My Summer Trip to France – Less Dogma, More Substance

WP_20130624_002As I sit here watching December’s college basketball games pass by, I feel incredibly guilty for not yet sharing my thoughts regarding my June trip to France with the folks from Louis/Dressner/McKenna.* I think part of the struggle about recapping my trip is that I have been attempting to find something revelatory to write about from each part of our excursion through Bordeaux, Champagne, Burgundy and the Loire Valley.  What I’m not going to do is to write up winery profiles, nor wax poetic about wines with an endless run-on of descriptors that mean little to almost no one.  If you are looking for more information regarding the producers we visited, please consult the LDM website – Jules Dressner keeps one of the best wine importer sites on the web.  As I look over my tasting notes and vineyard highlights from the trip, it’s becoming clear that it also would be unfair to make blanket statements regarding the vastly different cultures and traditions inherent in the wines tasted and vineyards visited.  However, I do believe that each tasting, vineyard walk, lunch, dinner and each late-night stroll through the French countryside reinforced my belief that the best wines in the world must meet two criteria – they must be manipulated as little as possible and express a sense of place.

However, after visiting dozens of producers and their vineyards with Jules, Denyse and Maya, I have come to believe that natural wine, as a category, simply does not exist.  There are simply too many manipulations in the winery – no matter how minimal – for a category such as natural wine to not collapse under its own weight (and hogwash, but more on that below).  How can I reconcile not believing in natural wine, but at the same time also championing non-manipulative wine making?  It’s rather obvious to me that if it’s not vinegar, the wine has been manipulated.  However, certain wines undergo far less adulteration than others.  Additions such as yeast, sulfur**, oak treatment and filtration – no matter how minimal – are forms of manipulation. Perhaps the question I found myself pondering most often while in the vineyards of Champagne, Burgundy and the Loire Valley was – how much of a wine’s inherent sense of place has each winemaker masked in the finished wine?

Certainly most if not all of the wines I tasted in June are more naturally made than say, wines that are acidified, treated with powdered tannins, Mega Purple or put through reverse osmosis, spinning cones or 200% new oak.  Though I don’t think they’ve found my blog yet, those who subscribe to the ethos, “if it’s made with grapes then it is wine” would certainly not agree with this philosophy.  And they certainly don’t like to think that their choice in wine is inferior to the less manipulated wines that are the darlings of the hipster wine set, a group of sommeliers, retailers and writers that are often ridiculed by the “establishment” as promoters of wines through timely and cleverly marketing, rather than substance in the bottle.  Certainly that is a curious point of view considering some of the most overtly spoofed wines are also the wines that dominate the marketplace through advertising and advantageous retail and restaurant placements, while “natural” winemakers survive, for the most part, by harvesting the freshest, most expressive grapes possible.  Like so many issues we currently face politically, the polarization of the attitudes of those who drink the least and most manipulated wines is, I believe, an unnecessary dichotomy.

I’ve maintained for quite some time now that the marketplace and wine consumers are all better off when less manipulated wines are available.  Why?  Wines that are produced in a manner that attempts to preserve their sense of place are more than romantic connections to the soil, local traditions and culture.  In displaying all of these factors, warts and all, these wines should serve as a lesson that quality and enjoyable wine can be made more transparently and in a manner that is becoming increasingly lost on the consuming public.  All day, every day we consume generic, plastic and mediocre food and drink.  Most consumers don’t eat locally or seasonally.  The idea that strawberries should only be eaten in the spring and apples only in the fall is part of the past.  And too often we have food and drink that is laden with “natural” and artificial flavors.  Sadly, not only have we condoned filling our daily diet and cupboards with mass produced agro-foods, but we wholeheartedly embrace it.  And in lock-step, agro-wine is more popular than ever.  Americans continue to embrace cheaply made, sweet Moscato, artificially yeasted Sauvignon Blanc and endless amounts of bulk Shiraz.  What most consumers don’t realize is that they have a choice to drink alternatives to these wines while also satisfying their desire flavor profile.  But therein lies the problem that confronts those selling less manipulated wines.  They are not only attempting to compete with high production mega-brands and well established “cult” wineries, but they sometimes can’t step around piles of their own bullshit along the way to showing wines to their favorite restaurants and retailers.

Some of the most interesting and satisfying wines are those made by farmers that don’t produce a wine of fashion, but of substance and personality.  Sadly, as it happens in any other industry, fashion is starting to trump substance in certain circles of the “natural wine movement.”  And not fashion in the sense that oaky Chardonnay was chic in the 1990s or Pinot Noir after the release of Sideways, but the rise of huckster salesmanship that has led to the demonization of less obtrusive winemaking styles by those who never take the opportunity to acquaint themselves with what is really going on with more expressive winemaking in Beaujolais, the Loire Valley and yes, even in California and Bordeaux. Claiming wines are better or more desirable solely because they are produced organically, biodynamically and/or without added sulfur is, at the very least, insincere.  I do not believe, nor have I ever subscribed to the ideology that because a wine is made sustainably, organically or biodynamically does it automatically the wine is pleasurable to drink.

I have had just as many poorly made organic wines over the years as those I consider spot-on.  There are those who sell, market and attempt to lure customers towards these poorly made, flawed and/or insincere *** wines.  There were more than a handful of these wines tasted at various fairs on the Bordeaux leg of the trip.  And shame on those winemakers who purport to produce “natural” wine – just because you don’t use sulfur in wines made from grapes grown in pesticide-ridden vineyards doesn’t make you a terroiriste – it makes you a used car salesman.  And the same goes for your importers and distributors here in the US.  Your attempts to sell the wine consuming public on this inferior bill of goods has the potential to turn back every inroad that that farmers who believe in living with and subsisting on nature harmoniously have made since the beginning of the pushback against chemical agro-farming.  In short, the marketing machine behind the “natural wine movement” can be far more dogmatic than the attitudes that the winemakers hold themselves.  And it makes it more difficult to get the general wine consuming public to understand that the ideas of terroir and typicity in wine do in fact exist and should be celebrated.  This is another reason why I have given up on the idea of a natural wine movement.  There are too many winemakers with wines that speak for themselves and they shouldn’t be overshadowed by also-rans.  Examples from the trip include Clos Roche Blanche in the Touraine where Catherine and Didier have developed biodiversity in their vineyard the likes of which I have never seen before.  Thierry Puzelat and Noella Morantin have followed suit with their holdings in the Touraine and Cheverny as they stress the importance of recognizing the fragile relationship between soil and vine.  Franck Pascal and Francis Boulard, Olivier Horiot and Olivier Collin all have effectively managed to produce terroir-driven wines with bubbles more than they have traditional Champagne.  Eric Texier has managed to allow Syrah to express itself in countless ways with his line of precise and honest Rhones while Marc Ollivier and family Luneau have proven to the world that site specific Muscadet is to be taken as seriously as any white wine produced in France.  And not to forget two outfits in Jasnieres – Belliviere and Domaine le Briseau – both of whom produce Pineau d’Aunis in a most beguiling and infinitely drinkable manner which, in my humble opinion, allows the reds of Jasnieres to be considered among some of the most delicious in all of the Loire Valley.  These people and their wines aren’t predicated on marketing mumbo jumbo, they stand behind their hard work and dedication to allow their vineyards wines to speak for themselves.

Perhaps what resonated with me most from my two weeks in France is the fact that all of the winemakers I met with simply want to grow the freshest and most expressive grapes possible while using as little chemical application in the vineyards as possible.  Though commercially produced agro-wine is made from arguably “healthy” grapes, I contend that more lively and less chemically treated soil and vines produce healthier and more reflective fruit (when not afflicted with virus and disease).  And with as few treatments from grape to glass as possible, the winemakers I spoke with believe that their wines are driven by terroir, displaying characteristics – love or hate them – that cannot be produced conventionally in a winery of chemistry.  And though these winemakers have a guiding hand in the end result in the bottle, I stand by the claim that their less-manipulated style yields more interesting and approachable wines than those that are produced at the other end of the spectrum.  But are wines made from pesticide ridden grapes and with chemistry sets in the winery any less “wine-like” than those mentioned here?  Strictly speaking, they both fulfill the traditional definition of wine, but those produced with the most obtrusive techniques are more Wonder Bread than Parisian baguette.  Some delights fall in the middle.  In California, Ridge comes to mind.  Paul Draper adds water to his wines, but always manages to turn out some of the most terroir driven wines in all of the United States.  Many of the Chardonnays from Bob Travers-era Mayacamas Vineyards were produced with commercial yeast.  Yet those wines sourced from the top of Mount Veeder are nothing short of sensational.  And many of the winemakers I was lucky enough to visit with LDM used light filtration techniques and various amounts of sulfur.  All of these wines express various degrees of terroir.

Let’s not be foolish, I don’t expect to convert scores of consumers to drink biodynamically produced Cot from Clos Roche Blanche.  But what I have done and will continue to do is embrace, drink and promote wine makers who not only craft delicious and honestly made wines, but also their approach to preserving their land, culture and history – for if I (we) don’t, we’ve lost sight of all that’s right with wines that more honestly express a sense of place and time.  Without such captivation in the glass, no matter how simple or complex the wine, what’s the point?

*For those of you that you know by now, I work for David Bowler Wine in New Jersey and I help distribute the wines from LDM in the Garden State.  Before you roll your eyes and cynically tag this post as another shill report, let this be known – at no time did a winemaker from France, anyone from LDM, Bowler or anywhere else ask me to report my thoughts from the trip to anyone outside of our offices. 

**As you know, the use of sulfur is a hotly debated practice within the “natural wine” discussion.  Some believe moderate use is fine, while others think that any added sulfur is comparable to added acid or sugar.  I for one think that if a winemaker wants to add a bit of sulfur to help preserve their wine, then so be it.  However, depending on the company, I held a minority viewpoint.  However, what was refreshing was that many of the winemakers (ahem, whose opinion, let us not forget, really matters the most in this matter) did hold dogmatic points of view regarding the use of sulfur.  Olivier Lemasson even admitted that he should have used a bit of sulfur on a few of his wines over the years as at least one has seen its lifespan shortened significantly because he was too stubborn to help preserve it.  And on the less reasonable end of the spectrum, there is a growing set of winemakers (negociants really) who believe that no sulfur at all is to be added to their wines, no matter what the vintage bestows upon them.  What’s funny about a few of these well, frauds, is that they source grapes from vineyards that are farmed conventionally and much of the life has been stripped from their vines, grapes and wines.  These “winemakers” are not to be commended for their anti-sulfur stance, they should go back to waiting on tables in Paris.  They give a bad name to winemakers that maintain life within their vineyards and successfully craft deliciously expressive wines without the use of sulfur.

*** Revisit the second half of **above.