So here I was, last spring, talking away with the recently-departed Marcel Lapierre, the Beaujolais vigneron who was one of the dominant figures of the natural wine movement in its strictest definition—organic in the vineyard, wine made with grape juice only, nothing added (not even sulfur), nothing taken out. And as we got into discussing the risks of wild fermentations without sulfur, I asked him what he recommended doing if a fermentation went off in the wrong direction, with undesirable microorganisms like Brettanomyces taking over the wine’s development.

“You could add sulfur,” he said, matter-of-factly.

If it’s that or losing the wine, he pragmatically pointed out, why would you hesitate?

This kind of no-nonsense attitude, stated with a wise and calm smile, was quite clearly present in all of Lapierre’s discourse, and those of the other Beaujolais natural wine producers that came along with him to Quebec, last spring, to showcase their latest vintages. Jean and Agnès Foillard, Christophe Pacalet and Georges Descombes also showed a very practical take on natural winemaking, putting the accent on plant physiology and careful use of microbiology, rather than, say, flying stones or root vs. leaf days.

Vineyards on the Côte du Py, in Morgon, the Beaujolais cru that has also become a focal point of natural winemaking

Over lunch, the Beaujolais gang talked with great pleasure of the importance of using a microscope in their practice, to see the different kinds of yeasts present in the must (some balloon-shaped, others like lemons and other myriad shapes) and to see if other bacteria were also present and needed to be dealt with (essentially through racking juice from a healthy, happily-fermenting tank to one that could potentially get into trouble). Lapierre pointed out that if he hadn’t used sulfur in his tanks in years and years, it was because he had given himself tools to avoid situations that might have forced him to do so.

Christophe Pacalet, who tries to vinify wines from various crus (Chiroubles, Brouilly, Moulin-à-Vent) and various parcels in the same fermenters, every year, discussed how Juliénas fermentations always started at cooler temperatures while Moulin-à-Vent systematically went hotter. These were vignerons impressed by and attentive to the differences found in every plot, if you allowed them to express themselves as directly as possible. These were people eager to share knowledge and enthusiasm, but far from imposing their views on anyone. You can’t force people to take up natural wine, Marie Lapierre (Marcel’s wife) pointed out: “it has to come from them.”

Those discussions—and others I had over the last few months with other natural wine producers like Gilles Bley of Clos Siguier, in Cahors, a whole bunch of Roussillon winemakers like Tom Lubbe, Bruno Duchêne and Nikolaus and Carolin Bantlin, or Arianna Occhipinti, from Sicily—were quite a contrast with the way debates about natural wine have been taking place in various parts of the wine-writing world and the blogosphere.

The big debate

In the spring, I wrote a column on my own blog, The Wine Case, trying to sort things out after a fiery set of online debates, notably between Alice Feiring and Dave McIntyre of the Washington Post. Alice and Dave eventually talked on the phone, smoothing out their differences somewhat, and for a short moment, it seemed like things might go their… natural way.

In fact, things have only heated up since the summer, and they show no sign of calming down.

In June, Eric Asimov described the world of natural wines as one of the wine world’s great “hornets’ nests”, pointing out how “even defining the term incites the sort of Talmudic bickering usually reserved for philosophers and sports talk-radio hosts.” He also pointed out that the debate was out of proportion with the actual importance of natural wines on the marketplace, and showed annoyance that critics of natural wine tend to point the bad ones as a way to discredit the whole movement. Food and Wine magazine also jumped in, with Jon Fine wondering about the weird and wonderful world of natural wine, and in the end finding “much more consistency of quality to this supposed fringe than I had expected.”

Then, in August, there was a post on San Francisco’s Natural Wine Week by Alice Feiring, who seems to be the lightning rod of all debates surrounding natural wine. She complained that the term was being used in a somewhat questionable manner in some parts of the program, leading in turn to incensed reactions by Andy Peay and Robert Sinskey, as they felt accused of being called out as “unnatural.” Twitter discussions and further blog posts and reactions went on for days and days after that. SF Natural Wine Week had become a contentious event.

This new kerfuffle resulted in a very thoughtful piece by Jon Bonné about The growing clash over ‘natural wine’, where he worried about the “thicket” that is the term “natural,” whether in wine or in food. The muddying of waters over the term “natural wine”, to him, seems inevitable as the concept catches on. And to support it, he pointed out this gem of a wine description:

So I shouldn’t have been surprised by a recent note describing how one winemaker was “elevating the quality of the grapes through the most natural means possible.” How? “Through a constant experimentation with clones, yeasts, barrel styles and blending of wines from various lots and barrels.” An estate Chardonnay was blended from 12 lots, each fermented with a different yeast strain.

That muddying of waters has become a growing concern and a growing topic in the debate. Steve Heimoff treated the issue in a very dismissive way in his blog post called Natural, Schmatural, where he essentially said he didn’t care about how wines were made. The comments in reaction to his “take” on the issue, as in the case of the Feiring blog, are worth reading as much, if not more, as the actual piece.

Around the same time, Cory Cartwright, whose much-appreciated 31 and 32 days of Natural wine series have garnered much attention in this ongoing discussion, essentially decided to throw in the towel and abandon the term “natural”. Worried of PR takeovers and of pigeonholing himself away from very good wines, he wondered if the advocacy of “natural” couldn’t be as reductionist as using points, and thus concluded:

But from here on out I’m talking about producers, the pleasure wine gives me. I’m removing myself from the ideological fray. If I don’t like a wine, what is the point of arguing total sulfur?

On Slate, Mike Steinberger went in the same direction, enjoining everyone to just drop the polarizing term to get to the essentials—and the good stuff:

I think “natural” advocates ought to ditch the “natural” label, which is hopelessly tendentious and polarizing, and should instead put the focus where it really belongs, on individual wines and winemakers. (…) And isn’t that what the natural wine movement is supposed to be about, anyway—standing up for individuality in a world full of cookie-cutter chardonnays? Call them good wines, call them distinctive, soulful, or funky wines—just don’t call them natural wines.

That point of view, while understandable in the current, polarized atmosphere, begs the question: if you don’t call them natural (a term that the Lapierres saw as convenient, at most), what else are you going to call them?

The debate is not over, in any case. This month, even as Jancis Robinson chimed in on “the latest position in holier than thou wine” with a “bemused” column on the matter, natural wine importer Joe Dressner struck back at those who were “recanting” with a reposting of his Manifesto on Natural Wine. Too much debating and PR and not enough wine, he essentially complained:

The problem is that there was never an official faith and never a doctrine. The blogosphere and media created a construct, milked-it for publicity and then deconstructed an “ideology” that they had helped to define and promote. (…)Let them criticize Natural Wines they don’t like, and God Knows there are many that I find badly done. But the movement to do better work in the vineyards and the cellar is something a journalist should be embracing, while criticizing the limititations or flaws of particular growers or wines.

Meanwhile, in the vineyards…

In the midst of all this heated debate, what has struck me as I talk with practitioners of strictly-defined natural wine—at least, the ones I met—is how non-dogmatic they tend to be. For them, natural, no-sulfur wine is an objective, something they decided to aim for, not the only way to go.

If you travel to Jura, one of the hotbeds of natural winemaking, you’ll see a sign hanging above Overnoy’s doorway in Pupillin. It doesn’t make any bold ideological statements, with its only statement being “Vin produit sans désherbant chimique” (wine made without the use of any chemical herbicide), even as there is much more going on. Just like Lapierre, Overnoy isn’t a man for grand statements – and he wasn’t averse to a little chaptalization, if a bad vintage required it.

This distance between the ideological bickering and name-calling and the practice of natural wine can probably be attributed to one thing in particular: taste. Indeed, the driving force behind a lot of natural winemakers’ adherence to this philosophy seems to be a very personal wish to make wine more to their personal liking.. In Jancis Robinson’s recent column, Thierry Puzelat says that he simply started on this path to make wines he liked to taste, a story also told by the Beaujolais winemakers, among others.

Lapierre recalled how, in the early 1970s, when he began making wine in the way he had learned it in oenology school, with cultured yeasts and sulfur and such, his father would frown when tasting the wine. “It’s how it’s supposed to be made”, Lapierre would say to his father, who had traditionally made the wine without sulfur or any addition. “I know, but it’s not good”, his father would reply. Lapierre eventually concluded the same thing, and dropped the modern approach in the early 80s. As a result, he told me, several producers from his neck of the woods would periodically drop by to drink his wine, telling him they just couldn’t drink the stuff they were making with cultured yeasts and other modern methods.

When I asked Gilles Bley of Clos Siguier, a producer of refreshing, no-sulfur Cahors, why he didn’t use new oak, he simply and gently replied: “I just don’t like the taste.” As for no sulfur, he expressed that it was the way he knew how to make wine, and that you just had to be careful In handling the wine gently and protecting it well from oxidation. No tirades, no big statements, just a question of making wine the way you like to taste it.

Arianna Occhipinti

Discussing her remarkable and idiosyncratic Il Frappato, Sicilian natural wine producer Arianna Occhipinti explained that 30% of the wine, for the 2007 vintage, had stayed on its skins for eight months, instead of being pressed off early on, as one usually does. Why so long, I asked? “I kept tasting the wine and it kept tasting better and better”, she said, adding that she might or might not do it again, all depending on what she tasted. “I’m not thinking about the consumer when I make my wine”, she also said. “I just think it should be a mirror of the terroir – and I’m lucky to have very nice terroir.”

It’s the same kind of answer I also got from Jared Brandt, of A Donkey and Goat Winery, in Berkeley, who have been increasingly moving to no-sulfur wine, and actually published a manifesto on their natural approach to wine. When I visited them in late 2008, we tasted two versions of their superb grenache rosé, Isabel’s Cuvée, one that had been bottled with an addition of sulfur just prior to bottling, and the other one manually bottled without sulfur. The no-sulfur version definitely tasted fresher, with a brighter expression, encouraging him to move towards reducing the use of sulfur – notably in Isabel’s Crazy Cuvée, the no-sulfur version of the Grenache rosé. Already concentrating exclusively on natural fermentations, Jared and Tracey Brandt are actually looking to make more no-sulfur wines as time goes by.

An ounce of prevention

One of the key elements of natural winemaking is simply summarized in one word: prevention. Since you are not being chemically remedial, since you are not adding or removing stuff, you need to exert extra care at every step.

Successful natural winemakers tend to be very empirical, and reducing their approach to tradition non-intervention and “wild” things happening in the cellar is simply wrong. For instance, by using the services of a microbiologist, Lapierre and his colleagues learned that a traditional approach meant to solve a problem actually made it worse, and adjusted accordingly. Traditional wisdom said that, in warm years, you should pour juice over the fermenting bunches of grapes (Beaujolais fermentation is usually whole-bunch fermentation) to reduce the risk of lactic bacteria taking over and causing the wine to spoil. But as the microbiologist they hired looked through the microscope, she saw that the process actually increased the bacterial activity. Through this observation, they changed their procedure—notably by keeping the grapes at a cooler temperature—and helped reduce the prevalence of the problem.

A bottle of healthy, no-sulfur Morgon Côte du Py by Jean Foillard

Prevention is also why minimal sulfur at bottling is one of the most frequent additions that natural winemakers consent to, when necessary. Marcel Lapierre only sent sulfured bottlings to certain destinations like the Caribbean, where the high heat and difficulties in storage would make life exceedingly hard for his non-sulfured bottlings.

Jean Foillard, discussing the care that must be taken at the time of bottling (including, if possible, a look through the microscope to see what’s floating around), remembered an old vines cuvée that smelled and tasted so amazing that “I bottled it without checking, figuring the wine was so good that nothing could happen to it. But there was a bacteria present that causes what we call la maladie de l’amer, a breakdown that gives the wine a very bitter taste. After a few months, we realized we had to throw out the whole lot. And all that could have been taken care of with probably as little as 20 parts per million of sulfur.”

Despite these occasional problems, these winemakers remain committed to this goal of avoiding sulfur (and every other addition). If anything, the occasional mistake just teaches them to be even more careful and preventive and systematic in their approach.

Not everyone can be natural

One other point that natural winemakers have repeatedly said in discussions I had with them is that natural winemaking works on a small scale, and that while most of them hope to make converts, they do not see the whole world of wine heading that way. The Beaujolais winemakers were all unanimous in saying that they could hardly see anyone working in a natural, no-sulfur approach in estates larger than 15 to 20 hectares (40 to 50 acres, roughly). Controlling fermentations in a 20,000 liter tank simply can’t be done the same way as with a 500- or 1000-liter tank, they pointed out.

Far from condemning all large-scale producers, Lapierre simply recognized that they were doing something completely different. Lapierre had good words for Georges Duboeuf, the négociant who did so much, at a certain time, to raise standards and provide greater visibility and market share for Beaujolais wines. He appreciates the quality of Duboeuf wines—within the framework of a large-scale négociant. It’s just a different line of work, he said: “Doing what we do, for a négociant like Duboeuf, would be impossible. You shouldn’t oppose those two worlds of wine, they coexist. We make niche products, largely for a clientele that has the culture and money to appreciate them.”

Beyond scale, natural winemaking also depends on personal capacity and commitment. “It’s a lot more work”, insists Agnès Foillard, explaining why a lot of vignerons hesitate to take that route. “I don’t think everyone can do it. It’s a very serious thing”, concurs Arianna Occhipinti. “I like that the movement is growing. I think we should be very open—but also very serious.”

Respect for those who do things differently, a will to be open without letting everything and anything being included in the movement, principles to guide wine growing and winemaking, yet pragmatism as to how those principles should be applied: not all is black and white, in the “continuum of naturalness” that is modern winemaking, as Jamie Goode calls it. Most vignerons who work the “nothing added, nothing taken out” way are quite aware of this, and don’t dream of no-sulfur hegemony. Maybe everyone should take a deep breath, and a big sip of good wine. Natural, if you so choose.

Rémy Charest is a Quebec City based journalist, writer, and translator. He has been writing about wine and food for over 12 years in various magazines and newspapers. He writes two wine blogs (The Wine Case, in English, and À chacun sa bouteille, in French) and, as if he didn’t have enough things to do, he recently started a food blog called The Food Case.

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52 Responses

  1. Joe Dressner

    Thanks for a well balanced and throughful article. The problem with much of the blogosphere discussion about natural wines is that it is simply hot air. Blog chatter. Natural Wine is a vague movement, more a spirit than a codified way of doing things. The results are in the fields, the cellars and the bottles. Judge there, don’t make judgement based on competing blogs.

  2. Remy Charest

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Joe.

    I do think the vagueness of the natural wine movement is what is causing a lot of the discussion, but as my article hopefully points out, it’s perfectly normal that it is not a codified thing.

    I do hope that more people will understand the practical points at hand, and not throw out the baby with the bath water, as discussion continues on this important question.

  3. Fabio

    I’ve come to think that a major part of the ‘debate’ on natural wines boils down to the semantics and connotations of the word ‘natural’! ie, the people that drink, make and blog about ‘normal’ or ‘conventional’ wines don’t like it (or even take offense) because the word itself implies that these wines are somehow UN-natural, less good or inferior to ‘natural’ wines. Common sense is gone, and instead of talking about individual wines, whole categories are being compared.
    I went through a period of being fustrated and angry at the futility of the whole debate, but now I’ve come to realize that there IS no right answer! It’s the journey, not the destination. I think that as the endless debating goes on we can all learn things about wines in general, and even enjoy the wines we drink (natural or not!) even more!
    As you say above, all the posts and articles are ultimately hot air, and the reality is on the ground. As long as there are people who make natural wines and (just as important) people who drink them, then all is well with the world.

  4. Guillaume

    Hello ! Actually you explain clearly the reality of natural wines and winemakers : these people are not ideologists ! good job !

  5. Remy Charest

    Fabio, I agree that the debate is frustrating at times, and I can’t say I don’t have an understanding for the desire of Cory Cartwright and Mike Steinberger to do away with the term, which they see as a hindrance. However, I still think that, as long as people agree on the basic spirit (nothing added, nothing taken out) and drop the semantics, the term can be useful to point out a direction. The Lapierres repeatedly said that for them, the term “nature” was just a convenient designation, a shorthand of sorts, and that the label didn’t matter to them.

    Speaking of spirit and natural approaches, I have to say I am finding your blog very interesting:

    Carbonic airen? Coool.

  6. Remy Charest

    Sue and Guillaume, thanks for the good words. Once you get to the winery, punch down and watch natual fermentations ride, you do get the sense that this is a discipline, a technique, not an ideology.

  7. Ken Payton

    I have not hitherto weighed in on the topic of ‘natural’ wine because it remains a pointless scholastic exercise, driven largely by self-interest. There are ‘natural’ wines being made everyday by unidentified producers world-wide. Indeed, they might well be surprised that their modest non-interventionist approach suffered such a noisy, contested dimension. For they are winemakers, and as such have no particular interest in abstract tempests joined by those who’ve never put their livelihood, their family’s welfare, at risk to make a marketable wine year after unpredictable year.

    I know of small producers, even here in a California Ms, Feiring has so blithely bothered, who are without a champion; unknown to Mr.Dressner, an importer of ‘natural’ wines, or, again, to Ms. Feiring who, it must be said, has a forthcoming book on the subject.

    As I glance over the many retweets of Remy’s article, most recently by Mr. Asimov of The Pour, one thing becomes clear: This is an amusingly absurd kumbaya moment shared by the very people who initially brought such clutter to the topic.

  8. Remy Charest

    Thanks for the comment, Ken. You do point at the difficulty I was sensing, which brought me to write this piece. Indeed, it shouldn’t be forgotten that “natural wine” was long the default way of doing things, and still is for a lot of people.

    One of the other things that Marcel Lapierre had told me, when we met in the spring, was that in Beaujolais, traditional winemaking was still a living tradition, when he was growing up. Since a lot of the folks making wine in Beaujolais were largely doing polyculture (a bit of livestock, a bit of grain, a bit of vegetables, a bit of wine…), they did things very simply. “And if you lost a tank because it went bad, you just poured it down the drain and you had less wine for the season. And if you had a lot of good wine, you married your daughter the next year”, he cheerfully recounted.

    So at the start, there was no agenda, just winemaking as it – if I dare say so – naturally came.

    Surely there are a lot of people who do still make wine that way, blissfully unaware of how so many winemakers have come to see this as something “impossible” or even “dangerous”.

    As for the great Twitter love-in currently going on about this piece, Ken, the day is still young. 😉

  9. Tom Mansell

    What’s interesting to me here is that the writers and critics, who have comparatively little at stake, are more dogmatic about it than the winemakers who make their living fermentation by fermentation.

  10. John Kafarski

    Great piece, Remy. Responsibly made, non-manipulated wine should be championed, not merely a talking point for rhetoric from self-promoting critics and wine writers on both sides of the argument. What frustrates me most about the discussion about natural wine is the dogmatic approach that most parties involved tend to take. As Joe points out above, there needs to be balance in understanding why naturally made wine is important. Or else wine falls victim to the same whackadoo politics that permeates the other already polarized facets of our popular culture.

  11. Bryan

    Great story Remy!

    Ultimately I’m looking for what I like to call “honest” wine and so called natural wines tend to give me what I’m looking for. I’ve started using wild yeasts ferments in my own wine and I’ve experimented with little to no sulphites when I could get away with it.

    Just wondering if it’s easier to get away with minimal sulphites in Beaujolais wines because of a lower pH?

  12. Joseph Di Blasi


    Very nicely thought out and written. There will always be wine makers who do little to nothing in the cellar to let their grapes exptress their origin and there will always be people who like to drink these wines. What these wines are called will probably change many times.

    Thank you,

  13. Becky Wasserman Hone

    Thank you, thank you for such calm and reasoned words. As someone who has long been a partisan of old vines, native yeasts, etcetera, I have often (sheepishly) admitted that there are ‘bad’ old vines, naughty indigenous yeasts, and that strange amoeba like constructions floating in a bottle are not to everyone’s taste. Just recently, a grower told me that a buyer had asked him to leave ‘stuff’ in his wines when bottling in order to put a sticker on the bottle that said ‘ natural and unfiltered’. Alas.

  14. Eric Texier

    Thanks a lot for this.
    Far from amphorae and altermondialist intentions, making as natural as possible wines is first a question of aesthetic from the grower/winemaker, no?
    Some vignerons will always pay more attention to the way they do things than the result they get. Some will do the exact opposite. Some in between, I hope I’m one of them, will always try to make as little compromise as nature allow them. Lapierre was one of them for sure. And of course one of the very first modern ones. Thanks to him for that.

  15. Remy Charest

    Tom, I believe it often is the case that writers or people observing from outside cast more general conclusions that practitioners. It’s one thing to say “you should never use cultured yeasts” and another to say “I’ll let 30,000$ worth of wine go down the drain on principle, because I’m not supposed to take such and such technical step”. Some winemakers actually do that – I’ve seen some dump a tank because it had gone volatile, and accepting it as a consequence of their beliefs – but it is a very different thing to be confronted to such questions in a way that affects your livelihood.

  16. Remy Charest

    Thanks to everyone for your comments. Not sure I’ll find the time to respond to all of them, but they are appreciated. It’s almost funny to see everyone apparently in agreement around this article: what was the debate about, again?

    Jokes aside, I do note with interest that a lot of the thoughts expressed here aim to put the focus on the wine itself, rather than on ideological stances and labels – Joseph is right, natural wine by any other name would still taste the same.

    Becky’s anecdote about the buyer who wants “stuff” in his bottles, however, shows the difficulties that wine encounters when people in the profession are focusing elsewhere. Such a story does tell you how and why manipulation and false pretense have, sadly, been a part of the wine trade for a long, long time, well before the age of MegaPurple and spinning cones.

  17. Remy Charest

    Bryan, glad to see experiments with wild yeasts and low sulfur are proving positive.

    As for your question, my understanding is that gamay doesn’t have particularly low pH. In fact, in hot years, the lower acidities are part of what caused winemakers to have lactic/volatile problems more frequently. In general, it does seem that higher acidity does help in the matter, but in this case, the carbonic maceration probably has a lot to do with it, as CO2 can help a lot in protecting the wine from harm.

  18. John Kelly

    Remy – thanks; this is the best piece I have yet read on the topic (in my humble opinion). RE: the arguments over “natural” in the media, as we used to say in academia: “The debates are so acrimonious because the stakes are so low.”

    It is absolutely true that ideology is rarely evident when a group of winemakers sit down to talk technique – interest, respect, and a bit of “show me in the bottle.” Some of us are in a position where we are working with small parcels, fermenting in small tanks and doing everything by hand. We can do things that the bigger producers can’t.

    The guys with thousands of acres and large marketing departments have a set of conditions to satisfy that require techniques I can safely ignore – but that does not mean they are any less committed than I am to producing the best wine they can under those conditions.

  19. Jeff V


    Spot on my friend! Thank you for summarizing and bringing this issue home. Finally, someone in the media and blog world decided to write a sensible article. This should be required reading to anyone interested in ‘natural’ wines.

    Ken, I couldn’t agree more. I know of some producers in CA as well as OR that rarely get mentioned as examples of wines that could be included in the ‘natural’ catalog. Someday they will have a champion.

  20. Francisco Bosco

    Remy, here is an idea! Buy as meany natural wine icons you can find, and then run on them a total sulfur and free sulfur test… It is a very common basic ABC lab test done in every place modern wine is made… You will be surprised!


  21. Vita Mannan

    I have tried many times to make wine at home but it did not taste well. I guess I just really don’t know how to make wine. Maybe it’s a work in progress. Thanks for sharing the information. I will take all the advice I can get and try try again.

  22. Harvest in the County « Hunting Vines

    […] much reminded me of a quote from the late Beaujolais vigneron Marcel Lapierre that wine blogger Remy Charest used in his excellent recent piece for Palate Press. Here is the except from Charest’s article “Lapierre recalled how, in the early 1970s, […]

  23. john Szabo

    Very thoughtful Remy, thanks for the research and posting. Would love to discuss in more detail when we cross paths next.

  24. Ulf Karlholm

    Dear Rémy,
    Very nice article. Would it be fine with you if I translate the article into Portuguese and post it on my blog, mentioning original article, author and Palate Press?
    Kind regards

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