Rhône producer Michel Chapoutier has called for natural wines that show “defects” to be withdrawn from the appellation system.
Speaking at the annual Mentzendorff trade tasting in London this week on the subject of “Authenticity, Individuality & Quality”, Chapoutier, who has farmed biodynamically since 1991, argued that the evolution away from chemical treatments “is sometimes going too far.”
“If you do put out a wine with high VA [volatile acidity] or too much Brettanomyces, don’t lie and say that it is the goût de terroir,” he remarked. “That’s how they made wine 200 years ago.”
Complaining that the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée system had become “like a marketing gimmick,” he argued that as its profile grew, “too many people began to use the name as a brand, but with no sense of respecting the terroir.”
Instead, Chapoutier insisted: “To be called AOC, the wine has to be representative of the AOC – they can’t make wines with defects. We should guarantee that what we offer not only guarantees the place, but represents the place.”
Praising the work and quality recognition achieved by high profile biodynamic pioneers such as Lalou Bize-Leroy and Domaine de la Romanée Conti, Chapoutier acknowledged: “Today thanks to the work of biodynamic and organic farming we have never seen so much diversity.”
However, he criticised the “dreamers” whom he believes have pushed biodynamic principles too far, remarking: “If you have a horse smell in the wine that is a defect. If you have Brett, the same horse character will be in Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhône – you lose the authenticity.”
Michel Chapoutier addresses his audience at the annual Mentzendorff tasting in London
In reference to the vocal advocates for natural wine, Chapoutier commented: “The danger of the ayatollah scares me.”
However, he stressed that he is not opposed to the exploration of new ideas, pointing to his own discarded trials with kosher wine as he clarified: “I don’t say they are wrong, I say you need to make experimentation, but when the result is bad, you need to destroy it.”
In particular, Chapoutier defended the use of sulphur dioxide in winemaking, a treatment which is characteristically avoided by the natural wine movement.
“The idea that sulphites are bad is a lie,” he maintained. Pointing to their important anti-oxidation and anti-bacterial role, Chapoutier stressed instead the importance of achieving the right balance.
“It is free sulphites that are the problem,” he insisted. “The problem is that people are using too much so you have these free sulphites.”
As for those who refuse to add any sulphur to the small amounts that occur naturally in wine, Chapoutier questioned: “People can choose to use no sulphur but how will they deal with the percentage of wines that are not good?”
Recognising the economic issues of abandoning stock, Chapoutier nevertheless warned against turning a blind eye to inferior quality, saying: “I would prefer for the collective to give them money to destroy it than that they should lie to consumers.”
To those producers who still wish to release their product, Chapoutier requested that they avoid using the AOC label. “Sell your wine that smells of horse as a table wine with your name on it, but don’t sell it as Pommard or Morgon,” he implored.
As for whether there should be stricter AOC criteria for quality, Chapoutier welcomed changes in thinking within the INAO (Institut National des Appellations d’Origine) in recent years.
“When I first arrived in the INAO, the question I asked was about quality, but they said ‘We are speaking of origin not quality’ – can you imagine?” he recalled.
Today, however, Chapoutier pointed to a steady shift within the regulatory organisation. “It is only five to seven years since the INAO considered itself as the house for origin and quality. Today they have understood the quality,” he confirmed.