France, Languedoc

2011 – Natural Wine

I said fate plays a game without a score, and who needs fish if you’ve got caviar? …When I loved, I loved deeply.  It wasn’t oftenJosef Brodsky

Was 2011 a good year for wine? When I look through my red moleskine notebook, I would say overall, yes – and there were certain trends. Here are my reflections on wine in 2011 featuring key wines that sum the year up for me.

Natural Wine: 7 Rue de la Pompe, Mas Coutelou

When I hear the word “should” I calmly pick up my bag, grab my coat, take off my heels, find the nearest exit and run for my life. Even if a Natural Wine is the nicest wine in the world, nothing irritates me more than to be told what I should or should not think (or drink)

Despite being embraced by some parts of the industry, natural/organic/biodynamic wine still divides people. Natural wine is not a sommeliers friend (although it is loved by sommeliers) and it is here where you see ideology bang up against practicality.

The irony is I talked so much trying to convince people into certain Natural wines it gave me a headache. Customers even bought me glasses of 7 Rue de la Pompe – “try it, what is wrong with it?”

Well, technically there was nothing wrong with it – not all the time, anyway (try defending “natural wine smells” in front of a group of drunk guys sometime). I had the opportunity to taste at least 12 different bottles of 7, Rue de la Pompe and some bottles had the ‘fizz’ of natural wine, quite ‘metallic’ and/or had a ‘funky egg smell’ initially (although, it blows away, and I understand the reductive process of making wine, but again, I am talking more about customers perceptions).

Whereas some glasses had a refreshing, super-dryness with a depth of purple colour that would make Prince fall to his knees with happiness.

Let me quickly tell you about it. 7 Rue de la Pompe, Mas Coutelou comes in a handsome bottle with a red wax seal. It has very little information on it, not even a vintage (to my memory).

It is from the Languedoc and it is made with Syrah and completely without sulfites (incidentally, Rue de la Pompe is a fairly posh part of Paris). I have never tasted a Syrah this dry. But, overall?

7, Rue de la Pompe feels somewhat confused. Like a pinstripe powerpoint meeting in a Glastonbury teepee. It is hard to put your finger on it; although this intrigues rather than seriously bothers me.

People don’t like it, people like it. So what? Hardly news.

Well, here’s what. This wine is sold, and it has to be hand-sold, on the basis of it being a natural wine, more often than not, rather than what is in the glass (when it is good, it is very very good, when it is bad…). This is the nub of the issue.

This year I’ve spent some time in Burgundy. Here I saw a lot of “Natural wine” – but no one jumping up and down shouting “I am a natural winemaker!” In fact, winemakers were almost reluctant to answer my questions.

It could be the steady, quiet, Bentley purring way of Burgundy (who, let’s face it, are going to sell their wines no matter what – I don’t see the demand for Gevrey Chambertin drying up soon), but for me, what it came down to is this: observation.

Practicing organic or biodynamic is essentially about observing the vineyard. Is burnt orange grass around the roots of the vine a good thing? Are the vines needing some more attention? This was all told to me by Nicholas Rossignol-Trapet (more here “The Wine was Chambertin”) but also backed up by Alfred Tesseron from Pontet Canet (who told me he is inspired by vineyard practices in Burgundy and his own drive to better the Chateau “every day as I have a shave I think about some improvement”).

Last week I spent some time with Alfred Tesseron and there was an obvious shift in style at Pontet Canet over the past ten years. Tasting against 1995 and 1982, even more so. How much was the improvement in general and how much was it because of natural/biodynamic technique?

What I have noticed this year – and trying to judge each wine on its individual merits – is that red wines made naturally can have a dominance of fruit.

On the upside, the fruit is vivid, ultrabright and plush.

On the downside, it has a similar taste to pouring too much blackcurrant cordial (Ribena) in a glass and not adding enough water. Just too much fruit. It is not balanced and is just as bad as too much oak.

What do I like about Natural Wine? I am glad to see more people trust their senses enough to argue and engage in the process of how wine is made.

There are also a lot of wines that follow organic/biodynamic principles which don’t advertise it or are not certified. Some I enjoyed in 2011 (apart from Mas Coutelou, Domaine Rossignol-Trapet and Pontet-Canet) are:

  • Gravillas 2010, Sous les caillous des grillons, Languedoc
  • Domaine de la Chevalerie, Bourgueil ‘Cassiopee’, Loire (consistently brilliant and beautiful)
  • Thierry Germain, Domaine des Roches Neuves, Loire
  • 2004 Trinchero Barbera d’Asti, Piemonte
  • Cos Nero di Lupo, Sicily
  • Ciu Ciu Bacchus Rosso Piceno, Marche, Italy

My favourite blog on Natural wine: Not Drinking Poison in Paris

Next, Part 2: Bordeaux En Primeurs 2010


  1. Andrew Friedhoff says

    Interesting piece.

    Coutelou was my big discovery this year. Yes, my experiences of Rue de la Pompe were mixed (it says 2010 in small letters on the label, by the way). First bottle was ok. Second one was heaven in a glass, groaning with pleasure at every sniff and mouthful. And each bottle hence similarly mixed though never unpleasant. (funky wiff, as you say, does go, especially if you decant it) and often very pleasant. At a £8 a bottle, case price, I think this is still an incredible bargain!

    Coutelou’s Vin des Amis was an easier drink to enjoy; very appropriate considering the name (went down well both times I took it dinner parties). Last night I drank a bottle of the Vigne Haute which still has the unmistakable aroma of a Coutelou wine but possibly slightly cleaner and purer (even a bit of minerality to my uneducated palate?). It was a real pleasure to meet the man himself, Jeff Coutelou, at the Roberson tasting of his wines; as individual as his wines and with proper farmer’s hands.

    Basically these Coutelou wines, and most of the ‘natural’ or ‘biodynamic’ wines i’ve enjoyed, are hedonistic wines. They’re not chin-stroking wines but wines that make you feel alive. And I’m going to be returning to Terroirs, Brawn etc to get my fix as often as my wallet will allow (not very often).

    How do the Rossignol-Trapet and Pontet Canet compare with these natural wine generalisations? (especially considering my desire to be converted to Burgundy (I tweeted you on this subject) and my dread of forking out a lot of money to be disappointed)

    • Juel Mahoney says

      Thank you for letting me know about this tasting. There is no doubt Mas Coutelou produces fascinating wines. They are very variable, and not all natural wines are the same, but I thought this was representative of the experience I have had this year. The median experience, let’s say. There have been a few extreme examples.

      Hedonistic is a good word when it works well. What I would say is the fruit is more hedonistic in the later Pontet Canet and is particularly evident against the 1995 and 1982, early 2000s. Although M. Tesseron said he tries to make a wine that is representative of each particular vintage, which reading between the lines, is more about the vineyard than the vinification (sulfurs, etc). But overall, I could recognise the plusher, softer, “bright purple” fruit that you see in other natural wines although I would say it is incredibly balanced and is perceptible only on a minute level or when you have the opportunity to taste a vertical series. Whereas I think some natural wines are obviously funky and pushing the envelope of how far you can go with the laissez-faire winemaking. There are none of those characters in PC. Generally the softer touch on the land is reflected in the softer taste of fruit in the glass. And the same with Rossignol-Trapet. Although it is so quietly done that is sheer modesty Nicholas doesn’t jump up and down and tell everyone because he could cash in on the Natural wine fashion if he wanted, but he is more interested in the vineyard – which makes me admire the wines even more. There are plenty of winemakers like this of course. Sesti is another who comes to mind (Brunello di Montalcino).

      • Andrew Friedhoff says

        Sounds good! I notice Rossignol-Trapet make Berry Brothers’ house Gevrey Chambertin 2006. At £25 it might be worth a punt.

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  3. Follow-you on Pontet-Canet. Favorite natural producer that insists he is not (in case weather and other things one year forces him to do something that is not certified “natural” – has not happened yet) is Elio Altare. He went “natural” a long time before it became fashionable, and refuse to admit to it….

    The natural wine queen, if you use social media as your measure stick, is without a doubt Arianna Ochippinti. Want your blog to spike, write about her and her wonderful wines. To me her wines almost represents a new category.

    • Juel Mahoney says

      thanks for the recommendation, I will definitely look for her wines.

  4. Great article JM. Reminds me of when years ago I sent an information request form to the legendary Michel Chapoutier and for the section entitled ‘winemaking details’ he had written ‘secret’.

    • Juel Mahoney says

      Ah. Thanks for telling me that story – gold!

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