By Steven Lanum
I went to Paris and all I drank was plonk, which my wine dictionary defines as a "derogatory English term for wine of undistinguished quality."
Well, let me clarify just a bit. I did something I've never felt secure enough to do before: I acted as though I knew nothing whatsoever about wine and let others guide me. (Even when I in fact knew next to
nothing about wine I probably pretended I was an expert--at least in public.) So, after doing some homework and selecting a wine shop that my research suggested would be a trusted source of advice, I
simply bought and drank what was recommended, even if I had never heard of it. As it turned out, I had never heard of any of it. Most of it was "Vin de Table," the lowliest designation in France's official
categorization of quality levels applicable to wine. Vin de Table is consumed in vast quantities by people who want a beverage that will give them a cheap high but who don't care if it tastes like paint thinner. Hence my claim to have consumed lots of plonk.
But this stuff sure didn't taste like solvent. To the contrary, in bottle after bottle I smelled and tasted aromas and flavors that were alternately haunting, exciting, unusual, and occasionally funky, but always delicious. Several bottles left me speechless and in awe. The average price of these wines, by the way, was about 12 Euros a bottle, a little less than $18, including taxes, at current exchange rates (which, to say the least, are not favorable from the standpoint
of people exchanging dollars). In fact, my specific limit was 14 Euros a bottle.
It's what these wines all had in common that led them to be suggested by the staff at the wine shop I frequented, la Cave de l'Insolite.* Each one was made by a vintner practicing traditional, organic methods
in his vineyard and, just as important, natural practices in the cellar. All wines were made from grapes harvested manually and were fermented on their naturally-occurring yeasts, without adjuncts or
additives of any kind, and with minimal (or no) added sulphur during fermentation or at bottling.
Because these wines, at least the ones labeled as Vins de Table, were for one or more reasons out of step with French appellation guidelines (being produced, for example, from grape varietals not officially
recognized in a particular area, or from grapes grown outside of a delimited zone, or perhaps simply because the wines did not taste like others in the same appellation) they were denied official designation as anything other than Vin de Table. As such, they couldn't even indicate their vintage or varietal on the label.
Another thing these wines had in common was great taste. From thirst-quenching slurpers to exquisite "what on earth are the sublime aromas and flavors filling this glass?" wines of meditation, their quality was amazing. Of course, they did not all taste the same, but more than a few offered up similarly mineral and fruit-laden notes without ever seeming over-concentrated, oaky, or powerfully alcoholic (11% alc. by vol. seems to have been average--a far cry from the 14%, 15%, even 16% abv wines we see so much of). Judging by the numbers of businesses catering to them, there is a growing number of wine enthusiasts in
Paris who prefer greater finesse and subtlety in their beverage of choice, along with prominent levels of acidity which make it easy to enjoy these wines with food. There are well over a dozen Parisian wine shops that specialize in natural wines, and at least as many
more wine bars serving these selections by the glass with meals prepared in minuscule kitchens. There are books proclaiming the virtues of this style of wine, and a quarterly journal devoted to describing them.
What are some of the reasons for this burgeoning interest? It is clear that two factors underlying the appeal are health and environmentalism: in much the same way that a desire for well-being and sustainability motivates people to shop for organic produce, there are wine drinkers who take issue with supporting the segment of the wine industry that
relies on synthetic herbicides and pesticides to "treat" their vineyards. There is also a desire on the part of some people to experience a more "natural" product, one tied to traditional practices—a particularly potent motivation in a land that universally worships what is known as "la cuisine grandmere" (cooking like grandma used to), even if your own grandmother couldn't actually boil water.
Additionally, there are people who object to modern industrial practices because they simply and genuinely abhor the taste of the finished product. This may be because they dislike the flavors imparted by industrially manufactured strains of yeast, or because they have highly developed sensory receptors that are offended by adjuncts most people may never notice, such as sulphur. It is clear that some people can smell or taste sulphur at much lower concentrations than can the general population. This was borne out during my conversation with one of the more visible exponents of natural wines in Paris, who has just opened a wine bar where he sells only wine made with no added sulphur.**
I don't know that I've ever consciously detected the smell or taste of sulphur in a wine. But now I can appreciate that what may be the case for me is not true of everyone. Whether a wine has little or no
added sulphur may say less about its ultimate quality than the fact that the vigneron who made it devoted a substantial amount of thought to his use of sulphur. To be sure, whether a particular wine was made without added sulphur is no more a guarantee of quality than is the fact that a wine was made with organic grapes. Sulfite-free, organic crap is still crap. But if he decides not to dose his wine with high levels of sulphur at the time of bottling, a winemaker needs to
take special care at every step of the winemaking process, from pruning his vines, to bringing in the harvest, to fermentation, and beyond, and it is that extra care that manifests itself most noticeably in
the finished product. That bottle of wine is a hand-made labor of love, the sum total of hundreds of individual decisions as well as the characteristics of a specific place, vintage, and grape varietal.
Want to try some of these wines? I hope to have more to say about some of them in a future post but right now you might try to find the following, all of which are on the shelves of cavistes and wine bars in Paris devoted to natural wines as well as available here in the Bay Area.
Marcel Lapierre Morgon – a Gamay-based wine made
according to 100% natural principles
Jean Foillard Morgon "Cote de Py" – another Gamay-based
wine of extraordinary quality
Jean-Paul Thevenet Morgon – a third Gamay-based wine
made from organic grapes without adjuncts
Philippe Tessier Cheverny rouge – bursting with
strawberry/cherry fruitfulness, this wine is
Alice et Olivier de Moor Chablis "Rosette" – hand-harvested, minerally Chardonnay
*La Cave de l'Insolite, 30 rue de la Folie-Mericourt,
in the 11th arrondissement of Paris.
**Pierre Jancou. His wine bar is called Racines and
is located in the Passage des Panoramas, in the 2nd
arrondissement of Paris.
(c) 2007 Steven Lanum
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|Meet the Wine Columnist
A San Francisco native, Steve particularly enjoys wines from the Rhone and Loire Valleys of France. His long-standing interest in wine took a giant leap forward in 2001 when he had the opportunity to taste at a number of renowned estates in France. He looks for characteristics that will complement rather than overwhelm accompanying food as well as attractive quality/value ratios when shopping for wine.