In the following Q&A, Michel Chapoutier clarifies his thoughts and comments on the natural wine debate and the recent interview published (and posted) by Decanter magazine.
Michel Chapoutier, you said in Decanter Magazine that making natural wine is like making vinegar. Isn’t that statement a bit tough?
MC: It’s not an attack on the concerned wine, it is more an attack on the word natural itself. The principle of natural fermentation – sugar of the fruit converted into alcohol by yeasts – is the alcoholic fermentation. Then, by the action of bacteria, this alcohol is transformed into acid: it is the acetic fermentation. The purpose of fermentation is a natural principle of decomposition from the plant stage to mineral stage. Natural fermentation gives vinegar, in fact a bad one for vinegar lovers. That’s why, if you want to talk about wine without sulphur dioxide added, you must talk about wine without sulphur dioxide added and not about natural wine. To be more precise a natural wine does not exist and I stand by that particular point.
So, if we call them wines without sulphur dioxide instead of natural wines, are there any good wines without sulphur dioxide?
MC: Of course sulphur dioxide is necessary if you want to stop the natural principle of fermentation halfway, at the alcohol stage. In fact, betwenn the two periods of alcoholic fermentation and acetic fermentation, you can consider to try to make a wine without the addition of sulphur dioxide. Some winemakers manage to do it very well. But as this action is extremely unstable, people who engage in this project are systematically confronted with a high failure rate and easily 50 % of products may have defects.
So what can we do with these defective wines?
MC: That is the problem. Making wine without sulphur dioxide is an interesting thing. I tasted a very good Morgon from Lapierre last week. But how will the winemaker be able to finance this amount of wine with defects? Some people sell them but that is a disrespect toward the consumer. Some even sell these defective wines by claiming it is a taste of terroir. This is not only disrespectful to the consumer but also disrespectful to AOC wine if it concerns an AOC wine. And in that situation, I rise up and I am shocked. Making a wine without sulphur dioxide is one thing. But the winemaker has to learn the rules of the game which first include the respect for the consumer and the respect for an AOC wine. Moreover the winemaker must also assume the financial failure and destroy wines with defects.
Can we say it’s the same problem with Biodynamics?
MC: No, not at all. Biodynamic agriculture and organic farming are based primarily on an environmental friendly agriculture and agronomy. Recently, to provide consistent information to consumers, we have also established specifications in the winemaking process for both organic and biodynamic approaches. However, for these two approaches which are both respectful to Nature and scientifically rational, we have, of course, kept the use of sulphur dioxide. We have limited its use but with these two approaches we did not want to take the risk of sticking to the extreme dogmatism of zero sulphur dioxide.
So How do you make organic, biodynamic and the so-called natural wines live together?
MC: It is a philosophical and sociological problem. We should recognize that agriculture has made tremendous progress. Even chemistry, with its approach to sustainable farming, has integrated a reasoned and equitable approach. Organic is developping progressively. Increasingly, people who practice sustainable agriculture go for organic methods and then some even go further by switching to biodynamics. It is important to make these farming methods universal for the sustainability of our planet. This means that ecology should be considered as a universal science. Ecology should not be taken hostage by political parties which would withdraw this universal approach. This means that, like in any other area, no extremism is good for the planet. I am scared by this tendency in organic farming because, behind this utopian desire, there is also the risk of demotivating people and damaging the phenomenal work done through organic and biodynamic approaches. YES for organic farming, YES for biodynamic agriculture, but I do not live in accordance with the principles of natural wines that would include all these risks, in fact it is scaring me. OK if there is an ethics of not marketing the defective wines. But definitely NO if they persist in claiming that defects, such as phenolic tastes, are a taste of terroir.