Legeron: natural wines can age for 50 years

Natural wine pioneer Isabelle Legeron MW has hit out at critics of the movement, claiming that wines without sulphites are capable of ageing for up to 50 years.

Isabelle Legeron MW

Speaking to the drinks business ahead of artisan wine fair RAW on Sunday, Legeron said: “It’s completely feasible that wines made without sulphites can age for 50 years – I’ve tasted 50-year-old natural wines that are still going strong.

“Sulphites are not about preservation, they’re more about killing off microbes. What they do do is freeze a wine in time.”

But while Legeron believes in the ageing potential of natural wine, she admitted that in order for them to age, factors like terroir become incredibly important.

“If you’re not using sulphites then you have to make sure your wine comes from an impeccable site and is farmed correctly,” she told db.

Legeron’s new book on natural wine

In order to prove to both the trade and consumers that natural wine can age, Legeron is planning to open a natural wine bar that focuses on older vintages.

“It’s my next project and is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. It will definitely be in east London – I’m currently scouring the area for sites,” she said.

While she has yet to think of a name for the bar, Legeron confirmed that every wine on pour will be natural and either organic or biodynamic, while small plates of locally sourced food will be an important focus.

While the natural wine movement has come under fire in the last year, with a number of wine writers predicting that its popularity has peaked, Legeron believes the reverse, and that the movement is gaining momentum.

“I don’t think there’s a bubble so there is no way that it can burst. An increasing number of producers are making natural wine and consumers are showing a growing interest in buying and drinking it, so I see no end to the trend,” she said.

Legeron also believes that the increasingly trendy category of “orange” wines needs an official definition.

“There’s going to be a debate about orange wines at RAW on Monday as we need to define exactly what they are.

Orange wines will be debated at RAW

Orange wines will be debated at RAW

“People are talking about orange wines and natural wines as if they’re interchangeable, but they’re not the same thing,” she told db.

Some 150 growers from France, Italy, Spain, the US, Austria, Germany and beyond will attend this year’s RAW fair on 18-19 May at the Truman Brewery in east London.

In order to be allowed to exhibit, producers must use less than 70mg/l of sulphites and no other additives in their wines.

“I’ve kicked people out before who weren’t honest about their sulphite levels – this is the strictest wine fair in the world to enter,” Legeron said.

“Wine is not a necessity and ours is an industry that relies heavily on chemicals. Using additives in the cellar is a philosophical question.

“I don’t care what other people do – I’m not out to convert people as I’m free to drink what I like. My bugbear is that consumers aren’t being told the truth,” she added.

In addition to wine, a quintet of local craft brewers will be in attendance at RAW, along with artisan tea and coffee makers who share the same principles as natural winemakers.

“There are a lot of similarities between winemaking and tea and coffee making, so we wanted to flag this up and open up the fair to drinks outside of wine,” Legeron said.

10 Responses to “Legeron: natural wines can age for 50 years”

  1. Jacques says:

    “It’s completely feasible that wines made without sulphites can age for 50 years – I’ve tasted 50-year-old natural wines that are still going strong.” Yes, its called sherry.
    “There are a lot of similarities between winemaking and tea and coffee making” !? No, but with natural wines there are a lot of similarities with 18th century scrumpy making.
    If she opens a bar, ‘organic’ will be the only attraction to the consumer – they don’t have time to listen to the holistic cosmic healing voodoo of biodynamics and they won’t order a second glass of orange wine aka cider wine if they have more than three taste buds.
    Extremely niche wines for extremely niche markets. Kopi Luwak drinkers may appreciate it. Perhaps it will go well with other natural products such as Hákarl or Surströmming?

  2. TonyMason says:

    Isabelle may think it necessary to have a definition for “orange” wines. How about a definition for “natural” wines?

  3. Wine is not a natural product. It is produced by humans. Everyone wants the most natural product, yes. But this claim that wine can age for 50 years without sulfites, needs 50 years of investigation, since only that time can really prove, the impact of all variables on the product. Even with sulfites, most products don’t last that long. Even so, if wine were to last that long, by the time we are interested in purchasing (perhaps 21 years old), add 50 years, and then we cannot consume, because we are the ones gone bad. Jejeje. The market is oriented toward ready to drink wines, and the gamble to age wine, looses followers with each disappointment. Usually 10 to 15 years does the trick enough. Cheers.

  4. Clark Smith says:

    Isabelle’s claims may seem outrageous, but they are precisely correct. I’ve been making sulfite-free red wines for fourteen years, and my 2001 Syrah still needs to breathe for a week or two to show its best. The problem with these wines is not oxidation, but reduction.

    The science is well-known. The phenolic oxidative polymerization reaction that protects reds from vinegar formation and other types of oxidation is called the vicinal diphenol cascade, elucidated by Vern Singleton in 1987 at UC Davis. Singleton drew his expertise in phenolics from Bates-Smith, who pioneered phenolic work in – wait for it – tea. Singleton showed that sulfites short-circuit the wine’s self-protective mechanism by combining with reaction intermediates and undoing the reaction. We are now able to measure this effect, which lowers the wine’s appetite for oxygen about 12-fold.

    Granted, there is a lot of very poor sulfite-free wine. It’s a new genre, and highly experimental. Of course people are making mistakes. Oregon Pinot Noir was all pretty much crap for the first twenty years, but they found their own way and today, the wines are nearly universally sound and mostly well worth seeking out. I have watched Paul Frey and Tony Norskog follow the same pattern in sulfite-free wines, producing dreadful wines for a good long while. Then Paul won the West Coast Wine Competition Sweepstakes with his 2001 Zinfandel, a stunning wine which is still excellent today. Tony’s Daily Red is a consistent, dependable, mildly amusing $10 wine. These things take time, people.

    Admittedly, white wines are much more of a challenge since they cannot depend on phenolic reduction to protect them. Lees stirring helps by releasing glutathione, a powerful anti-oxidant. We don’t know what causes that energy in the finish of wines grown on limestone, slate, schist and decomposed granite (my preferred definition for minerality), but our experiments at Napa Valley College with organic practices have shown that Chardonnay grown in the presence of a healthy soil ecology, even on a simple sandy loam, results in wines which require a decade in the bottle to emerge. Many other experiments with sulfite alternatives continue to emerge.

    The obvious solution to the white wine dilemma is to extract phenols from the skins, seeds and stems, an ancient practice. These wines take perfectly good care of themselves and last for decades. The result is not the fresh, light, arrested modern whites, but these wines are certainly not prone to aldehyde and vinegar. They look brown, sure, but not due to oxidation. They just have a lot of phenols in them. Like tea.

    Sulfite-free wines, particularly the whites, do not generally have the same style profile as conventional sulfited wines. They also require much longer cellaring than modern styles. There certainly needs to be more professionalism and candor within this experimental community, and leaders who can tell the difference between an eccentric style and badly made swill. An MW like Ms Legeron is just the sort of person that’s needed – knowledgeable and discerning.

    I know Isabelle comes off like a looneytoons, and heaven knows we have had our disputes, but I have come to learn that she deserves to be taken quite seriously despite her self-mocking web identity. The real whackos are know-it-all pundits who scoff at an experimental movement because it hasn’t produced perfect wines consistently from its inception.

  5. Keith Pritchard says:

    Why do they keep ragging on sulfite addition? It doesn’t add anything that isn’t there naturally, just a bit more of it. Sulfur dioxide is an antioxidant the works after ingesting like any other antioxidant in the bloodstream. Just because attention was raised a long time ago by restaurant workers spreading it on salad bars like they were salting an icy sidewalk and some people allergic to it died ( a very small minority of even asthmatics). It was decided it was a bad thing in everything. The difference between a medicine to save life and a poison to harm is always the dose. The minor amount in wine made in accordance to legal limits is never a poison and likely isn’t even if it was an old German wine made with much in excess. If someone is one of the very small percentage of asthmatics that is sensitive (not allergic) to sulfites then they would likely know to avoid products with them like most wines and definitely dried fruit.

  6. paul frey says:

    Isabelle and Clark are correct. We at Frey Family Organic Wine have been making organic no sulfite added wines for over 30 years and have opened bottles over 25 years old and they taste great. Most of the 8000 year history of wine making was with organic grapes and no sulfites added. “Feranga Valley wines were excellent, they did not need to be resinated (a natural preservative used at that time) and can last 50 years.” Strabo, famous Roman writer, from the year 60 AD.

  7. Clark Smith says:

    Keith is right, too. There is no verified health risk associated with sulfites in wine. I don’t make sulfite-free reserve wines because they’re healthier. I do it because they’re more interesting.

    The greatest cheeses, IMO, are unpasteurized. To me, no aged Vermont cheddar (and I do love them) can compare to an Eppoises. Granted, this cheese does smell like dog doo, but very fine dog doo it is. The point is that it’s hard to make comparisons with the cleaner, pasteurized cheeses, and we surely don’t want all cheese made this way, but I do happily shell out outrageous sums for a wedge of a great stinky cheese.

    So those are the kinds of wines I’m making (Two Jakes of Diamonds Roman Reserve) – not for everybody, and not as health wines. Extremely delightful, though, for the few of us that appreciate them, and to me, ample explanation of why the Romans planted all those grapes (their wines appear to have been entirely unsulfited for a thousand years, according to Gods, Men and Wine by William Younger).

    A caution concerning sulfites as a preservative. I’ve already talked about their deleterious effects on wine’s ability to protect itself from oxygen. A picture is also emerging that SO2 doesn’t kill microbes such as Brettanomyces, but rather renders them “viable but non-culturable;” That is, they no longer grow on agar plates, but still thrive in the wine. They go stealthy.

  8. Phaedra says:

    Yes, I agree that both Isabelle and Clark are correct. We at LaRocca Vineyards have been making organic wines with no sulfites added since 1986. We had a customer bring in a bottle of our 1986 wine that she purchased and we opened it and it was excellent (and she didn’t have a wine cellar or wine frig., just aged in her homes). If done correctly with care and quality sulfites are not needed for aging. In fact, LaRocca Vineyards specializes in aged organic wines with no sulfites. We have current releases of 2005, 2008 vintages. So pick up a bottle and give it a try. Cheers to organic!

  9. There’s already a wine bar in east London that specialises in organic, biodynamic and natural wines, and it serves locally sourced food – it’s called The Victualler and is located in the Garnet Street, Wapping, not more than four mnutes walk from the overground station. It is well worth a visit, the patron Daniil is very informative, and a tasting is very educational. Check it out at victualler.co.uk

  10. Dirk-Antoon Samyn says:

    The biggest problem I have is the very disturbing term ‘natural wines’ indicating that all others are ‘unnatural’?? From outerspace?? Time to look for another name? Non-additive wine?

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