Why Natural Wine Is The Beloved Enfant Terrible Of The Beverage World
And how it unseated wine-drinking habits across the globe—especially in France.
December 8, 2017 ● 5 min read
By Olivia Ware Terenzio | Image ring-ring via iStock
There’s a revolution rattling the Parisian wine world.
You catch glimpses of it in the windows of brasseries across Paris, where promises of vins naturels appear scrawled next to the plat du jour. It incites quiet rebellion in the average wine bar du coin. Entire menus devoted to it litter the city.
Natural wine is the enfant terrible of a hidebound industry—it flouts pedigree and bucks the rules. It wears artsy labels with flashy colors and thumbs its nose at tedious points-based rankings.
So what makes a wine “natural?” Is it the sediment swirling at the bottom of an unfiltered bottle? Or perhaps it’s the deep, fermenty funk of the nose, the fresh acidity, or the mellow alcohol levels. Asking a sommelier or a vintner turns up more questions than answers. For starters, natural wine is typically organic, made with grapes farmed without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. It’s also often biodynamic, the product of ecological, sustainable farming and composting practices. But the rest gets characterized by what natural wine isn’t: no chemicals, filtration, additives, or sulfites. A natural wine confronts you with the realities of the earth—dirt, time, and constant change.
“[It’s] less square,” says Clément Jeannin, sommelier at Parisian hotspot Vivant. “More atypical and surprising, with unusual notes as compared to wines from the same place in so-called ‘conventional’ culture.” Vivant is French for “alive,” so it follows that every wine in its packed cellar—orange or sparkling, from the Languedoc or Chablis—is natural. “For me, [natural wines] have more depth, and what some call faults,” says Jeannin, “but of course when well controlled, you can call it complexity.” Critics suggest that natural methods cover up defects, hindering the expression of the grape and terroir. But for Jeannin, defects are in the eye of the beholder.
To know natural wine is to dispense with handy generalizations that have defined generations of the industry. How to label the flexibility and experimentation of natural winemakers? How to sum up the work of farmers and producers who privilege listening and learning over manipulation? When Mathieu Lapierre, the second-generation proprietor of Domaine Lapierre, an important natural wine house in Beaujolais known for its flagship Morgon cru, discusses his craft, he prefers to go deeper on philosophy, focus, and aim. “The word natural is not a word that I like,” says Lapierre, “because it’s not sufficient to explain the work we do.”
Domaine Lapierre entered the field in the early 1980s, when Jules Chauvet, a Beaujolais scientist, challenged locals (Lapierre’s father Marcel among them) to create wines without sulfites. While experimenting with carbonic maceration—fermenting whole grapes with carbon dioxide before crushing (typically, grapes are crushed before fermentation)—Chauvet discovered that he could produce standout wines using native yeasts and without adding sulfur dioxide. “Part of the philosophy of natural wine is about working like before,” says Mathieu Lapierre. “There is no recipe: every vintage is different, and you have to adapt to it.”
For Vivant’s Jeannin, natural wine is about “the energy, motivation, and different possibilities that winemakers and the world around them have at the moment.” He points to Xavier Caillard in the Loire Valley, Michaël Georget in the Roussillon and Aurélien Lefort in Auvergne as some of his favorites; Caillard plows his plots by horse and took eight years to release his first vintage. Georget restored a vineyard abandoned for 20 years, where he now grazes sheep, keeps bees, and plants chamomile as a natural fertilizer. Lefort, once an engraver and lithographer, draws his own wine labels. The three share an obsessive curiosity about natural winemaking and are deeply committed to nurturing their land.
Most natural wines carry the blanket label vin de table, or table wine, no matter where the grapes are grown, just as most lack vineyard-specific designations and appellations (Domaine Lapierre is a notable exception). French natural winemakers have adopted vin de France as a way of “sticking it to the man,” a point of pride for resisting the powers that be. But without labels as guidance, selecting a good natural wine can be a shot in the dark for consumers. “Natural” does not promise high-quality or delicious. “It really depends on the seriousness of the winemaker and the wine,” says Lapierre.
Same goes for the seriousness of the cellar. Natural wine must be stored at low temperatures, since lacking preservatives, it’s more sensitive to fluctuations in light and heat. While responsible purveyors take extra precautions to keep these wines safe and fresh, the constraints of temperature make shipping a tricky business. Lapierre exports to Europe, the U.S., and Canada, but only when companies have a cooling system to ensure quality control.
Some distributors, especially beyond New York and California, simply don’t have the necessary infrastructure for natural wines. “In Japan, the wine travels with the fish!” laughs Lapierre. “Not with the shoes, like in the U.S.A.” In Japan, where most restaurants don’t have cellars, wine is delivered daily by scooter, a detail that’s made it an unlikely mecca for the stuff.
In recent years, natural wine fever jumped from continent to continent. While the movement began in France in the 1980s, restaurants, shops, and bars across the U.S. have started paying attention, stocking their cellars with earthier, cloudier, and unexpected bottles (think San Francisco’s The Progress, New York’s Wildair, and Chicago’s Bad Hunter).
That’s because natural wines are fun. Artistry aside, when it comes to drinking, they are unfussy, affordable, easy to drink, and unapologetically social. “It’s more like beer drinking,” says Lapierre of Domaine Lapierre’s beloved Morgon, “wine that’s good to drink with friends.”
And maybe it’s just that we collectively crave something less-polished at this moment, something true. Wine made with a little less business and a little more heart. Food—and wine—that feels revolutionary.
Here’s where to look on your next trip to Paris—bonus points for chatting up the sommelier in your pursuit of a game-changing bottle.
Au Passage. The chalkboard menu and approachable prices undersell the thoughtful food, from homemade bread and butter to nose-to-tail meat dishes (offal included). A bottle list of 200 mostly natural wines features plenty of affordable options. The hustling team only adds to the fun; it’s a hub for industry folks on their night off.
Aux Deux Amis. The red awning and round tables say tradition, but the tapas menu, which includes veal tartare and homemade mozzarella, says otherwise. An extensive, ever-evolving wine list is handwritten above the bar. Come early for apéro hour to score a seat. It’s usually packed.
La Buvette. Founder Camille Fourmont is a fixture behind the counter. She opened this wine bar, known for its perfect cheese, charcuterie and citrus-sprinkled white beans, in late 2012. Tables are rare, but visitors are happy standing at the bar, tasting obscure, yet approachable wines with Camille’s guidance. It’s also a shop, so grab a bottle for the road.
Martin Boire et Manger. If the chalkboard outside listing housemade terrine, roasted eggplant with tahini and classic tête de veau doesn’t catch your eye, the hipster hordes perched at wine barrel bar tables just might. Order as many dishes as possible (there are small plates), and thumb through a substantial clipboard wine list for a good bottle to match.
Septime La Cave. Around the corner from the celebrated prix-fixe Septime is its sister wine bar, serving fancy snacks like radishes with smoked butter and ricotta with anchovies. You’ll find five white and five red wines by the glass, all natural and under 10 euros. Come for the drinking, stay for the music.
Le Servan. There’s no precedent for this neo-bistro, which puts a contemporary spin on traditional French ingredients and products (think boudin noir wontons, cod with lemon-pistachio butter and braised Sichuan artichokes). The wine list features mostly French bottles, but you’ll find plenty of variety.
Vivant. With a handful of cozy tables and a chic, lively crowd spilling onto the sidewalk, this is the place for snagging a bar stool and sipping a funky staff recommendation. The short food menu constantly changes and is deceptively simple. You’ll be blown away by the small plates of seared fish, market pastas, and unadorned vegetables that emerge from this tiny space.