Natural Wines: A Taste of Place

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For the wine enthusiast, a trip to Burgundy can change everything. It's arguably the most revered of French wine regions and, also arguably, the most picturesque. It certainly was a game-changer for me. I set foot on hallowed Montrachet Premier Cru ground; I explored the labyrinthine cellar of Maison de Champy, with its dusty bottles, some a century old, with the gruff winemaker Dimitri Bazas (who spent much of my visit berating Americans for such crimes as infanticide: drinking wines too young). All fun. But what changed the game was tasting my first natural wines.

These wines--at times sparkling with the funk of fermentation, always redolent of the earth in which their grapes were grown--tasted like nothing I'd ever had. They were alive, literally. And, more than any wine I'd ever drunk, they communicated that most elusive of wine terms: terroir.

My first brush came at Eric de Suremain's biodynamic winery. His elegant, expressive wines were made, in some cases, from grapes he stomped with his feet. His Rully Blanc 1er Cru had a savory, mineral, almost briny quality that stood out from the fruit-and-flower-noted wines I'd had in the region.

"Natural" is not an official certification, like organic or biodynamic, but rather a style.

Soon after, I was introduced to Alain & Julien Guillot, a father-son team that makes funky wines in a ramshackle house in Macon-Cruzille (not to be confused with a Guillot cousin who also makes natural wine down the road). Julien showed me their 150-year-old press--now defunct, but only as of the 2007 vintage--as he explained that his family went natural because his grandfather was "allergic" to sulfites.

Just what made these wines natural, exactly? Sure, they're organic, although not certifiably so. And, yes, they're often biodynamic--because if you're going to take such care to grow grapes, why not give them the mystical treatment? But just as a square is a rectangle but a rectangle not necessarily a square, natural wines are organic but organic wines are not always natural. "Natural" is not an official certification, like organic or biodynamic, but rather a style.

In lay terms, these wines carry the organic philosophy from the vineyard into the cellar. They are made without the use of pesticides and herbicides on the vines and without any, or as few as possible, of the 200-odd additives routinely used in conventional winemaking. Most important, they're fermented using yeasts that occur spontaneously rather than the commercially bred yeast strains common to modern winemaking. The vineyard soil is plowed, never irrigated; the grapes are picked by hand; the wine is unfiltered. And production is very, very small. The winemaker observes, more than orchestrates, the winemaking process, which is often referred to as non-interventionist.

Jenny Lefcourt, who is a partner in Jenny & Francois Selections, an importer of natural wines from France, says the difference between "a small vineyard making a natural wine and a big company making a technological wine is that one expresses a place. The other is made to taste the same every year. The taste profile is decided in advance."

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Chantal Martineau covers food, wine, and spirits for such titles as Saveur, Imbibe, and The Village Voice. More

Chantal Martineau is a Montreal native now based in New York who writes about food, wine, and spirits for such titles as Saveur, Imbibe, and The Village Voice.

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