In recent years, a wine fair held in the dead of winter in France's Loire Valley has become the unlikely site of La Dive Bouteille, one of the country's hottest professionals-only tastings. Importers and sommeliers attend from all over the world to sample singular wines made from organic grapes without additives and with little or no sulfites. And where they once went only out of curiosity, today they go to buy. "There's been a real shift among the professionals," says Christian Chaussard, a Loire winemaker and president of Association des Vins Naturels (AVN). "Consumers are demanding it."
As industrial-food scares and environmental concerns have made consumers the world over increasingly conscious of what they eat and drink, interest in natural wine has grown. "People are demanding authentic tastes, they're taking greater interest in how it's made, what the ingredients really are," says wine expert Isabelle Legeron, who launched a natural-wine fair in London last month. Organic, additive-free wine, she says, is simply "a return to the source."
Natural wine's critics are incensed by such claims. In March, Rhône-based powerhouse producer Michel Chapoutier (who makes 6 million bottles annually) accused makers of natural wine of turning their backs on progress. "It is extraordinary that people defend products with defects on the grounds that in the past growers were making wines with defects," he told Decanter magazine. "Those old wines had defects because people lacked the tools and means to make fault-free wines."
Yet natural-wine makers argue that the techniques that eliminate faults also mask the subtle taste of a place and vintage. In 1981, the late Beaujolais wine-maker Marcel Lapierre began producing wine inspired by Jules Chauvet, a chemist and expert taster who argued against the need for sulfites, added sugar, chemical pesticides and fertilizers. The resulting Beaujolais, of ripe-cherry and violet aroma, tasted unrecognizable in a region given over to mass production. Since then, hundreds of winemakers have joined Lapierre, emerging throughout France, and beyond, in opposition to "industrial wine."
E.U. legislation currently permits around 60 additives in wine, from wood chips, egg and fish derivatives to dimethyl-dicarbonate preservatives, laboratory enzymes and artificial yeast. Wine-makers like Alexandre Bain, situated in the Loire's Pouilly-Fumé region, bemoan a loss of traditional winemaking savoir faire as such additives are increasingly relied on to ensure a consistent flavor profile from year to year. That's something natural wines can't offer. Because it is golden yellow with aromas of quince, a mouth of ripe, almost candied fruit and a long spice-like finish that is to say, nothing like the tart Pouilly-Fumé most of his neighbors make Bain's last vintage was denied the Pouilly-Fumé label by appellation officials who consider it atypical. Yet it is served at top restaurants like London's Le Gavroche and Noma in Copenhagen.
Increasingly denied the right to regional appellations, natural-wine makers may well have to seek other ways to inform consumers about their products. For now, the AVN has enlisted the aid of a Paris attorney to argue that the same legislation that allows French manufacturers to label unflavored yogurt as "natural" should apply to wine. Granting that right, of course, would imply that virtually all of the world's greatest vintages are "artificial." That's a gross impertinence to many in the trade, but a simple truth to a winemaker like Bain. "I want to make vin de terroir," he says. "A wine that expresses the year's climatology, the soil in which the vine grew and perhaps that artistic touch the winemaker brings."