Natural wine. Say it out loud. Sounds a little pretentious, doesn’t it? That’s what I’m struggling with right now. I use this term a lot when discussing our wine program at Sycamore. In a nutshell, it means wines produced with a focus on the health of the land, sustainability of natural resources and a lack of additives in both the vineyard and cellar. A thoughtful concept, eh? But every time I say it, “natural wine,” it comes off as so goddamn… hip. And yet the people behind these wines are quite the opposite. This past winter, I had the opportunity to visit with several of the producers we feature, and my experience was eye opening. There are hardworking farmers and families behind these wines. They are dedicated, full of integrity and, with rare exception, palpably warm. What’s more, many of them depend upon their land to earn a living wage. Supporting these people is one of the many reasons we choose to support natural wine.
We stepped in to Charles and Alice’s kitchen at about 10pm, having not eaten nor slept in well over a day. A group of seven of us had flown in from the States and immediately driven from Paris to Champagne then on to Jura (through a snowstorm), tasting plenty of wine along the way but without so much as a cup of coffee to keep us going. We were crispy, woozy and cranky. What we saw when Alice opened the door was a sight for sore eyes – three tables laid end to end and set with a steaming pot of sausages, potatoes and carrots, two huge wheels of baked cheese, a leafy green salad and enough wine to take André the Giant down. For two days they fed us, let us sleep in their attic and horse around with their kids. They entertained our endless questions and brought their friends over to come drink and laugh and talk shit with the Americans. They made us feel at home. Only afterwards did we deal with the business of tasting wine, which itself became a sort of party in their garage/winery on the other side of town. Hospitality came first, and it came, pardon the term, naturally.
Peggy chided us for being late to our appointment. “I wanted to go skiing, but I thought you’d be here earlier,” she said. The cold hello morphed quickly into a sly smile and she ushered us in to a small garage to begin tasting. After a few bottles were opened, she sighed and apologized that we would not taste any red wines. The cool and rainy Jura weather had been especially unforgiving the last few years and now a fruit fly called Suzuki had ravaged what good fruit they’d had last season. Of course, she said, she could chaptalize the wines to make up for the fruit being unripe, but that would go against principle. Furthermore, the volatile acidity caused by Suzuki would be too strong, and she wasn’t going to correct for that. No, she and Jean-Pascal would just sell the sparkling and white wines, plant more red vines and hope for better luck next year.
After a while, she saw that we were chilled and hungry and called over to her favorite restaurant to reserve us a table for lunch. “Come by after,” she told us, “and we’ll take a ride to see the vineyards.” When we got back, she packed three of us in to her old Citroën Deux Chevaux along with a bottle of sweet Vin de Paille for us to sip when we stopped. She tore down the narrow streets of Rotalier while the rest of our group tried to keep up. Before we left, she thrust a handful of bottles at us, “for the road,” she said.
Making the Most of it
We were late to every single appointment on our trip, except for the one we were most eager about. Still jet lagged, we screwed up our timing and arrived at Marie and Vincent’s home a full day before our appointment, while they were away on vacation with their children. Sheepishly, we called them, figuring they’d be annoyed with us for wasting their time. We had too many other stops to make and couldn’t wait around until the next day. To my relief, I could hear Marie laugh through the receiver. She teased us and said that it was no problem. She and Vincent would be back home in a few hours. We could taste then and, if we were hungry, we should all go out to dinner in Clermont-Ferrand that night. Sure enough, she was as cheery and delightful in person as she sounded over the phone.
Vincent took us down to the cave to taste. We asked if Suzuki had damaged their fruit this year, like it had for so many other farmers we had seen. Vincent blew a sort of raspberry and rolled his eyes and nodded. Yes, Suzuki was a big problem. But all of his wines tasted so clean and correct. Was he doing something differently? “Ah,” he wagged a finger, “you see, Suzuki only likes the Pinot. The other grapes were fine. For the Pinot, it was bad. But the bug only spoils the skins of the fruit, the flesh is okay. You see how many barrels of rosé I did this year? All the nice fruit went in to just two barrels of red. So, more rosé this year, less red, but all the wine is good.”
Business had grown in recent years and space had become limited in the cellar. We moved upstairs to a modified sunroom that was housing their Chardonnay. Barrels lined three walls while on a table in the middle sat what looked like today’s mail and a leftover plate of toast – work and life cohabitating. Finally, we moved to the kitchen for a sparkling aperitif before dinner out on the town.
As we made our way up a series of steep, winding roads to reach the Lattard brothers’ home in Autichamp, a gorgeous landscape unfolded. Lush green hills and grazing cattle gave way to stout, flat-topped mountains in the distance, all of it overlooking a jagged river valley. It was like being in a painting. Their vines are scattered across 16 acres of land, with some Gamay planted on what is effectively their front lawn. They keep a few fat pigeons and chickens in a roost, but those are the last vestiges of their family farm. Everything about their operation looked simple and practical, and I could tell when I shook Denis’ callused hand that, for him, natural wine was about being a farmer. Denis is fairly quiet and seemingly pensive. It was hard to contain our excitement over the quality of the wines, which we noticed were improving with each successive vintage we tasted. We asked why he had chosen to grow organically and what led him to eschew sulfur and other additives. He told us that it was essentially how the farm had always run, even when his family was just growing vegetables. Why change?
Going Against the Grain
Sebastien and Alexandre banter and laugh like brothers and their wines are equally simpatico. The Riffault and Bain estates are just across the Loire River from one another in Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, respectively. Both men have taken a dramatic approach to their work, choosing to farm naturally in an area that for years has been known for monoculture and liberal use of chemicals. Additionally, they harvest their grapes significantly later in the season than their neighbors, picking deep into the fall. We asked Sebastien what those around him thought when they first saw him in the vineyard in the middle of October. “That I am crazy, I guess. They still think this, but they don’t say anything anymore,” he laughed. Alexandre nodded knowingly. He had seen the same sideways glances. Sebastien went on to explain that while he and Alexandre work outside the norm, the tradition of winemaking in this part of the Loire goes back further than anyone can recall. At some point, and for a very long time, wine was likely made in a fashion similar to what he and his friend are producing, without modern conventions. Perhaps the wines of this bygone area are what established Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé as notable, quality regions.
Tasting with Sebastien later, we were jumping confusingly from barrel to barrel. Throughout, I could only catch a couple of words, “calcare,” and “Portlandian” – soil types. As I tried to keep up in my notebook, I stuck my nose in the next barrel sample. The wine screamed of graphite, smoke and metal. It was totally unlike any of the other wines we had tasted up until that point. “Silex?” I asked. “Oui, silex,” Sebastien said. I had always heard that Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé grown on silex soils had pronounced scents like pencil shavings and flint. I believed I had smelled this on a couple of occasions in the past. Most of the time, though, those wines just smelled like Sauvignon Blanc to me – grassy, green bell pepper, caraway… This was the first time I sensed the difference in soil side by side with a wine from the same area, from the same vintage, from the same maker. It was a totally natural wine with nothing added in the vineyard and nothing adjusted in the cellar. I was floored.