"You don't want a world populated only by tall blondes with blue eyes, and it's the same with wine," says Pierre Breton, a wiry and intensely serious Loire Valley producer of natural wines. "Wines are for pleasure. They inspire creativity. They stimulate conversation. Why would we want them to all have the same identity?"
People are naturally passionate about wine in this part of France, where soldierly rows of gnarled grapevines march all the way to the horizon. But there's passion, and then there's passion, as soon becomes clear when one talks with Breton and his wife Catherine, co-owners of the Domaine Breton vineyard in Restigné, just outside Tours.
They are the vanguard of a growing movement that aims to take the art of winemaking back to its roots, before the days of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, commercial flavoring agents and sometimes heavy-handed doses of preservatives like sulfites. By offering wines made with an artisan's flair, and produced from organically grown grapes to boot, vintners like the Bretons are building a niche market among consumers who are perpetually searching for the authentic.
Natural-wine purists like the Bretons, whose 27 acres (11 hectares) of vineyards produce Bourgueil, Chinon and Vouvray wines, believe that the conventional method of making wine not only pollutes the environment but also produces boringly uniform wine.
Their alternative approach is to meddle as little as possible in the transformation of grapes into wine. They do not treat the vines or the fruit with anything other than natural products. They pick the fruit by hand to avoid compacting the earth with machines.
It is an altogether more labor-intensive, and ultimately costlier, way of doing business. But the biggest difference from standard winemaking comes after the harvest, during the precisely choreographed process of pressing, fermenting and aging, which largely determines a wine's structure and taste. That is when everything comes together the personality of the fruit, the properties of the soil, the woodiness of the barrel and the caprices of that summer's weather and the wine gets its chance to express itself.
And so does the winemaker. The makers of natural wine maintain that the additives and yeasts used by more orthodox vintners can stabilize a wine to death, muting the distinctive variations that should stand out because of different grape varieties and settings. "It's like being the conductor of an orchestra," says Pierre Breton, whose wines are made with naturally occurring native yeasts and a bare minimum of sulfite as an antibacterial agent and antioxidant. "Each of us begins with the same ingredients," he says. "But like conductors, we produce different music in our wines from the same score."
Not everyone in the wine world believes that natural wines are necessarily better than wines made by skilled and conscientious vintners using more high-tech methods. Some critics say the natural-wine disciples take themselves much too seriously. In an article earlier this year in the French daily Le Monde, wine writer Jean-Yves Nau joked that they consider sulfites, which are generally added before bottling to help preserve wines, "the chemical reincarnation of the devil."
But in the past few years, the movement toward more holistic winemaking has attracted more and more converts. A number of Paris restaurants and bars, among them La Muse Vin, near the Place de la Bastille, and Le Baratin, in the rapidly gentrifying Belleville neighborhood, make a point of serving wines from producers like the Bretons. These wines are also a particular favorite of independent wine stores, like Le Vin se Livre, in the 12th arrondissement, that look for original, lesser-known wines that stand out from the blur of labels offered by chain stores.
Nearly every wine-growing region of France has enthusiasts who have switched to organic farming and chemical-free winemaking. Most of these vineyards are small, family-owned ventures run by proud iconoclasts who describe their methods in almost mystical terms. Some are so picky about doing things the way they were done a century ago that they use horse-drawn carts in cultivating their vines. Many natural-wine producers also follow the principles of biodynamic farming, with its attention to the phases of the moon and the movement of the planets, set out in the early 20th century by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner.
But natural winemaking is not just the domain of a few small-scale nonconformists. Some of the most revered appellations also have dedicated practitioners, among them a producer of the select Romanée-Conti wines of Burgundy, the Champagne producer Anselme Selosse and a number of respected vineyards in the Beaujolais, Bordeaux and Alsace regions.
"There are now about 200 natural winemakers in France, while 30 years ago there were perhaps 15," says Marc Sibard, who runs Caves Augé, a large central-Paris wine store where natural wines represent about 70% of all the bottles in stock.
Sibard, a longtime crusader for the cause of organic and natural wines, has been selling them in his store for 25 years. "It's still somewhat of an underground culture," he says, noting that the people who dare to produce them are too often dismissed as impractical dreamers or rebuffed by distributors who want more familiar, and less fragile, "industrial" wines for export and for sale to big supermarket chains.
Yet Sibard has found that demand is growing. "We are specialists," he says. "We have a demand from clients because we're lucky enough to be in Paris, where people have the wherewithal to buy good wine, and many of them understand that it's better to drink one good bottle at 20 euros ($26) that's produced honestly than to buy three bottles at 6 euros ($8) each that were produced industrially."
Natural winemakers may be zealous about their methods, but it cannot be said that they lack a sense of humor. The bottles crowding the floor and every shelf in Caves Augé attest to that. One vineyard has a wine called Soif du Mal, the French title of Orson Welles' film Touch of Evil. Another has named one of its wines Gama Sutra, apparently with an eye to the Asian market. One producer includes the guarantee that his grapes were "picked by people in thongs." The Bretons offer a wine called Nuits d'Ivresse (Drunken Nights) and another called La Dilettante.
For all their whimsy, these wines are beginning to make a splash in international markets. "In the early days, there were some that really weren't good advertisements for organic wine," says Kermit Lynch, a major California wine merchant who was a pioneer in selling natural and organic wines to U.S. consumers in the 1980s. "But there is a real niche now of people who are interested in those kinds of wines."
Lynch, who imports many of the Bretons' wines, owns a vineyard near Gigondas, in southern France. He has not converted to organic or biodynamic production, but he says he agrees with the natural winemakers' argument that too many wines are suffocated by overuse of chemicals. "I don't know enough about all that to say that's the way it should be done," he says. "But I've had wine-makers tell me that since they changed, they are getting better juice. And better juice means better wines."