Wines au Naturel
A growing number of vintners go beyond organic by leaving out coloring, enzymes and other additives in the cellar.
On a damp March night, natural-wine importers Jenny Lefcourt and Francois Ecot are in crowded Manhattan wine bar The Ten Bells with three of their French vintners. “Today, you have a choice: robot wines or real wines from a real place,” says Lefcourt as we sip a rich 2007 Marcel Lapierre Morgon Cuvee MMVII, a Beaujolais made by one of the heroes of the natural-wine movement.
By “real,” Lefcourt, 39, means wines made from grapes grown organically but also with as little intervention as possible in the winery. France is the epicenter of the trend, and Paris now boasts almost 20 natural-wine bars and bistros. In the past three years, similar bars have opened in London, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Tokyo and New York.
Lefcourt, who speaks in rapid English and French, says natural wine is a handy catchall term that doesn’t connote a legal status and has no official definition that all producers agree on. Even so, the vintners around our table -- Isabelle and Remi Ducellier of Les Chemins de Bassac in the Languedoc and David Barrault of Bordeaux’s Chateau Tire Pe -- share similar principles. They run small estates with organic vineyards, hand harvest the grapes and count on low yields to obtain depth in their wines. In the cellar, they rely on wild yeasts for fermentation, don’t add acid if a wine has low acidity, don’t filter out sediments and use as little sulfur dioxide -- a preservative traditionally used to prevent oxidation and stabilize the wine -- as possible. Some natural-wine makers use none at all.
That’s the way wines used to be made. Nowadays, many winemakers routinely “taste engineer” their wines by using laboratory yeasts that deliver specific flavors and aromas, Mega Purple (a reduced extract of grape skins) to beef up color, micro- oxygenation to smooth harsh tannins and reverse osmosis to remove excess alcohol. The list of additives goes on: yeast nutrients, oak chips, flavor extracts, enzymes and more. The U.S. government permits about 200 altogether. Natural-wine makers say you can taste the difference in their absence. I agree. In the best real wines, the flavors are purer and the aromas more intense. Earlier that week, at a Jenny & Francois Selections tasting in a downtown restaurant basement, I sampled about 100 wines from France, Italy and Spain and soaked up their stories. In front of a poster of two donkeys, Magali Terrier, who owns Domaine des Deux Anes in the Corbieres appellation with her husband, Dominique, poured four wines that were deliciously fruity, intense, loaded with personality -- and only $12 to $22. A small book of photos showed the property -- which sits on a plain above the Mediterranean -- that the young couple restored in line with their convictions. “The wines were bad before,” Terrier says. “Now, they’re truer to their terroir and have energy and life.”
The first natural wines I encountered were from the Loire Valley, a hotbed of young growers dedicated to the cause. But just about every region in France has at least a few, as does Italy. And many wines, such as those of the Rhone Valley’s Dard & Ribo, have cult followings.
Not all of the natural wines I’ve tasted have been good. Some are decidedly rustic and funky, with weird aromas and flavors that can result when no sulfur is added and the wines are then shipped. But the best are high-quality stunners, with freshness, savor, complexity and individuality that are surprisingly seductive.
Those qualities are what inspired Lefcourt and Ecot, 44, to start their company a decade ago, when only a handful of real wines were available in the U.S. Lefcourt, who has a Ph.D. from Harvard University in French literature and cinema, met Ecot, a musician and accordion tuner, when she was in Paris on student grants. They hung out at wine bars and gradually discovered that natural wines were the ones they loved to drink.
On a trip through the Rhone Valley, Lefcourt and Ecot drove up a mountain to see Herve Souhaut at Domaine Romaneaux-Destezet, one of their favorite wineries. “We shivered in the cold cellar for hours; he opened up wine after wonderful wine,” Lefcourt recalls. “Finally, his wife invited us to dinner -- and then insisted we spend the night. Something clicked.”
Back then, real wines were a hard sell outside France, a wine geek’s choice. This year has been different, says Lefcourt, who now gets calls every week about their labels. Natural wines aren’t mainstream yet, but they’re gaining fans every day.
Columnist Elin McCoy is based in New York. firstname.lastname@example.org
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