps the soil when they grind it up and spread it all over the vineyard.
So who's right here? Well, in my opinion, they're both right, in their own world. I've tasted a fair amount of natural wines, and they can be very different and unique. Sometimes they're not my taste, and sometimes I absolutely love them. But they're usually interesting. I've also tasted a fair amount of wines that weren't made naturally that displayed a remarkable amount of terroir. And there are plenty of wines that claim to be made naturally, with organic grapes, but for a variety of reasons, they're just impostors and they're not that interesting.
I tend to prefer natural wines, but having worked in retail I can tell you for sure that some people just don't like a lot of them. I don't really believe there's any intentional conspiracy to cover up the natural wines' existence, but I also don't think anyone is being very open about all the processes they use to change their wine, because they're afraid of what people might think if they found out. And there's definitely a niche of foodie people out there that wouldn't like what they heard, if they knew all this stuff was being done to their wine. Is it as bad the semi-secret Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO's) that may be responsible for creating e-coli? No, definitely not. But does it remove some terroir and uniqueness from the wines? Yes, I believe it probably does.
I think the answer here, is that you just have to go taste some and see what you think. If you're like me, and you're the kind of person who gets sick of something pretty quickly, even if it's really good, you might really love natural wines. Other people love to find a good bottle, buy it again and again, and never get tired of it. They might not like the craziness of some natural wines. There's just no accounting for the difference in taste, and I think there's room for all kinds of palettes in this world.
But until you try them, you won't know where your palette lies. And to be fair, you should probably try a bunch to give it a fair shot until you're sure you don't like them. Because one huge benefit about natural wines is they tend to be really cheap! There are a few cult natural winemakers out there that command high prices, but even those are nothing compared to the Premier Crus of Bordeaux. The mainstream, critic driven wine world really hasn't grabbed onto this natural wine thing yet, and they're the ones that often bring the outrageous prices. That explains why you may have never ever heard they existed yet. So if you like them, you can have wines with a lot of complexity that won't break your budget. It's one of the few bargains for really high quality out there in the wine world right now.
So now, you're probably wondering how to find these wines right? Well, I don't have time to discuss it now, but stay tuned and I'll be writing more on that soon!
Forgive me a brief tangential departure for the world of wine, because I just had to relate the unbelievable experience I had taking a private cooking class in Bologna. An experience as authentic and cultural as this doesn't come along very often, so I couldn't go without writing about it.I booked this class through Bologna Cooking School. Carlo and his sister run a bed and breakfast, and do the cooking school thing on the side. In the interest of ethical disclosure, let me say that Carlo is not giving me anything to write this post, but we did discuss working together at some point on a joint wine/cooking educational project.
The class began with a tour of the food market in the center of Bologna, one of the most amazing markets I have ever seen. This is no hodgepodge market filled with temporary tents. It's interwoven amongst streets too skinny to fit cars, and it consists entirely of stalls and stores that are part of the buildings themselves. This market has existed here for a very long time. Bologna is a medieval city, and the market continues that feel.
Carlo took us to his favorite spots to get the best ingredients possible for our class. Here are a few pictures I snapped of the market:
When we got back to the bed and breakfast, Carlo led us through the basics of making Ragu and tortellini and torteloni filling. Then came the real treasure of the whole class: learning to make pasta with Carlo's sister Gabriella, a real Sfoglina.
What's a sfoglina, you ask? It's someone who makes sfoglia, of course. Sfolgia basically seems to translate to dough, so a sfolgina is someone who works with the dough, in this case to make it into pasta. What Carlo explained to me is that Bologna (and all of Italy, really) is full of old Italian sfolginas that supply all the restaurants and shops with their fresh pasta. Chefs apparently do not make past in their restaurants, it's simply too time consuming an activity and not an art they are well-versed in. So legions of old women spend their days rolling out all this pasta, and then sell it to the chefs. Carlo also explained that the art did start to die out, as many of Gabriella's childrens generation decided to work in other professions. Have no, fear, though, Carlo assured us that the younger generations have begun to pick back up the craft of rolling out pasta dough.
While we don't have to worry that Sfolginas will completely fade away, I feel like there's something more authentic about someone like Gabriella, who was probably taught by her mother, who was taught by her mother, and so on back into the far reaches of history. And that's part of what made this experience so authentic. It reminded me of learning to make pastry with my grandmother, another art that still exists but whose good techniques have faded away as subsequent generations chose to pick up briefcases and forgot about dough. These kinds of techniques can't really be learned from a book. You have to see the master do it, then give it a shot while they give you feedback. That's the main reason why I feel like this is such a priceless experience.
Here's a little video I took of Gabriella in action. If you're wondering why you're hearing French in the background, we had switched over to speaking it with Carlo, since it was easier for everyone that way. But have no fear, he does speak English.
After we rolled out the pasta until covered the entire board, we then learned how make tagliatelle, torteloni, tortellini, gemelli. Here's some more pictures:
After we finished making all the pasta, then of course we got to eat everything. The food was delicious but simple, in the way that very good Italian food does so well at getting out of the way to showcase the quality of the ingredients.
Here are some pictures of our meal:
So if you find yourself in Bologna, I can't recommend Bologna Cooking School highly enough. Getting to connect with a sfoglina like Garbriella is like touching a part of an ancient world of food that has faded quite a bit over the last century. I think it's important that we do everything we can to keep those old traditions alive, and this is a great way to make sure this art doesn't die.