Why is the Loire Valley the cradle of France's natural wine movement?



10 June 2019

Perhaps surprisingly for such a northerly region, the Loire has established itself as the centre of France’s biodynamic/organic/natural wine movement. Jim Budd heads to Angers to find out why

Early in the New Year I had lunch at Auberge du Bon Laboureur in Chenonceaux – one of the Loire’s fine hotel restaurants. Long established, it is mentioned in Henry James’ A Little Tour in France which was published in 1884. The food is modern French, the service impeccable and correct. So I was surprised when Fabrice Dagaut, the maître d’, told me that he was putting together a separate list of natural wines. It’s an indication of just how mainstream natural wines are becoming in the Loire. Given its cooler, damper northerly location, the Loire Valley might seem an unusual place to go looking for hands-off grape growing and winemaking.

Jacques Carroget: natural pioneer

Jacques Carroget of Domaine la Paonnerie is one of the Loire’s natural wine pioneers. His domaine is based at Anetz on the boundary between the Pays Nantais and Anjou. Carroget and his wife Anne got the organic certification in 1997.

Not entirely happy with the way his wines tasted, Carroget started to experiment with making wine without sulphur. The domaine is now biodynamic. ‘I took the transition slowly, over a 10-year period, and we became biodynamic in 2012,’ says Carroget.

‘I started in 2000,’ he explains. ‘Initially with the reds and then by 2006 the whites and rosés. It is very important to have a high-quality harvest with grapes that are ripe and clean with no rot. We destem all of the grapes – by hand – in the vineyard.’ For his reds he uses no pumping over, just lightly moistening the cap to stop it from drying out.

Carroget acknowledges it is much less risky to make wine with no sulphur in vintages like 2018. ‘Certainly, not using sulphur in 2018 with very clean, ripe fruit is far easier than in a difficult and late vintage like 2013. I didn’t use any sulphur in 2013 and we had a lot of brett. On reflection I probably should have used a little bit.’

As for criticism that the term ‘natural wine’ is meaningless as no criteria, set of rules or controls currently exist, Carroget says a definition is being drawnup, and should be in place in around five years’ time.

‘There is a real need for the consumer to have clarification, so that they can have confidence that if a wine is described as natural that it is indeed natural,’ he says. ‘It will provide a guarantee. The rules will be very strict and we may have to find another name for natural wine.’

Yet it has long had some notable, trendsetting organic and, especially, biodynamic producers. The likes of Nicolas Joly, Guy Bossard and Noël Pinguet were biodynamic pioneers, and they started in the 1970s long before the natural wine movement began. The trend towards organic/biodynamic viticulture is accelerating: in 2013 there were 5,016 hectares (ha) certified organic or in conversion in the region, while by 2017 this had increased to 6,488ha.

The movement is helped by the average rainfall being similar throughout much of the appellation. Mildew is the big problem, especially in years like 2016 and 2018, and producers must be alert to combat it. Curiously, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, some 250 miles from the Atlantic, have the most rain. Despite this wetter climate many of the leading producers here such as Domaine Didier Dagueneau, Jonathan Pabiot, Alphonse Mellot, Vacheron and Fouassier, are organic/biodynamic.

Regional heroes

Loire natural wine initiators include Olivier Cousin in Anjou, Claude Courtois in the Sologne and Jacques and Anne Carroget (see profi le) on the border of the Pays Nantais and Anjou. Cousin achieved international fame when the French fraud authorities, the INAO and the Anjou-Saumur Syndicat, unsuccessfully took him to court over a labelling infringement. While the climate might be slightly more challenging for organic/biodynamic producers than warmer, drier parts of France, other factors come into play that help explain why, despite being France’s most northerly still wine appellation, the Loire is driving chemical-free viticulture.

Vineyard cost, for instance, is a key factor. Compared to Burgundy or Champagne, say, vineyards here are relatively cheap to buy or rent, especially in Anjou and parts of Touraine. Of course this is not the case in Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé where, not unconnectedly, there tend to be fewer natural wines – and certainly far fewer wines sold as Vin de France, which is frequently the option preferred by most natural wine producers. ‘Many natural wine producers come from outside the world of wine production,’ says Julie Reux, a journalist with a particular interest in natural wines.

‘They come from other work backgrounds but are looking for a change of life – a change of direction.’ Often, the newcomers start by picking grapes, then get more involved, working in the vineyards and in a winery, before deciding to set up on their own. ‘Vineyards in Anjou, for example, are cheap, and there is a good support system for producers starting out,’ says Reux.

One example of support is Mark Angeli, based in Thouarcé (Anjou) since 1990 but himself an outsider as he is from Provence. He has long encouraged, helped and provided support to many new producers. This includes a day course in Angers which focuses on how to set up a small-scale, high-quality domaine. Angeli also finds people prepared to invest in such projects. He promotes a ‘small is beautiful’ approach, recommending that newcomers take on a maximum of three hectares per person, or five between a couple.

Angeli encourages couples to continue to work externally, at least during their first year. He recommends that yields should be limited to an average of 30hl/ha and that any wines should sell for around €10 a bottle. Another important factor in favour of the Loire as a natural wine location is its closeness to Paris and large towns. It means that a debutant producer’s partner can find employment, making the new wine venture more financially viable.

This is not an option for would-be winemakers setting up in a remote part of the Auvergne, say. In addition there are plenty of small local consumer wine fairs organised by associations of alternative wine producers or by amateur wine tasting groups. These fairs give débutants opportunities to show off their wines and to make direct sales to the eager public.

Safer with sulphur?

So, is a hands-off utopia full of committed low-interventionists all driving forward the world of natural wine ? Well, not quite. I met a lot of very good organic Loire wine producers and it’s clear that the term ‘natural wine’ is treated with very considerable scepticism, even (in some cases) anger and disdain.

The lack of any definition, or set of rules or any controls is the main objection, but there are also fears that some arrivals are jumping on the bandwagon. Nor does it help that some natural wine producers and their supporters maintain that if their wine is described as faulty, then, in their eyes, this authenticates it as natural. Philippe Gilbert of Domaine Gilbert in Menetou Salon was the most vehement: ‘I detest the term natural wine and don’t like any ideology. I look to make wine with finesse that reflects the harvest as naturally as possible and with as small a dose of sulphur as necessary,’ he says.

The lack of any definition, or set of rules or any controls is the main objection to 'natural wine'

The biodynamic pope Nicolas Joly of Coulée de Serrant in Savennières is equally dismissive: ‘The term [natural] means nothing – anything goes.’ One might imagine that Angeli, who has given up using appellation contrôlée and instead labels such as Vin de France, might be sympathetic. But in fact, like Joly, Angeli also objects to the absence of rules and any form of controls. Given the USP that hands-off viticulture and winemaking give to the region, it is unfortunate that such negativity should be bubbling away in the background.

The current debate around sulphur use, in particular, has become especially heated. Many of these producers tend to use as little sulphur as possible. The tendency is to perhaps add a little at harvest (but many do not) and then not to add any until another small dose at the bottling stage. It is much easier and much safer to use absolutely no sulphur at harvest in vintages when the grapes are in perfect condition than in more difficult circumstances when grey rot may well be present.

Fred Niger of Domaine de l’Ecu makes a large range of no-sulphur wines, including Muscadet. He also has the largest park of amphorae in the Loire and possibly in France. ‘There are actually very few Loire wines that do not have any sulphur,’ he says. ‘However, I’m not hung up on not using it. If you need to use a small dose of sulphur to avoid defects then you should. You have to respect clients rather than selling faulty “punk” wines.’ Reux agrees: ‘Organic, biodynamic and natural producers really have much in common. There is a convergence here. These producers are pushing the boundaries – finding new techniques, methods and strategies.’

Leading organic, biodynamic and natural wine producers from the Loire in the UK

Domaine Pierre Luneau-Papin, Muscadet Sèvre et Maine
Long-established top-quality Muscadet producer.
Importer: Les Caves de Pyrene

Jo Landron, Muscadet Sèvre et Maine
Another excellent Muscadet producer.
Importer: Les Caves de Pyrene

Domaine du Closel, Savennières
Long-established female-run biodynamic domaine in the heart of the appellation.
Importer: Lay & Wheeler

Château de Villeneuve, Saumur, Saumur-Champigny
One of the Loire’s top producers. From very good value white Saumur and red Saumur-Champigny to excellent and very age-worthy single-vineyard wines.
Importer: Thorman Hunt

Jonathan Pabiot, Pouilly-Fumé
New star in Pouilly – wonderfully precise wines.
Importer: Dreyfus Ashby

Yannick Amirault, Bourgueil and Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil
Very good organic family producer making excellent Cabernet Franc.
Importer: Thorman Hunt

Domaine de la Noblaie, Chinon
Since returning to the family domaine in 2003 Jérôme Billard has lifted this domaine to one of the best in Chinon. Excellent range of domaine as well as single-vineyard wines in both red and white.
Importer/ courtier: Charles Sydney Wines

Domaine Vincent Carême, Vouvray
Fine organic producer in Vernou in east of appellation.
Importer: Berry Bros & Rudd

Gérard Boulay, Sancerre
Top producer in Chavignol whose qualities long went under the radar in the UK. Best wines from Les Monts-Damnés, La Grande Côte and Le Clos de Beaujeu.
Importer: Vine Trail

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