Discovering the Vins Naturels of France’s Loire Valley

A trip to France’s Loire valley in search of natural wines.

It may be easier to describe French natural wines and how they are made by enumerating what they are not. They are not from overly tilled soil and chemically controlled plants, nor are they sulfite-infused, homogenous concoctions, they do not include obligatory filtration, and they are not symbolic of any new approach to wine making itself. What natural wines are is quite simple- they are wine as it should be, wine at it’s most natural.

France’s Loire Valley is home to a group of winemakers who challenge the practices of the modern day agricultural and viticultural industry by creating a product that eschews additives that are a crutch for so many industrial-sized wineries. Embracing the ancient tradition of wine making and accepting the challenges that come along with an artisanal (non-industrial) approach, these winemakers are part of a growing movement to bring nature back to vineyards and wine glasses across the country and around the world.

Unlike some wine growing regions I’ve visited in the States, the Touraine is not a large expanse of carefully manicured vineyards, but a diverse stretch of woods, prairies, farms, and goat ranches with patches of vineyards scattered throughout. French winemakers who are aware of the advantages of biodiversity welcome every wildflower and weed found in this fertile land.

Recently I had the pleasure of discovering this region. My first “natural” vineyard visit was to Domaine des Maisons Brulées where Michel Augé gave me a crash course in the importance of native plants and the role they play. “Nature hates emptiness,” Michel told me as he pointed out the greenery that he let fill in the spaces between his vines. We then came upon a variety of clover that is known to add nitrogen to impoverished soil, “Where there is a lack of something, nature finds a remedy,” he explained.

Humility and respect for nature were part and parcel in the early days of winemaking, but the eventual industrialization of viticulture led to producers craving control over nature and the winemaking process. Thus sulfites were introduced, allowing for the manipulation of wine and its homogenization.

In the world of natural wines, sulfites are considered unnecessary and largely taboo. At Domaine des Maisons Brulées, no sulfites are added to the wine and any sulfite level that may be found in their vintages is a naturally occurring by-product of the fermentation process. Michel Augé describes the role of sulfites in wine as that of an “antiseptic” and cites their affects on the taste, as well as the digestibility, of wine as two major reasons to avoid their use.

After a tour of the vineyards, Michel’s wife, Béatrice, joined us to taste the fruits of their labor. Swirling a Herdeleau Pinot Noir-Gamay-Pineu d’Aunis in our glasses, Michel recounted how Béatrice inspired him to change from chemically treating his plants to going au naturel. Béatrice modestly refused to accept credit saying, “we were both ready for the change” describing their switch to natural wine making in 1992 she said, “it was the right time and we were just open to it.”

Once it hits your mouth, a truly natural wine has an immediate, but not fleeting, affect. While tasting the Herdeleau Michel recited an adage that is well-known amongst natural wine makers: “If you’re not ready to spend twenty seconds to really taste natural wine, then it’s not worth tasting it.” In order to really taste natural wine, you must savor the initial burst of flavor as it hits your tongue, then wait a moment as that flavor calms down and eventually comes back and hits you towards the back of your mouth- an incredibly satisfying aftershock.

“I don’t want to trivialize any part of the process,” Michel told me in a decisive tone, “making natural wine is a way of putting the system back in its place.” The couple’s commitment to this cause is no doubt aided by the daily reminder that their vineyards offer of the history of the region, their plot of land offers a breathtaking view of a valley that has been largely unchanged since the 11th century.

A little ways down the road, at La Lunotte, Christophe Foucher described his winemaking philosophy, “It isn’t for me to fight against nature” Christophe explained, adding “I want to do as little as possible.”

Christophe aims to keep his vineyards to a manageable size and to be able to live off the work he does. “Once you have a large-scale vineyard, you’re obligated to become industrial,” Christophe explained adding that he would much rather be a part of the small movement of wine makers in France who work outside of the industrial system.

“I hate monoculture” he told me as we visited a neighboring vineyard that had been treated with Round Up, a popular weed and grass killer. Chemically treated plants, Christophe explained, “have a simulated taste that they should have naturally- it’s superficial.”

Both Michel and Christophe are able to talk freely of eventualities that frighten most growers, and humans in general; life and death, success and failure, errors and lessons learned the hard way. They speak of these unavoidable experiences without regret or fear. Their open-armed embrace of the process of making natural wine, and the fact that this type of wine making immediately excludes them from the system of mass-production of wines, takes the pressure off the process and frees them to be creative, curious, and realistic in their relationship with nature.

I ended my trip to the Touraine region in Christophe’s front yard, sipping Les P’tites Vignes Sauvignon and a Sparkling Rosé, the range of flavors and their longevity in la bouche still a thrill I was far from getting over. I felt reluctant to leave this source of such extraordinary wines and discoveries, not quite ready to move on yet. And the wine, I asked Christophe, when do you know when it’s ready? Without stopping to think he responded,”It just comes naturally.”

Image: Emily Dilling