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Meet the Natural Wine Rebels Transforming France’s Loire Valley

By Emma John

12.09.19

From the January/February 2020 issue

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In the Loire Valley, a cadre of vintners are defying the traditional French winemaking scene. 

Photo by Céline Clanet 

In the Loire Valley, a cadre of vintners are defying the traditional French winemaking scene. 

It may seem like nothing changes in the Loire Valley, where the grand châteaux and rolling vineyards have existed for centuries. But beneath that tranquility, a wine revolution is growing.

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In the cool, dim cellar, three dozen giant clay urns of different shapes and sizes cluster like an intergenerational family. Some are taller than I am and slope from the shoulders, tapering elegantly to the floor. Others have pronounced bulges at the midriff and lids like drumskins. The smallest hunker close to the ground, alien eggs ready to hatch. All are waiting, patient and enigmatic.

The air hums with music. Ethereal voices are singing to the clay pots—an unaccompanied church chorale from a speaker by the wall. The music mingles with the heady, tangy aroma of overripe fruit, and the stone-walled room seems to pulse with embryonic life. Winemaker Fred Niger stands among the urns and takes a deep breath. “Some people cry when they come in here,” he says quietly.

Making wine in amphoras is an 8,000-year-old tradition that has only recently been revived in France—in this case by Fred at his winery, Domaine de l’Ecu, one of the larger cities on the Loire River. Perhaps it’s the sense of ancient gravitas that gives the place such a spiritual feel. Or maybe it’s something else. The largest of the earthenware containers is painted with symbols that look pure Elvish to me. “They’re runes,” Fred says. “Vikings used to have these characters on their boat, for protection. I put them here to protect the wine.” 

At Domaine de l’Écu, natural wine is made in clay amphoras.

Fred is no Viking. He used to be a lawyer before he turned to what he calls “the dark side”: the exhilarating, exhausting, and often heartbreaking world of wine. But he does believe in symbolism, as well as the spiritual power of connecting with the land—and the fruit it produces. Some people bury their amphoras underground, but Fred wouldn’t think of it. “You need to work with this,” he says. “You can touch it, you can feel it, you can give it energy.” 

The treasure hidden inside the amphoras tastes much like muscadet, the flint-dry signature wine of this area at the western end of the Loire Valley, only 50 miles from the Bay of Biscay. Like muscadet, it’s made from melon de Bourgogne grapes, and it’s light and dry and easy to drink. It is not, however, allowed to be called muscadet. The “muscadets” Fred produces are like no others and not just because they’re made in amphoras. Fred’s creations are natural wines. 

To many traditionalists, natural wine is simply bad wine, and to grant it AOC status would devalue hundreds of years of traditional winemakers’ own history and excellence.

There is no official definition of natural wine. It remains a broad term encompassing a relatively recent movement in winemaking that reduces or eradicates chemical interventions in the process. In France, the Loire Valley—long known for its sauvignons—has become the home of natural wine, inspired by a handful of pioneers who began pursuing organic methods here in the late 1970s and early 1980s. That influence has intensified in recent years—and the shift is causing outrage among the traditional gatekeepers of French wine. 

In his tasting room, Fred pours me a glass of his most recent vintage. The authorities who maintain the reputations of the different wine-growing regions—the appellations d’origine contrôlée, or AOC—strictly define the characteristics of each wine. Traditional winemakers use yeast, nutrients, flavor enhancers, and sulfites to achieve the established flavor profile. Natural winemakers reject such thinking, and the lack of stabilizers in their product means that the results vary widely. Some natural wines even contain the kind of flavors that would be considered flaws in traditional bottles, but which producers like Fred insist are a truer expression of the grapes they cultivate. “I am not a winemaker,” Fred tells me. “You make wine with machines. We grow the vines and take care of the babies.”

Because natural wines taste different than more traditional wines, they are frequently excluded from AOC designations. To many traditionalists, natural wine is simply bad wine, and to grant it AOC status would devalue hundreds of years of traditional winemakers’ own history and excellence. Some natural wine producers have been thrown out of their local appellations—and some, having dared to advertise the origin of their wine on their label without official approval, have been prosecuted and pursued in the courts. Many natural wines may only be sold as vin de France, the lowest rung on the classification system—what the rest of the world knows as “table wine.” Customers don’t pay much for table wine. 

Without AOC backing, natural wines can be marginalized, although their appearance on menus at world-class restaurants such as Noma and chef Yotam Ottolenghi’s Nopi has helped to raise their profile and prove their worth. “As soon as you’re anything other than ‘average,’ people don’t understand,” Fred says. He points to the bottle we’re tasting. “Last year, this got 1 point out of 10 on the rating system, because the testers don’t understand what they’re drinking. I provide this to Michelin-star restaurants! But we have to fight to be accepted.” 

Fred’s friend Virginie Joly is part of a family that has been fighting the French wine establishment for nearly four decades. The hour-long drive from Fred’s place to her family estate, La Coulée de Serrant, takes me past fields of sunflowers that undulate to the horizon. I see the house long before I reach it: a stately 18th-century manor on the top of a hill, the surrounding slopes covered in vines and forest. 

Chenin blanc grapes are pressed at La Coulée de Serrant, a biodynamic winery.

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I also see a smattering of cows, a pair of horses, some goats. An aging guard dog, determined to fulfill her duties, barks at my car as I park. Virginie warns me that the dog has been known to chew on the postman’s trousers, even in her dotage. In the kitchen, two women are shelling beans. “Because viticulture is a monoculture, it’s important for us to have other things that bring a balance,” says Virginie, who has been working on the family estate since she was old enough to walk. “The cows provide the manure for the vines, the sheep eat the grass, and we’ve got all sorts of fruit trees—apple, pear, plum—to attract the bees and the butterflies.”

The Joly family has owned this land since the 1960s, but the estate’s reputation stretches back nearly a thousand years. Virginie drives me around the vineyards that produce a wine called La Coulée de Serrant—from a tiny appellation of just 17 acres—and past the monastery that was home to the Cistercian monks who first planted the vines in the 12th century. La Coulée de Serrant is a monopole, meaning that it is the only winery within the appellation. This makes it easier for the Joly family to secure their AOC status, Virginie admits —being the only one of your kind and having a heritage brand both help.

Emeline Calvez, co-owner of Domaine Bobinet

But they’ve still faced their share of troubles. Virginie’s grandmother began tending the vines when her surgeon husband bought the property. Their son (Virginie’s father), Nicolas, grew up hunting and fishing and always felt a close connection to nature. As an adult Nicolas gave up a job in finance to return home and work the land. “He actually brought in weed killers, because people told him it was better for his workers,” Virginie explains. “But after a year and a half he saw the earth was changing color, there were fewer insects, and the wildlife was being affected.”

Nicolas learned about biodynamic agriculture from a book. Biodynamics stemmed from a belief system called anthroposophy created by Rudolf Steiner at the turn of the 20th century; it encouraged holistic ecological practices, as well as an approach to planting and harvesting that takes cosmic influences into account. When Nicolas started employing the techniques he was reading about, the locals flat-out laughed at him. “We had people saying we would dance naked at the full moon around the fire,” Virginie says. “Everyone said my father was crazy and a fool.” In 1999 there was controversy when the French government classified anthroposophy as a cult, a designation later challenged in court. Even on the morning of my visit, Virginie had received an email from a wine lover in Canada calling her beliefs “dangerous.”

“We spend all our time looking after the grapes the way you’d look after a child. But when it gets to the actual winemaking, you want them to express their own character . . .”

Her wine, however, speaks for itself. Thanks to the family’s passion and dedication, a bottle from Coulée de Serrant has become the kind of thing you have to hunt down in specialty stores before handing over serious cash. It is made from chenin blanc, the white grape planted widely in this part of the Loire Valley. “This one grape can express itself in hundreds of ways,” Virginie tells me and proves it by handing me two of the wines she makes: one so minerally, it’s like licking a stone, the second smooth as molten gold. 

“The vines are right next to each other,” she explains, “and it’s only the small difference of the soil, and the depth of the slate beneath them, that makes the difference. It’s the natural expression of the grape—we don’t do it ourselves.” The Joly family—which includes her son, Vincent—works hard to educate people about the many tricks of the industrial wine trade, both in the media and through Renaissance des Appellations, a trade organization they founded to support biodynamic producers. “You can fabricate wine the way you do Coca-Cola, using lots of chemical processes, so that it can be mass produced and always taste the same,” Virginie says. “And that’s fine—but people should know.” 

Cabernet grapes are destemmed after harvest.

I reach Angers that evening, a city first mentioned in the 2nd century by the astronomer and mathematician Ptolemy that’s now enjoying a thoroughly modern revival. Its medieval alleys are lined with boutiques and restaurants—not to mention bars that specialize in natural wine. The Anjou region surrounding Angers now attracts some of the country’s most experimental and independent winemakers, thanks to its relatively affordable land. The next morning, I head a few miles south of the city to meet one of those producers: Toby Bainbridge, a Brit who emigrated 18 years ago. 

Toby doesn’t even attempt to apply for AOC classification for his wine—he sells it purely as “vin de France.” His wines can’t command as high a price as those with the prestigious regional name, but he doesn’t want to force them into a flavor profile for the sake of a label. “Vines are a very human plant,” he tells me as we walk through his fields in a blaze of summer heat. “We spend all our time looking after the grapes the way you’d look after a child. But when it gets to the actual winemaking, you want them to express their own character, their own essence—not what you want from them.” 

Workers pick cabernet grapes at GAEC, the WineGlass, an organic winery run by Toby and Julie Bainbridge. The duo gave up on getting AOC status for their natural wines and simply sell them as table wine under the designation “vin de France.”

The leaves of the vines flop casually, even scruffily, along their trellises. Bainbridge hasn’t trimmed them for a while; given the unusually high temperatures, he wants them to provide their own shade. “They’re looking tired and scrappy,” he apologizes. “Just like us,” jokes his wife, Julie, an Oklahoma native who moved here with him. Julie has learned just how hard life can be when you’re wedded to the environment and the whims of the climate. The Loire Valley has experienced no fewer than three destructive frosts in the past four years. 

During the last, in April 2019, Toby and Julie thought they had lost everything. Desperate farmers across the valley were doing anything they could to save their crops: burning hay, even tires, to cover their fields in protective smoke. Julie would take pictures of the same vine three times a day to see if she could detect any growth. 

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Some vines did survive, and in the Bainbridges’ chai (wine shed) we taste the result: a light, picnic-ready, fizzy rosé they cheerfully named Brit Pop, and a lip-smacking semidry white called Sweet Dreams. After I’ve sampled a glass or two, Toby drives me to a viewpoint overlooking the valley. As we step out of the car, a relentless wind wraps itself around us. It’s a regular visitor, Toby says, and has its own impact on the wine, drying out the grapes and making them sweeter. There’s a strong smell from the sulfur being sprayed on the vines to combat a fungal disease known as powdery mildew, a technique that doesn’t compromise the Bainbridges’ organic approach. 

The scene looks like a piece by the 19th-century landscape painter Corot, a vision of rural loveliness in greens and yellows and burnt umbers. You’d never know that the Layon, the small tributary river at the bottom of the hill, is deeply polluted, thanks largely to thin soil that refuses to filter a thing. “All the agricultural chemicals go straight in,” Toby says. “It’s one of our biggest motivations to be organic: to have a clean conscience.” 

With its pointy-hatted château overlooking the river, Saumur looks so ridiculously French that you suspect it’s putting it on.

Beneath the soil is schist rock, the material that comprises the roof of almost every house we see. It’s difficult to excavate, which is one of the reasons Toby has a chai and not an underground cellar, but it’s chock-full of minerals that contribute to the complex flavors in wine. Toby explains that as the river curves south, the landscape changes, and the black schist gives way to white limestone. I drive that afternoon, roughly following the river’s path, and in less than an hour I see crumbling chalk cliffs—and the town of Saumur extending from the cliffs to the riverbanks.

With its pointy-hatted château overlooking the river, Saumur looks so ridiculously French that you suspect it’s putting it on. I stop off for a tasting when I see the cellar door of natural wine producer Domaine Bobinet by the side of the road—and discover that I have entered the realm of the reds. The superstar grape of the Anjou-Saumur and nearby Touraine regions is cabernet franc, a cousin of cabernet sauvignon but better suited to the Loire’s cooler climate. I’m ecstatically swishing a deep, earthy vintage around my mouth when a tall, graceful woman in a silk jumpsuit walks in. 

The construction for the medieval Château d’Angers began in the thirteenth century.

She introduces herself as Emeline Calvez, and tells me she used to be a dancer. On her shoulder, you can still see the scar from the surgery that ended her career. “I took one class about becoming a sommelier,” Emeline says, “and it was a revelation. I wanted to do that job, and I wanted to do it straight away.” For a while she worked in a wine shop in Paris, but her passion for natural wine inspired her to take a tour of France, where she learned from anyone who would teach her. That turned out to be everyone. “Natural wine is more than a community,” she says. “It’s a family, but a family that’s a little bit rock ’n’ roll—a family of rebels.” 

It was at the end of that tour that Emeline met Sébastien Bobinet, whose family has made wine for eight generations. They fell in love and have since created some of the most sought-after wines within the Saumur-Champigny AOC. In fact, in blending tradition and modern methodology they are credited with bringing a new complexity and sophistication to a previously unambitious regional style—proof that natural wine can win over the doubters and succeed within the AOC system.  

Emeline leads me up a steep, winding hill to their cellars, which are actually caves. The year “1637” is etched in the limestone above the entrance. “Oh, the caves have been in use far longer than that,” Emeline says when I ask about the date. She explains that troglodytes were known to inhabit Saumur as early as the Middle Ages. I walk in tentatively, eyes slowly adjusting. Dozens of oak barrels line the roughly hewn walls. As we walk, the tunnel opens suddenly into a high-ceilinged cavern, and the dozens of barrels turn to hundreds. 

It’s Ali Baba’s cave but for oenophiles. The cool air transmits a yeasty, fruity scent that seems to ring in my nostrils. “Careful where you step,” Emeline says, guiding us with the light from her phone. “We’ve got a natural spring back here.” Fresh water and enough wine to get you through a millennium; there could be worse places to see out Armageddon.  

I’d happily stay in the caves all day, but I’ve only one day left in the Loire, and I want to spend it immersed in the landscape that inspires, frustrates, and feeds the natural winemakers I’ve met. The next day, I drive 90 miles east to Cheverny, the outer limits of wine country, where the river ends and grassland begins. There’s a 500-mile cycling route that winds its way along the valley, and finding somewhere to rent a bike is never hard. 

Where to Drink Natural Wine in the Loire Valley

I begin my ride in Cheverny’s outer region, a land of plenty, as the hand-painted road signs along the bike path attest: lettuce and mushrooms and tomatoes and fresh eggs, all sold from farmhouse kitchens. The longer I ride, the more my senses pick up. I hear woodpeckers in the branches by the side of the road and deer rustling in a grove of trees. The smell of fresh berries reaches me long before I arrive at the greenhouses that shelter them. 

The land is spilling its secrets, opening up like a glass of red wine left by the hearth. I’ve passed three vineyards already before I reach Domaine de Montcy, whose natural wines are made by Laura Semeria. Semeria moved here from Italy with her family after falling in love with the local grapes. 

Does wine taste better after I’ve spent an hour in the saddle? Probably. Does it taste better when it reflects its environment? Undoubtedly. I raise a glass of Laura’s white cheverny to the light—it’s pale and almost green in color—and catch a hint of late-summer berries in its sauvignon blanc aroma. Something of the French countryside seems to be captured there, a rich yet gentle complexity, a spirit at once ancient and modern. I lift the glass to my lips and drink it in.

>>Next: How Chile’s Oldest Grape Became the Unlikely Star of the Natural Wine Movement

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