Au Naturel: The Birth of an International Wine Movement
This section from the new book ‘Natural Wine for the People: What It Is, Where to Find It, How to Love It,’ by Alice Feiring, delves into the history of these fascinating vinos.
Where did natural wine come from?
The late and very great Barolo producer Baldo Cappellano said, “The more there’s fake, the more there needs to be real.” That aphorism is, in part, how the natural wine movement started, out of the desperate need for authenticity. This is true whether in politics, architecture, food, or wine.
Faking wine is nothing new. As long as wine has been a commodity, wine has been manipulated—and like today, not for the greater good, but for greater profit. Falernum, a style of wine popular in the Roman Empire, was the first-known counterfeited wine. Moving along to the Middle Ages, tampering with wine included techniques such as bolstering the juice with starch, gum sugar (aka gum arabic), and “essence.”
In the late 1800s, just around the time Pasteur was discovering the mysteries of fermentation, came phylloxera, a louse invasion that ate the vines of Europe and changed the taste of what we drink forever. At the time, with so few grapes available, author J.-F. Audibert’s L’art de faire les vins d’imitation (“The Art of Making Imitation Wines”) became a bestseller, with three hundred recipes from Château Lafite to Chambertin. The tools used for fabrication were raisins, cheap wine, and chemical additives.
The post–World War I industrial age brought machines into the vineyard and, with them, the end of handwork. After World War II, bomb-making chemicals were repurposed as herbicides and pesticides. Farming and working the soil fell out of fashion. In her classic book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson focused on the deadliness of DDT and other pesticides that had gained popularity. It launched a worldwide movement of awareness, which reached France in the 1970s, when the vineyards became devastated by chemical farming.
The 1990s saw the rise of the era of Robert Parker, then the world’s most influential wine critic. He had a love for purple wine, thick wine, and riper wines. A robust industry blossomed around the tricks and tools to cater to the critic’s predilection.
Natural wine is nothing new; it’s merely the wisdom that keeps on being forgotten. The genre is a cycle—a plotline like love found, love lost, love found. Every generation has a natural wine revolution. The present one, birthed in 1978 or so, is a glorious one.
This modern natural wine event started to roll in the 1970s in the sleepy town of Morgon in the French region of Beaujolais. That’s where a young winemaker named Marcel Lapierre started to take over his family’s domaine (vineyard). Turns out he hated the wines he made.
The wines Marcel was making certainly weren’t his grandfather’s delicious ones. Everyone was farming with chemicals and using a lot of chaptalization (sugar to extend fermentation) and a whole lot of sulfur. The awful result can be imagined.
Trying to figure out where he went wrong, Lapierre fell under the tutelage of a neighbor, the scientist/vigneron Jules Chauvet. In natural wine, Jules Chauvet is iconic. Chauvet was studying ways to safely make wines without additives. Marcel liked Chauvet’s wines and realized that he farmed organically, always. The two men started to collaborate. Lapierre went back to organic viticulture and experimented with making a delicious wine with no (or low) added SO2, “just like Pop used to make.” As Marcel told me, “Chauvet hadn’t created anything new. He just returned to an anti-technology way of making wine.”
Marcel’s peers liked what he was doing. One told another. All of a sudden, there were more people from one town making really good wine. They were called the “bande des cinq”: Marcel Lapierre, Guy Breton, Jean-Paul Thévenet, Jean Foillard, and Joseph Chamonard.
Then came commerce.
Back in 1980, François Morel, now the publisher of the natural-wine magazine Rouge et Blanc, had a Parisian wine bar. His girlfriend was from Morgon. One day she said, “Psst, François. Some boyz in my ’hood are doing cool stuff. You need to go and check it out.” He did. About ten years after Marcel started to change his ways, Paris had its first natural wine tasting. Japan was quick to pick up on the new wine sensations, and wine bars sprouted. Montreal followed and a little later came Copenhagen. By 2006, Italy slowly started to enter the natural wine scene. Around the same time, Spain started slowly. By 2010, it was kicking off in the United States. Helped by social media, it’s a worldwide sensation today.
Adapted and reprinted with permission from Natural Wine for The People: What It Is, Where to Find It, How to Love It by Alice Feiring, copyright © 2019. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin RandomHouse. Illustration credit: Nishant Choksi © 2019