It’s the middle of July. The Provencal sun is intense, and finding shade under an oak tree is of the utmost importance. The vineyards are dry, and at times dusty, but the bright green of the vines pops against the blue sky. The color is even more intense when a lavender field makes its way into the background. Sleepy small villages dot the countryside, 12th century castles and cathedrals rise high out of the landscape. The smell of lavender hangs in the warm air.
This is the region known for peaches, apricots, honey and wine. Roadside stands offer up fresh picked fruit and down every winding road you’re sure to find at least one sign for a tasting room.
“Ah, aren’t those vines beautiful?” says my French friend and truly wine savvy friend Alain. He did five years of oenology study after all. This guy knows his wine.
The bright green leaves burst from the knobby brown vines that twist out of the ground, each one surrounded by a patch of grass. “Looks organic,” says Luc.
“How do you know that they’re organic?” I ask.
I would consider myself an amateur wine lover, and there is much to learn.
“Normally the organic vines have much more grass and greenery growing around the base. No pesticides to kill everything off,” responds Alain.
Of course. That seems simple enough. We pass another vineyard, here the vines are eerily straight and exactly the same size. There isn’t any grass to be seen. The ground underneath the green vines is clean, as if someone came through recently with a broom. The difference to the last vineyard is visually quite clear.
In the quaint town of Seguret we stop at the tasting room of Domaine de Pourra, one that Alain ensures is a good bet. The white wine is complex, thick, and has nothing to do with any white wine I have ever tasted in the United States. The red, a small-run production made predominantly with Syrah grapes is smooth but strong, and the after taste is sweet. Try to describe these wines and you’ll have a difficult time; there is a lot going on in each bottle.
Here in this region there are plenty of viticulteurs, and among them a handful of organic. But if you know your wines, you’ll know that it’s not just about the regular labels.
Natural wine has been on the market for quite sometime, and in France it is popular with the same crowd that believes in buying local and seasonal; but in the United States has, for a long time, gone under the radar.
I once heard an explanation of natural wine that likened it to an heirloom tomato. You can go to the supermarket and buy a perfectly round, red tomato and you know exactly the taste you will get. Or you can buy an heirloom tomato, a fruit that is rich, diverse, and whose taste can be completely different depending on which variety you end up with. In a good heirloom tomato, picked fresh from the garden, you can almost taste the soil it was grown in. Such is the case with natural wines, drinks that pay homage to their terroir, and are always a little different with each season, and sometimes even, bottle.
“Natural wine?” you say, “isn’t all wine natural?”
Well, yes. But much like most things that we consume, wine has become hugely industrialized, big name vineyards producing large amounts that can be exported around the world. Profit and production go hand in hand, and costs are minimized and output is maximized. That’s how the world works in the global economy after all.
But there are still small productions, especially in wine heavy cultures like France, and in the wine industry, just like in agriculture and the food industry, there is a return to a production more artisan; the craft of making something, and making it well. We see it in cheese, in honey, in olives. A love for the production of something, making it as it should be made, a return to a more natural process, one where human interference is minimized and the raw elements are allowed to do what they do best.
Grown in organic, low-yield vineyards, and harvested by hand, one of the main differences between them and a more traditional wine is that you have none or very little sulfur added to the end product. Although naturally occurring during the winemaking process, it has become standard to add in even more sulfur so that the wine preserves better.
A natural wine doesn’t necessarily mean a better wine, just like an organic label won’t always ensure better taste, but choosing one means choosing a product that is made as it should be, with passion and commitment to bottling one of nature’s most amazing libations. In fact, many winemakers won’t even mention the word “natural”; for them it is simply a question of making good wine. Which means knowing your winemaker, knowing the region and knowing your grapes. That’s the kind of research any food lover should be able to get behind.
At the end of the day we drive to the base of the Dentelles, a top spot for climbers and a popular hike for the view over the landscape. It’s quiet and blazing hot, we’re comforted by the shade of the trees. Near the trailhead, on just the other side of the gravel parking area there is a vineyard. The vines are twisted and knobby, plenty of grass underneath them. They seem to stretch for miles, happy to be soaking in the warm sun.
“Pourra,” says Alain.
Farm to table, vineyard to glass. The process is almost as beautiful as the drink itself.