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Some France makers of wine go natural, and fight the system

Many natural winemakers have been ejected from the French regulatory system; others leave because they believe certification methods reward low-standard industrially and chemically produced wine.

December 28, 2011|By Devorah Lauter, Los Angeles Times
  • Olivier Cousin tastes natural wines in his cellar in the Anjou region of France. He makes his wines with organic grapes and without chemicals or other additives -- and has been fined nearly $50,000 for breaking French law in his labeling.
Olivier Cousin tastes natural wines in his cellar in the Anjou region of… (Devorah Lauter, For The…)

Reporting from the regions of Anjou and Bordeaux —  

Standing by the wood-burning oven in their kitchen, Claire Cousin rips apart the frame around a photo of her husband, Olivier, kneeling beside Romeo, the lazy draft horse he uses to plow his small vineyard in France's Anjou region.

Preoccupied, his hand on his beard, the real Olivier sits at the large kitchen table musing over several open bottles of wine. "Yeah, get rid of the frame," he says, without looking.

Claire hangs the unbound portrait back on the cluttered wall. They both approve.

PHOTOS: French wine industry battle

Olivier Cousin, 51, doesn't like being boxed in. He calls himself a paysan, or a small farmer, the sort seen before tractors and industrialized farming pushed so many off the fields.

"I'm for freedom," he says. "We got rid of our kings awhile ago. We cut their heads off."

Cousin is fighting a raft of battles: Against the system. Against chemicals. Modern technology. Money, as in, the need for it. And against the idea of putting sugar and other additives in wine.

More concretely, he is in a legal battle with the French authorities who regulate winemaking. Although the issue appears to be about wine labeling, it really is about terroir, the land, or the identity it gives to fruit, as well as its people.

In an industry and a country that fears losing itself to the spread of globalized sameness, Cousin is part of an increasingly popular, often rebellious movement of "natural" winemakers.

"Making wine this way is the story of humanity," Cousin says. "You have to defend it. Otherwise, you might as well make wine on a computer. And in 50 years, if we continue making industrial wine, it won't interest anybody.

"When you make something naturally, it has a magic to it."

The phrase "natural wines" is widely criticized as being vague, but it roughly refers to wines that include very low doses, or none, of the hundreds of chemicals and natural additives permitted in conventional French grape-growing and winemaking. The additives correct mistakes and kill bacteria, necessary for mass consumption.

The difference between "natural" and conventional wines can at times be startling to unfamiliar taste buds. Natural wines are generally considered more fruity, and a lot riskier (and more expensive) to produce. They can easily turn to vinegar, and no chemical pesticides or fertilizers are permitted to save struggling crops from disease or bad weather.

Many natural winemakers were either ejected from the approved French appellation d'origine controlee, or AOC, regulatory system because of their unusual-tasting wines, or some, like Cousin, chose to leave because they believe that certification methods reward low-standard industrially and chemically produced wine.

In France, to earn the right to print the often prestigious terroir name on a wine, the product must pass a taste test to guarantee that it is not spoiled and is "typical" of the region. The century-old concept was meant to protect French winemakers from imitations using names such as Bordeaux or Champagne on wine made outside France.

Being outside the system can be a disadvantage, because average consumers know little about natural wines, which can be unidentifiable from their labels alone. Their prices may be higher than inexpensive wines found at major supermarkets.

But natural wines also can be a bargain compared with some of the conventionally made ones, particularly those that have raised their prices dramatically in the last 30 years because of speculation on top wines from areas such as Bordeaux.

As a result, despite an estimated 30% increase in production costs, the natural movement has gained momentum among producers and consumers, especially as chemical-free techniques have improved. (For years natural wines were criticized as tasting gassy and too tart.)

Wine expert Joshua Adler says the trend "makes a lot of sense."

"If you're drinking something that you know somebody made, and there's this personal connection, it might not change the actual taste of the wine, but it changes your experience. And that's what most people want when they drink wine, the experience," the San Franciscan said at the Spring wine boutique in Paris.

In place of the AOC-approved label, some natural winemakers will use the no-man's-land, lower-quality title of "table wine" or simply "French wine." Though associated with everyday consumption, and sometimes with wine used for cooking, the designation gives them the freedom to make their wine as they please.

Cousin, like many, doesn't necessarily want to make radical-tasting wines, though his wines, which vary from bottle to bottle, can have a light kick. The only artificial additives he has accepted have been very small doses of sulfites as a preservative, but now he has stopped even that.

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