The Question of Natural Wine: A review of the book by Isabelle Legeron MW
image from website of Anthony Zinonos
An introduction to organic and biodynamic wines made naturally
208pp. Cico Books, July 1, 2014. $24.95
book provided for review
[I]n its purest form
natural wine is almost a miraculous feat — a great balancing act between
life in the vineyard, life in the cellar, and life in the bottle.
– Isabelle Legeron
Considering a Larger Context
In 2011, French vintner Olivier Cousin intentionally provoked court proceedings with the threat of his being fined up to 37,000 Euros, and 2 years in prison. On the surface, Cousin had violated AOC regulations by using the regional name “Anjou” on his labels. However, for Cousin the situation was far more fundamental.
Cousin had left the AOC system in 2005 choosing to classify his wines as Vin de Table instead. Over the decades prior, Cousin watched large scale agro-industrial wineries pollute his beloved Layon river (within the Loire of Western France) destroying much of the region’s beauty, and the safety of the river itself.
For Cousin, it was clear that much of the pollution occurred within the legal allowances of the appellation system. The additives used in the wine, and the industrial sprays applied to vineyards were acceptable to the AOC system. In 2003, when the AOC decided to also allow acidification, and chaptilization, Cousin had had enough.
For the biodynamic grower, the use of additives and pollutants through the region was too unregulated, and the manipulation of winemaking had gone too far. Further, the reality of such abuses was entirely undisclosed to the consumer. At the same time growers like Cousin himself determined to do better were disadvantaged, told they could not use the name of their own region for labeling their wines, thus disenfranchising them from any claims of their own origins, and recognizability by consumers.
Cousin responded by designating his wines Vin de Table (therefore outside the AOC), while naming them on the label as Anjou Olivier Cousin (a cheeky dig at the abbreviation A.O.C., as well as a reference to the wines’ origins). The move was Cousin’s protest of the appellation system, and a fight for artisanal producers in general. In an interview with Vindicateur.fr, Cousin explained, “I’m defending the right to label an artisanal natural wine, like a basic food product, with all the applicable information.”
Issues around Natural Wine
In the last five years, wines from producers such as Cousin have come together under a new, broad category called natural wine.
Like Cousin’s court case, discussions around such wines appear fraught. Central to disagreements sits the apparent lack of clarity for what counts as such wines. At the same time, people tend to understand that generally the category refers to the idea of doing, and adding less.
For many, the mere appearance of the category proves an offense — an insult to wines that fall outside it. While for many within the natural wine movement there need be no defense. Less additives is simply better. Add to that orthodox biodynamics on the far side of natural wine where you discover the spirits of the plant world, and a realm few skeptics are willing to travel. It quickly becomes difficult to speak across category lines.
More than that, however, natural wine as a category appears as the displaced focal point of an overdetermined system. Include in that system lack of disclosure on labels, poor appellation regulations otherwise supposed to protect consumers, and the disenfranchisement of artisan producers, all as fought against by Cousin. Add to that long term damage to the environment for short term gain, industrially made wines that ultimately taste of cardboard and jam, poisons named protectants, and more.
Select any one of these factors and you step into enough motivation for consumers to want more transparency, and greater health, regardless of attachment to the idea of “natural wine” or not. Put these factors all together, leave them ineffectively addressed and building in problematic over decades, and you find the explosion of a movement doggedly against what is seen as an agro-industrial-economic complex. It’s unsurprising techniques used to grow wine for thousands of years, have erupted into the symbol of a movement that wants to be different.
The difficulty of the discussion around such wines, then, occurs as much for the complexity of the innumerable factors that motivated the category to begin with, as issues within the category itself.
Enter Isabelle Legeron
In her new book, Natural Wine, Master of Wine Isabelle Legeron strives to find a clearer path through the complexity of such a system. She explains her motivation in the introduction. “[W]hile advances in technology and winemaking science have been enormously positive for the industry as a whole, today we seem to have lost perspective,” she says (p 13).
In naming the impacts of this lost perspective she describes how wine has become “a product of the agrochemical food industry” (p 14), a world created by a desire for “absolute control” of our natural world through science. Ultimately, according to Legeron, the negative effects of such practices are found in vines inability to uptake soil nutrients due to lack of life in the soils (p 27), the demand to use added yeasts, enzymes, and then intensive filtering in the cellar due to absence of healthy yeast to microbe balance on fruit (p 58), and finally on our own ability to process the wine without (a) hangover, or (b) negative long-term health affects (p 84).
To make consumption of the information easier, Natural Wine has been arranged in three major sections — (1) What is Natural Wine?, (2) Who, Where, When?, (3) The Natural Wine Cellar.
The challenge of the book rests in section 1, “What is Natural Wine?.”
Here Legeron takes an overview of the category in general covering the range from vineyard, to cellar, to taste. When distilled to its most coherent sections, a wealth of information and insight is provided throughout. For example, comparing winemaking to breadmaking gives an interesting perspective shift for understanding the role of quality in winemaking choices, and what it means to talk about wine as a living thing. There is also an impressive amount of insight given directly from producers on subjects such as dry farming, the role of sulfites in wines, the relevance of biodynamic treatments, and more.
However, chunks of section 1 also prove frustrating as Legeron falls to making claims about natural wine not adequately substantiated within the book itself. It is at these moments that Legeron inadvertently falls into a lack of transparency herself. Truthfully, this phenomenon appears most readily within the introduction, which, like opening arguments in a court case, might be the appropriate place for impassioned feeling. However, the presence of that approach in the introduction made me especially attuned to finding similar tone later in the book.
An example can be found in her section “Taste: What to Expect.” Though she began the book clarifying there is no definition of natural wine, here she goes on to proscribe what counts as natural while also asserting what natural tastes like.
In terms of taste or palate experience, she asserts that natural wines (a) “have a greater array of textures than conventional wines” (p 75), (b) have more deliciousness, (c) show umami, (d) tend to be lighter and more ethereal, with freshness, and digestibility, and (5) are also moody, or change-able. Having tasted many of the wines Legeron recommends as natural, however, it is clear these characteristics do not necessarily dominate the category.
As for proscribing the approach for natural wine, she offers that with natural wines (a) “the way in which they are farmed, […] the vines are encouraged to cultivate deep roots” (p 75), and that in the cellar they (b) are “neither fined” (c) “nor filtered but, instead, are” (d) “given time to stabilize and settle” (p 75 her emphasis). Her claim of deep roots here depends on assuming that natural wines are made naturally in the cellar while also grown as such in the vineyard. However, many of the wines named in the back of the book do not fit all of these descriptions, thus illustrating the issue of inconsistency, and lack of coherent definition that many find inadequate with the category itself.
Part of the concern here is that while Legeron does not define what counts as natural wine she clearly does assume something coherent to the category that might not actually be supportable. Honestly? I’m not convinced the definition question is as central an issue as many critics of the category make it to be, but I’ll save that for a future discussion. However, there is an inconsistency happening in Legeron’s claims here that open the door good and wide for skeptics to have their hay day. As a leader in our understanding of this type of wine, part of her role is to address such issues.
Part of the brilliance of Legeron’s book can be found in sections 2, “Who, Where, When?”, and 3, “The Natural Wine Cellar.”
Here, Legeron shows off her ample knowledge of the wine world offering unique insights into the people, and places that make natural wines possible, as well as guiding the interested consumer on a tour through the wines she wants to drink. It’s a well-handled overview of the world of natural wines that goes in-depth enough to be useful to even the most knowledgeable reader, while still accessible enough for the novice.
The wealth of information offered throughout Legeron’s book proves impressive. She offers readers accessible explanations of key aspects of wine from wine faults to the role of the full process of farming to bottling, as well as insights into the relevance of dry farming, and what it means to be an artisan winegrower. In the midst of all this she shares charming profiles on exemplar producers, who in turn give a surprising range of insights on everything from harvesting birch water, to making apple cider.
At first brush, the range of information offered could seem in excessive of its subject. Some of it seems to have nothing to do with wine, like the birch water mentioned, a listing of medicinal plants and their uses, or instructions on how to forage a wild salad. However, the inclusion of such segments gives insight into Legeron’s overall view — the point is to think holistically.
For Legeron, natural wine is a matter of taste. She thinks it’s more delicious. As well as a question of health. She believes it’s better for us. And also a choice in lifestyle. For Legeron, natural wine reminds us we have the opportunity to choose what, as well as how we consume.
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