Natural Wine – is it legal?
This weekend Sébastien David, a wine maker in the Loire valley, waits to hear the verdict. On Monday, May 13 he will discover whether or not the Administrative Court of Orléans will order him to destroy his wine, and declare it to be an illegal product. The gathering of a hundred other winegrowers and friends who attended the hearing wait to hear as well, as so many of them could also be affected.
The legal drama started earlier in the year when an agent of the DGCCRF (Directorate General of Competition, Consumption and Repression of Fraud) arrived at Sébastien’s vineyard in the Loire valley and seized 3 bottles of his cuvée Coëf 2016 for testing.
Sébastien’s family has been around for a while, making Saint Nicolas de Bourgueil wine from cabernet franc grapes since 1634! On his 15 hectare vineyard, Sébastien has developed a name for himself as an innovator, and maybe he does things differently from his ancestors. Don’t we all?
Sébastien David is a true researcher. He tries to understand, to test and innovate. He does not use any additives in the wine, the grapes are pressed underfoot and fermented in his “eggs” (ovoid shaped tanks). The barrels are placed on a rolling system that allows the wine to “rock” before ageing in Italian amphora to create the vintage “Coëf”. Sébastien David does not simply make wine, he is a creator of winemaking methods.
Do his experiments work? I don’t know, not having tasted one of his bottles. But I respect his enthusiasm to innovate. Unfortunately, the agent from the DGCCRF had a different opinion.
The bottles were sent for analysis to the BIEV (Bureau of Investigation of Wine Surveys) which detected a volatile acid content above the standard, even though the technician of the same laboratory apparently found this content “satisfactory” after organoleptic examination.
But apparently, a rule is a rule. The BIEV inspectors blocked the batch of Sébastien’s 2,078 bottles which were sealed with a prohibition to touch and referred the matter to the district court.
French administration can sometimes be uncharacteristically speedy, because on the same day Sébastien received from the prèfet of Indre and Loire, Corinne Orzechowski, a decree instructing him to destroy, within the month, his batch of 2,078 bottles.
And that is why Sébastien attended the courthouse in Orleans with his lawyer on Friday, and why he awaits the verdict on Monday.
There are two key issues here which resonate throughout the wine industry in France. The first is that French winemakers have started to experiment with both natural and organic wine production, sometimes with wonderful results and sometimes with dire. But who should police that innovation? Bureaucrats and lab technicians? Or the wine drinking public? Do we really need to be protected? Sébastien’s wine is not a health issue, but a technical variation from the expected norm.
And secondly, so many appellations have rules which go back almost a century. Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil is an Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) on the right bank of the River Loire. The AOC was created by a decree on July 31, 1937, covering about 800 hectares in the commune of Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil in the département of Indre-et-Loire. The appellation does not simply delineate the geographical location, but it also restricts the types and quantities of grapes which can be included in the wine, and sets maximum allowable yields and permissible techniques.
Natural wines seek to express the potential of the grape, with minimal use of additives. Sometimes it works well, and sometimes it does not. Natural wines are more instinctual, more responsive to the environment, than is expected by a bureaucracy.
While writing this blog, I received an alert that an online petition to support Sébastien has now received 154,450 signatures. I have not signed, because this is not an easy question where all the right is piled on one side, and I shall return to explore these issues in later blogs. My sympathies go to Sébastien in his courtroom battle, as I feel his case is a microcosm of wider tensions within wine making in France. Good luck to him on Monday.