Has wine gone bad?
If you were lucky enough to dine at Noma, in Copenhagen, in 2011 – which had just been crowned as the “best restaurant in the world” – you might have been served one of its signature dishes: a single, raw, razor clam from the North Sea, in a foaming pool of aqueous parsley, topped with a dusting of horseradish snow. It was a technical and conceptual marvel intended to evoke the harsh Nordic coastline in winter.
But almost more remarkable than the dish itself was the drink that accompanied it: a glass of cloudy, noticeably sour white wine from a virtually unknown vineyard in France’s Loire Valley, which was available at the time for about £8 a bottle. It was certainly an odd choice for a £300 menu. This was a so-called natural wine – made without any pesticides, chemicals or preservatives – the product of a movement that has triggered the biggest conflict in the world of wine for a generation.
The rise of natural wine has seen these unusual bottles become a staple at many of the world’s most acclaimed restaurants – Noma, Mugaritz in San Sebastian, Hibiscus in London – championed by sommeliers who believe that traditional wines have become too processed, and out of step with a food culture that prizes all things local. A recent study showed that 38% of wine lists in London now feature at least one organic, biodynamic or natural wine (the categories can overlap) – more than three times as many as in 2016. “Natural wines are in vogue,” reported the Times last year. “The weird and wonderful flavours will assault your senses with all sorts of wacky scents and quirky flavours.”
As natural wine has grown, it has made enemies. To its many detractors, it is a form of luddism, a sort of viticultural anti-vax movement that lauds the cidery, vinegary faults that science has spent the past century painstakingly eradicating. According to this view, natural wine is a cult intent on rolling back progress in favour of wine best suited to the tastes of Roman peasants. The Spectator has likened it to “flawed cider or rotten sherry” and the Observer to “an acrid, grim burst of acid that makes you want to cry”.
Once you know what to look for, natural wines are easy to spot: they tend to be smellier, cloudier, juicier, more acidic and generally truer to the actual taste of grape than traditional wines. In a way, they represent a return to the core elements that made human beings fall in love with wine when we first began making it, around 6,000 years ago. Advocates of natural wine believe that nearly everything about the £130bn modern wine industry – from the way it is made, to the way critics police what counts as good or bad – is ethically, ecologically and aesthetically wrong. Their ambition is to strip away the artificial trappings that have developed in tandem with the industry’s decades-long economic boom, and let wine be wine.
But among wine critics, there is a deep suspicion that the natural wine movement is intent on tearing down the norms and hierarchies that they have dedicated their lives to upholding. The haziness of what actually counts as natural wine is particularly maddening to such traditionalists. “There is no legal definition of natural wine,” Michel Bettane, one of France’s most influential wine critics, told me. “It exists because it proclaims itself so. It is a fantasy of marginal producers.” Robert Parker, perhaps the world’s most powerful wine critic, has called natural wine an “undefined scam”.
For natural wine enthusiasts, though, the lack of strict rules is part of its appeal. At a recent natural wine fair in London, I encountered winemakers who farmed by the phases of the moon and didn’t own computers; one man foraged his grapes from wild vines in the mountains of Georgia; there was a couple who were reviving an old Spanish technique of placing the wine in great clear glass demijohns outside to capture sunlight; others were ageing their wines in handmade clay pots, buried underground to keep them cool as their predecessors did in the days of ancient Rome.
Sebastien Riffault, from the Loire Valley, runs the 10-year-old trade body L’Association des Vins Naturels. He told me his basic technique was simply “making wine like in a previous century, with nothing added”. This means using only organic grapes, picked by hand, and fermenting slowly with wild yeasts from the vineyard (most vintners use lab-grown yeasts, which Riffault says are engineered “like F1 cars, to speed through fermentation”). No antimicrobial chemicals are added to the wine, and everything is bottled – bits and all – without filtering. The result is that Riffault’s sancerre comes out a deep amber colour and very sweet, tasting like crystallised honey and preserved lemons. It’s excellent, but far from the “pale yellow” with “fresh citrus and white flowers” described in the French government’s official guidelines for sancerre. “It’s not for everyone. It’s not made like fast food. But it’s totally pure,” Riffault told me.
Just 20 years ago Riffault and his contemporaries were ignored, but now they have a foothold in the mainstream, and their approach could transform wine as we know it. “We used to struggle” the Burgundy natural winemaker Philippe Pacalet says. “People weren’t ready. But chefs change, sommeliers change, whole generations change,” he went on. “Now they are ready.”
Is natural wine an absurdity ?
At first glance, the idea that wine should be more natural seems absurd. Wine’s own iconography, right down to the labels, suggests a placid world of rolling green hills, village harvests and vintners shuffling down to the cellar to check in on the mysterious process of fermentation. The grapes arrive in your glass transformed, but relatively unmolested.
Yet, as natural wine advocates point out, the way most wine is produced today looks nothing like this picture-postcard vision. Vineyards are soaked with pesticide and fertiliser to protect the grapes, which are a notoriously fragile crop. In 2000, a French government report noted that vineyards used 3% of all agricultural land, but 20% of the total pesticides. In 2013, a study found traces of pesticides in 90% of wines available at French supermarkets.
In response to this, a small but growing number of vineyards have introduced organic farming. But what happens once the grapes have been harvested is less scrutinised, and, to natural wine enthusiasts, scarcely less horrifying. The modern winemaker has access to a vast armamentarium of interventions, from supercharged lab-grown yeast, to antimicrobials, antioxidants, acidity regulators and filtering gelatins, all the way up to industrial machines. Wine is regularly passed through electrical fields to prevent calcium and potassium crystals from forming, injected with various gases to aerate or protect it, or split into its constituent liquids by reverse osmosis and reconstituted with a more pleasing alcohol to juice ratio.
Natural winemakers believe that none of this is necessary. The basics of winemaking are, in fact, almost stupefyingly simple: all it involves is crushing together some ripe grapes. When the yeasts that live on the skin of the grape come into contact with the sweet juice inside, they begin gorging themselves on the sugars, releasing bubbles of carbon dioxide into the air and secreting alcohol into the mixture. This continues either until there is no more sugar, or the yeasts make the surrounding environment so alcoholic that even they cannot live in it. At this point, strictly speaking, you have wine. In the millennia since humans first undertook this process, winemaking has become a highly technical art, but the fundamental alchemy is unchanged. Fermentation is the indivisible step. Whatever precedes it is grape juice, and whatever follows it is wine.
“The yeasts are the key between the vines and the people,” Pacalet told me, in a reverent tone. “You use the living system to express the information in the soil. If you use industrial techniques, even if it’s a small operation, you’re making an industrial product.” Viewed in this quasi-spiritual way, the winemaker’s job is to grow healthy grapes, tend to the fermentation, and intervene as little as possible.
In practice, this means going without the methods that have given modern winemakers so much control over their product. Even more radically, it means jettisoning the expectations of mainstream wine culture, which dictates that wine from a certain place should always taste a certain way, and that a winemaker works like a conductor, intervening to turn up or tamp down the various elements of the wine until it plays the tune the audience expects. “It is important a sancerre tastes like a sancerre, then we can start to determine levels of quality,” says Ronan Sayburn, the head of wine at the private wine club and bar 67 Pall Mall.
In France, which remains the cultural and commercial centre of the wine world, the acceptable styles of winemaking aren’t just a matter of history and convention; they are codified into law. For a wine to be labelled as from a particular region, it must adhere to strict guidelines about which grapes and production techniques can be used, and how the resulting wine should taste. This system of certification – the appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC), or “protected designation of origin” – is enforced by inspectors and blind-tasting panels. Wines that fail to conform to these standards are labelled “vin de France”, a generic designation that suggests low quality and makes them less attractive to buyers.
Some natural winemakers have rebelled against this legislation, which they believe only reinforces the dominant styles and methods that are ruining wine altogether. In 2003, the natural winemaker Olivier Cousin opted out of his local AOC, complaining in a letter that meeting their standards meant that “one must beat the grapes with machines, add sulphites, enzymes and yeast, sterilise and filter”. When he refused to stop describing his wine as being from Anjou, he was actually prosecuted for labelling violations. In response, Cousin put on a good show, riding his draft horse up to the courtroom steps and bringing a barrel of his offending wine to share with passers-by. But he ended up changing the labels.
“The AOC are liars,” Olivier’s son Baptiste, who has taken over several of his father’s vineyards, told me. “The local designations were created to protect small producers, but now they just enforce poor quality.”
The current wine mainstream approach is largely a product of the past century
The expectations of how a wine from a certain region should taste go back hundreds of years, but the global industry that has been built atop them is largely a product of the past century. If natural wine is a backlash against anything, it is the idea that it is possible to square traditional methods of winemaking with the scale and demands of that market. There is a sense that alongside economic success, globalisation has slowly forced the wine world toward a dull, crowd-pleasing conformity.
France has long been the centre of the wine world, but until the mid-20th century most vineyards were small and worked mainly by hand. In the eyes of natural winemakers, the rot began in the decades after the second world war, as French vineyards modernised and the industry grew into a global economic behemoth. To these disillusioned observers, what seems like a story of technical and economic triumph is really the tragic tale of how wine lost its way.
Before the war, France had just 35,000 tractors; in the next two decades it would acquire more than a million, as well as access to US-made pesticides and fertilisers. At the same time, oenologists, people who study wine, looked to science to refine their product. Two men in particular, Emile Peynaud and Pascal Ribéreau-Gayon, worked tirelessly to first establish their subject’s academic legitimacy, and then to build a bridge between the laboratory and the wine cellar. “In the past we made great wine by chance,” Peynaud declared. The future would be more rigorous.
Peynaud helped standardise the way wine was made. His greatest, and simplest, achievement was to convince winemakers to pick higher-quality fruit and use more sterile equipment. But he also pioneered and popularised the use of laboratory-inspired tests for things such as pH, sugar, and alcohol, which gave a new scientific clarity to winemaking.
This modernisation process was an enormous success. By the end of the 1970s, France’s wine exports totalled over $1bn, almost 10 times what they had been just two decades earlier, and more than those of its competitors Italy, Spain and Portugal combined. As the market expanded, other countries scrambled to emulate the French model. French technicians and consultants were hired by new world wineries to teach them the new science of oenology, and the classic French style. At one point Michel Rolland, the most influential of these itinerant advisors, had more than 100 clients around the world.
And so, even as more countries began producing wine, they all coloured within lines drawn by the French. Cabernet sauvignon and merlot, grapes associated with Bordeaux – long considered the king of French wine regions – were planted in new vineyards emerging everywhere from Chile to Canada. Even Italy, which had always been a distant second in terms of profit and prestige, scored hits at international competitions with bordeaux-style wines made with traditional French grapes grown in Tuscany.
From the 1980s onward, these kinds of bordeaux-esque wines – heavy, slightly sweet and highly alcoholic, made with the help of French consultants – came to dominate the global market. A new generation of critics loved them, especially the all-powerful Robert Parker, a self-styled “consumer advocate” who tasted 10,000 wines a year from his home office in Maryland, and whose recommendations could make or break a winemaker’s year. (The British wine critic Hugh Johnson, in his memoirs, refers to Parker as a “dictator of taste” within an “imperial hegemony” for the extent to which he controlled the fortunes of the worldwide industry.)
The kinds of wine Parker and his peers championed became known as the international style. There was a hint of disdain in the phrase, the sense that a bland internationalism had severed the connection between a type of wine and the place where it is made. In truth, this criticism was hard to dispute. To take just one example, since the 1970s the acreage devoted to native grapes in Italy has declined by half, often replaced with traditionally French varieties.
By the early 1990s France was exporting more than $4bn worth of wine a year – still more than twice as much as Italy, and more than 10 times as much as its new competition from the US, Australia and all of South America. And when it came to style, everyone still followed the French. Today, even the cheapest red wine found in the US or Britain is in some ways a tribute to that victory, having likely been soaked with toasted wood chips to approximate the vanilla and spice aromas of a French barrel, and spiked with sugar and purple colorant to ape the velvety sweetness and inky shade of a good bordeaux.
In the 1990s, a quote attributed to the Bordeaux winemaker Bruno Prats began being repeated in the mainstream wine press and among wine investors like a sacred mantra: “There are no more bad vintages.” The implication was that advances in farming and winemaking technology had all but conquered nature. In 2000, the late wine journalist Frank J Prial declared in the New York Times: “The fact of the matter is that in the cellar and the vineyard, the winemakers of the world have rendered the vintage chart [a historical record of which years are considered by critics to have been good or bad for winemaking] obsolete.” Just as the end of the cold war led some to declare ‘the end of history’ a decade earlier, it seemed that mankind had arrived at the end of wine. There was nothing to do but accept the new reality.
Beaujolais Nouveau a dismal example of technical winemaking run amok
Thanks to the industry’s embrace of technology, wine was more plentiful, profitable and predictable than ever. But in the 1980s, just as French wine was putting the finishing touches to its global conquest, stirrings of discontent began to be heard among winemakers.
The blueprint for what came to be known as natural wine comes from Beaujolais, a pretty region of soft green hills and stone cottages just below the slopes of Burgundy proper. In the 1950s, the area had started making “beaujolais nouveau”, a cheap, easy-drinking wine that was produced quickly and released early in the season. It was a huge hit, and by the end of the 1970s Beaujolais – an area roughly the size of New York City – was producing more than 100m litres of wine a year, and exporting more bottles than Australia and the state of California combined.
Despite its commercial success, Beaujolais had become a dismal example of technical winemaking run amok. The New York Times complained about how producers would “‘push’ the vines” to twice the recommended yield, a process known locally as “faire pisser la vigne”, or “making the vine piss”. To achieve the short production time, winemakers relied on lab-grown yeasts to jump-start the process, and big doses of sulphur to halt fermentation and stabilise the wine ahead of schedule.
A small group of local dissenters loathed this conveyor-belt style of production. They coalesced around a winemaker named Marcel Lapierre, who, upon his death in 2010, was widely eulogised as “the pope of natural wine”. According to his friends, Lapierre complained that chemistry had destroyed the taste of Beaujolais, and that his contemporaries had “mortgaged their future” by producing low-quality wine at a frantic pace. He felt winemaking was being strangled by the demands of the market and the strictures of beaujolais AOC.
Lapierre was a radical – a friend of the Marxist theorist Guy Debord and the situationist poet Alice Becker-Ho – with no clear path to revolution. “We wanted to have a different life, to propose a different wine, one that respects ourselves and the people who drink it”, Lapierre’s nephew and fellow winemaker, Philippe Pacalet, told me.
What they seized upon was a heretical idea from an unlikely source. In 1980, Lapierre met Jules Chauvet, a tweedy local wine merchant, then in his 70s, who had been making small amounts of wine without additives for years. Chauvet, who had trained as a chemist and published widely on fermentation, believed that a healthy, diverse wild yeast from the same vineyard as the grapes produced the most complex, desirable bouquets in a wine. Sulphur dioxide is a potent antimicrobial, and Chauvet wrote that he considered it and other additives “poison” that restricted his beloved yeasts.
Chauvet’s rules for winemaking followed from his obsession with fermentation and eliminating chemicals: the grapes had to be healthy and pesticide-free to cultivate the wild yeast; the winemaking had to be slow and extremely careful, as without preservatives any bit of rotten fruit or unclean equipment could wreck the whole process. “He gave us these rules, and the scientific background,” Pacalet told me, describing Chauvet’s techniques as “the foundation of natural wine”.
It is difficult to overstate how ridiculous all this seemed at the time. In the 1980s, making wine without sulphur was like climbing a mountain without ropes. The French government had promoted and regulated its use since the 19th century, and modern oenologists thought it impossible to make wine without it. Sulphur offered control over fermentation and protected from bacterial spoilage. It was a panacea, the wine world’s equivalent of penicillin.
The odds of making decent wine without any sulphur seemed slim, but Lapierre and his friends persisted. Lapierre’s diaries recount bad harvests, temperamental yeasts causing entire vintages to go milky and sour, and nearly 15 years of experimentation – during which time Chauvet died, in 1989 – before he was consistently making good “low-intervention” wine, around 1992.
Having proved they could do the impossible, Lapierre and his friends achieved a strange success, a bit like a band that sustains a vital sound totally outside the geographic and cultural mainstream. Locally they were seen as eccentrics. The wine journalist Tim Atkin once wrote in the food magazine Saveur that there was “a lot of behind the hand sniggering” from their neighbours.
But Lapierre’s band of natural winemakers cultivated a small, dedicated following in Paris and abroad who were willing to evangelise for them. “When I tasted it [in the 1990s] I almost levitated. My god, I thought, the spirit of Chauvet is still alive,” the American wine importer Kermit Lynch told the magazine the Wine Spectator in 2010. The Japanese were also enthusiastic early converts – they were “the first big customers”, Olivier Cousin told me. “They had good taste and they paid well.”
Lapierre wasn’t the only person to try making wine without sulphur – a number of isolated winemakers across France and Italy were experimenting in similar ways – but some combination of dedication, his personal skill as a winemaker, and the scientific imprimatur of Chauvet’s process resonated. After years of toiling in obscurity, Lapierre’s work was vindicated by the scores of other winemakers who used his prototype to form a loose movement, free themselves of convention, and become the barbarians at the gates of the wine world.
“Natural” and “artisanal” have become bywords for sophistication
In the 1990s, as the natural wine scene made its way beyond Beaujolais, across France and Europe, it took on a gleefully anti-modern character. Many winemakers embraced hyper-localism, planting long out-of-fashion native grape varieties and adopting archaic production techniques. A group based in the Loire valley pushed mysticism to the forefront through an interest in biodynamic agriculture, invented almost a century earlier by the Austrian occult philosopher Rudolf Steiner (he of the controversial schools). This involved promoting biodiversity in the vineyard, but also burying cow horns and entrails to form cosmic antennas in the soil – “raying back whatever is life-giving and astral”, according to Steiner.
For a long time, natural wine seemed destined to remain a shaggy subgenre. But starting in the late 2000s, something changed, and natural wine began popping up on menus in Brooklyn, in east London, and in the hipper quarters of Copenhagen and Stockholm. This new type of wine fitted perfectly with a wider revolution in taste, as vague terms such as “natural” and “artisanal” became bywords for sophistication, and consumers found themselves wanting to dine at farm-to-table restaurants and furnish their homes with reclaimed wood and industrial fittings. What had once been the passion of a hardcore group of eccentric winemakers in eastern France had, somehow, become cool.
London’s wine cognoscenti started noticing the style around 2010, and didn’t know what to make of it. “We were scratching our heads, because the definition was very vague. You could have a very good wine made in this way, then one which is just horrible – fizzing, bubbling, and smelly,” Ronan Sayburn of 67 Pall Mall told me. The wine press tended to describe natural wine as if it were a minefield – with a few safe, conventional choices among a field of explosively bad bottles. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because a wine tastes different or unexpected that also means that it’s good”, the Telegraph’s wine critic Victoria Moore wrote in 2011, in an article titled “Be wary at the Natural Wine Fair”. David Harvey, of the London importer Raeburn Fine Wines, recalled that “many wine professionals and writers pooh-poohed the whole thing early on. They assumed because they knew conventional wines, they knew it all.”
The “emperor’s new clothes
In early 2011, as the natural wine insurgency was growing, Sayburn invited Doug Wregg of Les Caves de Pyrene, one of the largest natural wine importers in the UK, to give an account of the style to a coterie of the nation’s wine elite at Vagabond, a small bar in west London. Among the 12 people attending were Isa Bal, the sommelier of Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant The Fat Duck, and Jancis Robinson, the Financial Times’ wine critic, who advises the Queen’s cellars. The group included eight of the world’s 170 Master Sommeliers, and three of its 289 Masters of Wine, graduates of gruelling professional programmes that can take decades to complete, and produce the grandmasters of the wine world.
“I sensed a lot of hostility in the room,” Wregg recalled. Robinson, the FT critic, characterised the mood as “suspicious”. Among the wines Wregg presented, there were a few hits. A thin, fresh Jura chardonnay by Jean-François Ganevat was well received. Less so a tangy, peppery and slightly sweaty-tasting sulphur-free gamay from the south-eastern Loire, which more than one person noted reeked of “VA”, or volatile acidity – critical shorthand for a variety of acids that smell of vinegar.
It wasn’t Wregg’s most contentious tasting. (“I attended a lunch with him at [the London restaurant] Galvin that winter, where we got cloudy bottles that smelled like the arse-end of a farmyard,” Jay Rayner, the Observer’s restaurant critic, told me.) But the sceptics’ main misgivings – that natural wines were hugely inconsistent, difficult to define and failed to line up with traditional styles – remained. “I feel like I left none the wiser,” Sayburn said. “Some were good, some were horrible.”
There was also a feeling among attendees that, like the paleo diet or probiotics, natural wine was at best a trend, and at worst a cult, one whose supporters were prone to feverish evangelism. Wregg, himself a true believer, was not best-suited to convincing them otherwise. “Talking natural wine with Doug is like talking to a Mormon about God,” one of the attendees told me. Two others compared natural wine to the “emperor’s new clothes”.
Yet the very complaints critics level at natural wine are the same things that now ensure its success. In 2007, University of Toronto sociologists Josée Johnston and Shyon Baumann published a landmark paper arguing that as the influence of French “haute cuisine” declined through the 20th century, a more pragmatic, egalitarian, American-rooted tradition arose. Analysing thousands of press articles, they showed that the qualities of “authenticity” – including geographic specificity, simplicity and personal connection – dominated contemporary food writing. “Authenticity,” they wrote, “is employed to provide distinction without overt snobbery.”
The inconsistency, the impurity, the strong smells, the bits of stems and yeasts that sometimes make it into the bottle – all this signals to the consumer that natural wine is an alternative to the bland, monotonous “perfection” of commercial products, in the same way that slight asymmetries distinguish handmade furniture. Natural wine offers a nothing-to-hide-here image at odds with the stuffy culture of the traditional wine world. To many people for whom a restaurant wine list represents a hellish combination of a geography, history and chemistry test specially designed to make them feel stupid, there is something very appealing about upending the critical hierarchy, or at least being told it can be ignored.
“When you decide consistency is less important, you are more liberated in the way you taste. Instead of looking for faults, you take what the wine gives you,” Wregg told me recently. We were at Terroirs, a Trafalgar Square wine bar that Les Caves opened in 2008, surrounded by mostly older patrons in Oxford shirts or suits, nearly all with a glass or bottle filled with something that would have been nearly unrecognisable as wine a decade ago.
Wregg is fastidious when describing soil types or winemaking practice, but tends to interpret the final product with a loose, anarchic air, like a seditious schoolteacher who knows the curriculum but urges students to doubt the validity of the system that created it. “Customers will tell me, ‘Oh, the 2015 is not like the 2014’, and I say ‘Good’, because, well, those are different years, and if the winemaker was farming honestly and not trying to manipulate the wine towards some idea of quality, it’s always going to be different”, he said. Once one accepts the premises of natural wine, he continued, “In a certain way, all bets are off. Everything is valid, everything is as good as everything else.”
Rigid boundaries soften over time.
Natural wine can’t remain segregated in its own market for ever. There are natural winemakers who want to expand, and mainstream winemakers – struggling with what a 2016 industry report called the “long-term issue of youth recruitment” – eager to learn from natural wine’s popularity with young people who are as interested in craft beer and spirits as they are in wine.
Isabelle Legeron, an influential sommelier and writer, told me her vision for the future of natural wine was “to move away from this image of beatniks in sandals who have no idea what they’re doing”. She would like more transparency and clearer standards about what actually goes in the product – something she thinks favours natural wine’s chemical-free process. She also wants to cut out “bottles with naked lady pictures”, an unfortunate hangover from the scene’s crusty boys-club days.
When I spoke to Jay Rayner (no natural wine fan, to put it mildly) he drew a parallel between natural wine and the success of the organic food movement. Despite its enormous visibility, organic food still accounts for only a fraction of the total market, but its rise has provided a contrast and critique of the mainstream food world that could not be ignored. As a result, the mainstream has become a little bit more organic.
I caught a glimpse of this process late last year at Château Palmer, one of the world’s most prestigious wineries. While natural winemakers often tend toward lighter, brighter wines for immediate drinking, Château Palmer makes dense, highly concentrated wines that won’t age into their full potential for decades. It is wine for the yacht, the private jet and the futures market.
Yet in a sign of how natural wine’s thinking is infiltrating the highest levels of the industry, Château Palmer’s CEO Thomas Duroux has converted the estate, which is in Bordeaux, to biodynamic agriculture. This involves eliminating chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and applying Steiner’s theories of biodiversity and herbal treatments in their place. In 2014, Duroux declared that “in 10 years all the serious classified growths [in Bordeaux] will go this way.” When I visited, rather than the usual stark sight of thousands of vines in bare soil, there were rows of grapes boasting a healthy-looking blanket of leafy greens. Cows provided abundant natural fertiliser, and sheep for grazing between the vines waited in a nearby barn.
Sabrina Pernet, the head winemaker, assured me that the conversion wasn’t just marketing. “Consumers want to drink more natural products. But it’s not just a trend. There’s no future in killing the Earth,” she said. For the past few years, Château Palmer has also been experimenting with lowering the sulphur content in their wines. “The first time Thomas and I tried our wine without sulphur it was incredible”, Pernet said. “It was so open, so expressive. Sulphur makes wine very closed.”
If this seems like the familiar story of the market absorbing criticisms and turning them into new ways of making money, it’s worth noting that some core elements of natural wine are likely to defy attempts at scaling up. Everyone at Palmer is quick to point out that they aren’t going fully natural, just dialling back their additives as much as possible. “We can’t make wine totally without sulphur. I don’t want fizziness, I want it clean,” said Duroux. And with 10,000 cases retailing at more than £2,000 each, unlike small-scale natural wine producers, they can’t afford mistakes.
“This is a problem for the big estates,” said Cyril Dubrey, a winemaker in the village of Martillac, about 50km south of Château Palmer. “You need to be OK with losing some barrels, or to simply accept the wine you made.” Dubrey’s wine is fresh and very acidic, with a slight dusty earthiness – a long way from the density and power of the Château Palmer wines. But it is very good, and true to his DIY operation; Dubrey’s small vineyard butts up against the basketball nets and swimming pools of his neighbours’ yards.
“You should be free in your head and heart,” he said, with a calm satisfaction. He comes from a mainstream winemaking family, and studied oenology nearby. He has never regretted breaking with that tradition. “I’m proud of the wine that comes from this place. There is nothing added. The wine is free.”
About the Guardian and the author
The Guardian is an international London based newspaper. The Guardian long read section provides in-depth reporting, essays and profiles.
Stephen Buranyi is a writer in London and a former researcher in immunology.