French Wine is not Dead

Joe Gilmour Thoughts

“Just one more thing” says Lieutenant Columbo. “Just one more barrel” says Jean-Pierre Robinot. And so it turns out to be more difficult to leave the cellars of JMR then it was to find him in the first place.

Outside we wondered a few hours before, calling various numbers, knocking on various doors in his winemaking compound. But eventually, amongst the abandoned cars, industrial oddments and agricultural detritus, we were shown gleaming, golden, treasures of Chenin Blanc, fermenting at rates so slow they would have teachers at UC Davis or Montepellier Viticultural Schools scratching their heads. Rare wines, alive and bubbling away.

But looking back, my deepest impression wasn’t made by the superb wines made by Jean-Pierre, or his striking figure, it was of his stories of being there, at the birth of natural wine culture in Paris in the 1980s, with his wine bar, L’Ange Vin. This was to me, a hidden history. Dating movements, histories or even defining what ‘natural wine’ is, is open to interpretation, some people, like the Haquet sisters were so wilfully outside the loop, they missed the advent of conventional winemaking in the first place. But as we left his cellars my colleague started thinking seriously about getting this stuff down and writing a sort of anglophone book on the earlier years of the natural wine movement. It was a great idea that never came to fruition, but here are – 12 years later, and Aaron Ayscough has done the job.

I picked up a copy of this book at Hamblin Bread, in Oxford, close to my mums house, a few months ago. It was such a happy find as I had a copy on pre-order that for various reasons I’d forgotten about. The bread is very fine indeed, and they clearly love their natural wine – they clearly have a strong link, bread and wine. Indeed – when I visited Pierre Overnoy in the Jura, one of the fathers of the movement, he was more interested in talking about his bread making efforts then his wines.*

More formally written then Aarons brilliant blog ‘not drinking poison in paris’, which was joyfully unafraid to load some barbs here and there and had, for want of a better word, style. If only all wine writing could be so good.

I was interested to see what he was going to write about real and perceived ‘faults’ in some of the wines from the movement. Mousiness in particular, but also I was interested to hear what he thought about whether terroir definition is most ably transmitted by this style of winemaking. You know, would you vinify Batard-Montrachet the same way as Bourgogne Blanc? I love the wines of Sarnin-Berrux in St-Romain for example, but as you went up the terroir and price hierarchy there, I didn’t feel you got a lot more. He was, I thought, very relaxed on the subject of mousiness. Yes they’re a nuisance, he says, but if you leave them, they usually go away. Well, I suppose it depends how much annoyance you want to tolerate.

I had a mouse in our chimney at the same time as reading this book, and I couldn’t leave it be. But I pulled a bottle out from the dark recesses of my cellar to test his theory, a bottle of Gamay (Les Dolomies Madalaine 2018) from Jura, that was so mousy 18 months ago it was miserable drinking – and lo, aren’t I the fool, it was delicious and the mouse either gone, or substantially reduced. I don’t know, I guess some people are more relaxed then others, maybe I should chill out a bit. It’s probably true that if you want to drink these types of wines, you have to be open to them when they take their own pathways.

My first love really remains drinking old wine. “Where is the truth” says Gerard Chave, “The truth is in the old bottles”. Sometimes that truth is simply that the wine has fallen apart, but sometimes a humble bottle can be elevated to heights that remain to me, absolutely thrilling. It is an equal opportunity thing, and when a cheap bottle outperforms after a few years, well, be still my heart. 

But, in my lifetime, the movement of ‘natural wine’ that I was unaware of for many years in the industry, is so incredibly vital. I’ll never forget the moment when I was in the cellars of Antony Tortul of La Sorga and I saw what was scribbled in chalk onto one of his barrels with a skull and crossbones. “French Wine is not Dead”. When I saw that I thought of all the dead French winemakers and thought, if they could, they’d be smiling in their graves at the efforts of their children to make wine real and relevant for another generation.

Joe GilmourFrench Wine is not Dead