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.
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.
He and his brethren believe consumers are largely unaware that the taste of most conventionally produced, certified-AOC wine is created through standard chemical recipes used both in fermentation and grape growing, commonly tailored to fit a region’s norm, or the preferences of a few influential critics.
The American critic Robert Parker, for instance, is often accused of “Parkerizing” French wines because his top-rated favorites guarantee a jump in sales, and often price, of course. He prefers dense, very rich flavors, connoisseurs say. The 2004 documentary “Mondovino” made waves in wine-buff circles by addressing the phenomenon.
Dominique Leandre-Chevalier, an artisanal winemaker from Blaye, in the Bordeaux area, chose to “de-class” a majority of his bottles as table wine and, “as a message,” opting for the AOC certificate on some renamed versions of the same product.
Leandre-Chevalier’s wine would probably surprise anyone expecting an average table wine. His Joyau blend of merlot noir, cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot has a complex range of fruity flavors that, like so many of his other creations, ages into a truly great wine.
He works with the meticulous attention of a craftsman and endlessly experiments with ancient methods of growing and using little-used varieties of grapes native to France.
Visibly excited, Leandre-Chevalier talks about things such as getting into “the mind” of a grape, and how roots search, almost on a personal quest, twisting deeper into the earth to soak up the “true flavor” of the terroir. “We’re more like gardeners here, than winemakers,” he says of the way he cares for each vine.
With a similar passion, Cousin says he makes wine much as his grandfather did, using nothing but grapes and tools that date to the beginning of the 20th century. “Would you put dish soap in your food? I don’t put sulfur in my wine,” he says.
He uses horses to plow his 17 acres because they add natural fertilizer with their excrement, don’t pollute and don’t pack the soil the way tractors can, smothering the roots.
Although his red, Gamay, Cabernet Franc and Grolleau wines are sold in some of the world’s top restaurants, he says he cares more about the process, a way of life, and preserving the planet, than about how the wine tastes.
So about six years ago, Cousin chose to abandon the French certification system, and the annual fees that go along with it. Winemakers pay on average about 2,000 euros ($2,600) in the course of the year, depending on the sale and origin of their wine.
“I demand the right to live differently,” Cousin says. “And I don’t agree that they get to steal all the status-enhancing terms that can just as easily apply to wine made in China.”
Once on the outside, he no longer had the right to print the name of his domain, Anjou, on his wine labels. But true to his nature, he kept it on anyway, never doubting that his wine was a genuine reflection of his terroir.
This fall, he got an official notice that he would be fined for fraud, a fee that could run as high as $50,000, and told to remove “Anjou” from his wine bottles. He doesn’t have the money to pay the penalty, but a petition in his favor has gathered more than 2,000 signatures and there’s talk of selling T-shirts to help.
Eventually, Cousin expects to meet with a public prosecutor who will determine the exact penalty. If hit with the maximum, Cousin says he will fight it in court.
“Everyone knows that what I did is forbidden,” he says. “I may not be in the right, but they are more wrong.”
At the Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualite, or INAO, the government body that determines whether a wine gets its AOC title, the organization’s director, Jean-Louis Buer, says he agrees that winemaking is constantly evolving, and that his administration’s innately conservative character as a “guardian of quality” means it tends to adapt to change more slowly.
“There is always a fear from producers that whatever the innovation is, it could change the nature of the product,” he explains.
Still, he says, he is sure that AOC wines today, more than ever, are the real reflection of a terroir. Wines “that correspond to the terroir are appellation wines,” he says. “The wine’s identity is its terroir.”
On that last point, at least, Cousin would agree.
Lauter is a special correspondent.