It sounds a bit like an oxymoron.
A few months back, we started talking about our love for 'Natty Burgundy' and our desire to find more. The cool stuff: negoce Grenache at Burgundy prices or Pinot Noir in qvevri. The wry term stayed with us for some reason: a wine made in a region deeply entrenched in tradition and history, and certainly not organic farming. In an old interview, Jenny Lefcourt of Jenny & Francois ruminates on these same topics, remarking, "the Loire is different from Burgundy. There are walls in Burgundy." Intended to speak to the beauty of the Loire, Jenny's comment also alludes to the natural wine movement's value of openness and inclusion. Almost five years later, we’re still wondering: Is Natty Burgundy a thing?
We posed this question to Benjamin de Longuerue of Terrestrial Wine Co. He talked about how it's insanely expensive to make wine in Burgundy, but also very lucrative. When asked what it means to make natural wine in Burgundy, he spoke to producers looking beyond tradition, especially when it comes to winemaking decisions in the cellar. Frederic Cossard is one such producer; in his case, he's trying to move completely away from barrels for elevage to concrete and qvevri. Instead of making tightly wound, tannic, age-worthy wines, the goal is to produce wines to drink and enjoy now. Jean Luc of MC2 Imports also echoes this point, though in general is wary of the term 'Natty Burgundy.' He points to producers, like Vincent Thomas of Domaine de La Chappe, who are making sans soufre wines that are fun, accessible, and not pretentious, with labels that communicate this aim.
Nadim Audi, Partner at Selection Massale, distinguished two categories of Natty Burgundy: traditionally farmed (sustainable/organic) but recognizably Burgundy, and those carrying all the overt markers of nattyness like skin contact or carbonic maceration. What came up in both categories was the impact of cost and value. He said he is of the generation that came into wine too late to broach the greats of the region given their price points, but is now sitting through tastings with $100 Burgundies that all taste like Beaujolais (insert string of emojis here).
Steven Graf, wine importer of Julian Altaber's wines, argues that though producers like Beru and Altaber are exploring a variety of styles of vinification (i.e., maceration and even infusions), these producer's wines and business positions are a product of the region. Though there is contention between the AOC system and producers, Graf iterates that it's important to understand that even "traditional Burgundy practices 'natural' techniques like biodynamics, minimal SO2, and the like. DRC is practicing biodynamic agriculture, for example."
Everyone spoke to the idea that it's extremely difficult to truly farm organically in a region that's so densely planted and with such tight regulations. In an interview with Bern of wineterroirs, Julien Guillot says that producers like he and Altaber are always in the "crosshairs of the system because [our] wines are not square, polished and predictable." He cited the example of when five winemakers had a cuvée banned at the agreement commission: Philippe Pacalet, Dominique Derain, Laurent Tripoz (for sparklings), himself (for the Macon Cruzille Blanc Aragonite), and Philippe Valette.
We asked one of our favorite UK importers and writers, The Vine Trail, for an outside perspective. Partner Jean-Remi Barris says that the term ‘natty’ never really caught on in the UK and, as a business, they steer away from the term 'natural' because it's so connected to the work in the cellar, which is only one part of the equation. But he said the conversation around natural wine in Burgundy is interesting because the success of recent years (as well as premox) has made many vignerons overcautious. Barris believes it’s time to take some risks and move forward. Many wines, especially the whites, are made with incredibly high levels of sulfur, which completely kills the wines and makes any kind of evolution nearly impossible. Those wines go from being young, as if frozen in time, to being old, he says.
Initially, this piece started as a fun exploration of a ridiculous phrase. However, the more we discussed with people, the more intrigued we became. Natty wine has always had an anti-establishment, punk rock undercurrent, with a tinge of both arrogance and irreverence. It communicates the fitting idea that winemakers are pushing back against The Man. But what happens when Burgundy becomes natural...or punk becomes mainstream? Can natty wine still be natty when it's $250/bottle? When we first visited Ariane Lesne in the Loire, she talked about loving Burgundy. Like, of course she'd love to make wine there. But she couldn't. She's not a millionaire. So, she had to make wine influenced by a love of Burgundy elsewhere. And that freedom allowed her to master an obscure (but beautiful) grape, Pineau d'Aunis, in an overlooked part of France.
Economics, value, and price are intrinsically linked to the idea of natural wine, whether a false or now vestigial structure. What we do know is that these producers (Altaber, Chisa Bize, Valette, and so on) are more closely aligned to D.C. punks from the 1980’s than the straight-laced stereotype of a Burgundy collector. It takes guts, frustration, and a bit of money to fight the system in the place that invented it. In a region with centuries of winemaking history, it will take time and context to really see whether the natural wine movement of the 21st century impacts Burgundy. For now, we just say bring on the Salad Days.