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There are all sorts of wine buzzwords running around these days. Some are only buzzwords and some, though seemingly vague, correspond to actual movements populated by actual wine producers.
While the term Natural Wine means organic production to an American, in France there is an actual Natural Wine movement with many wonderful producers. The distinction between organic producers, biodynamic producers and terroir-driven producers is often vague and often the same producers overlap into several categories. There are lots of small vigneron grouplets out there and there will be more in the near future. Many of the grouplets, seemingly natural allies, speak badly of their colleagues in other grouplets and there is plenty of animosity between these movements in France. The same splintering between grouplets is now going on in Italy!
The natural wine movement is actually kind of organized, has a web site, has leaders and has several shows around France during the year. Sometimes they are referred to as the sans soufristes, since many of them vinify without using sulphur and some bottle without using any sulphur whatsoever. They also tend to be people who like to laugh, drink, argue, and sometimes brawl, with a little less personal seriousness than the Nicolas Joly contingent in the biodynamic crowd, although many of the natural wine growers are actually in biodynamie. Many of the growers in the Natural Wine Movement seem to know each other, at least in the core group, and much of the association seems to be one of spirit and friendship and good times, rather that a formal codification. This ambiance suits me well, because I'm always wary of organizations with too many codes, too many pretensions, too many rules and too many secret handshakes.
As an importer, I don't want to get involved in the personality and sectarian disputes between these various movements.But though our company works with growers across all these movements, we do have a large concentration in the French Natural Wine grouping. They include (in random order):
- Pierre Overnoy
- Dard et Ribo
- Antoine Arena
- Marcel Richaud
- Pierre Breton
- Thierry et Jean-Marie Puzelat
- Clos Roche Blanche
- Les Vins Contés
- Mouthes le Bihan
- Château Moulin Pey-Labrie
- Georges Descombes
- Claude Maréchal
- Domaine le Briseau
- Agnès et René Mosse
- Philippe Pacalet
- Jean-Marc Brignot
- Bera, Vittorio & Figli
At the same time, I would not want Louis/Dressner Selections to become the American branch of the French Natural Wine Movement. I try to avoid using the term natural wine because everyone thinks I'm only talking organic and you can be organic and machine harvest, you can be organic and overcrop, you can be organic and use innoculated yeasts and enzymes. You can also be organic, natural, biodynamic or terroir-driven and make just bad wine. All these visions are simply too limited. Instead, I use the phrase "real wine" which is perhaps meaningless, but which I think is closer to the spirit of the type of unspoofulated (another vague term) wines I like.
Perhaps you can argue that we don't need another cliché. True enough. But go explain Marc Ollivier and the Domaine de la Pépière in the Muscadet. These are thrilling dry white wines that come uniquely from seléctions massales vines -- no clones here. Everything is picked by hand, done at low yields, vinified without spoof and the vines are old, expressive and complex. That's right the vines!
Ollivier is a modest guy who is not part of any movement. He is in a transition to organic certification and is now plowing his vineyards. Others in the AOC have done this work for years, but to me Marc makes the greatest wines of the Muscadet. Maybe it is because he only has massale, maybe it is because his vineyards are in granite rather than the predominant schist and gneiss of the region or maybe it is the age of the vines. There are many things going on here and even though he has not been lauded or stamped by any of the French natural, organic, biodynamique, terroirist movements, I'm proud and delighted that our firm imports his wines.
To me, Marc Ollivier is one of the heroes of Natural Wine and he is virtually unknown in France and is certainly unrecognized by the leaders of the Natural Wine Movement. We work with another thirty or so growers who do incredible work bringing their vineyards alive and into your glass. Their wines have a purity and definition that industrial techniques simply cannot replicate. Some of those thirty are members of movements, some are not not, but at Louis/Dressner, we are never going to limit ourself to an authorized list of what is good and correct. We go out, see the vineyards, see the cellar, get to know the grower and taste comprehensively. We make judgments and take risks rather than market a branded concept.
I'm skeptical of movements, slogans and catch-all phrases which try to make simple what is actually terribly complex. Our firm has avoided selling wine on the basis that it doesn't have sulphur, is organic, is this or that. Finally, all these ways of working in the vineyards and in the cellar have the goal of making great wine. We do not look for producers who are making natural products or biodynamique products or organic products -- we are looking for producers who make great wines from great terroirs. Eighteen years importing wine has taught us that working naturally is the only way to do make great wines, but what interests us is the goal of great wine, not the slogan or cliché.
This might make me eccentric, but as a veteran of the late 60s, who remains sentimentally both left-wing and left-wine, I've learned to distrust movements. Talk to Chaussard, Mosse, Puzelat and many veterans of the sans-soufre movement and they will tell you that there were too many excesses in the name of san-soufre. Perhaps these extremes moved everyone to rethinking the use of sulphur and moved the level of winemaking forward. But there have been too many examples, and new ones pop up all the time, of new estates whose goal is simply making sans-souffre.
Doing a quick cold carbonic maceration without sulphur and popping reduced wine in autolyse into the bottle is not my idea of natural winemaking. But that telltale reductive odor is almost a desired effect by a whole range of neophyte producers as are white wines which quickly referment in bottle. It is viewed as the guarantee of "natural" winemaking, but finally it is the triumph of method winemaking over terroir. It is a Michel Rolland of another sort....formulaic winemaking which makes different terroir from all over France taste the same. To my mind, great wine still requires intelligent and careful élevage and Jules Chauvet turns in his grave when his name is used in the name of flawed winemaking.
So what's the simple answer to guide the trade and consumers? Unfortunately, there is none. Everything is a tentative judgment based on too many variables and wine remains confounding and difficult
Go buy a sample case of wine, like Eric Asimov suggests, and have some fun. Navigating through the thicket of producers, AOCs, grape varieties, vintages, critics, bloggers, importers, frauds and visionaries is all part of the fun.