Unfiltered: Isabelle Legeron MW
A staunch advocate of natural wine, Isabelle Legeron founded RAW Wine in 2012, which has grown to become the world’s largest community of low-intervention organic, biodynamic and natural wine producers. Featuring annual fairs in London, Berlin, New York, Los Angeles and Montréal, RAW Wine is leading a global charge for low-intervention wine. But while Legeron’s path in wine could be considered unconventional, her career began very clasically. Having completed her WSET Diploma in 2003, Legeron went on to become an MW, one of 370 worldwide, and remains France’s only female Master of Wine. She won the Madame Bollinger award for Excellence in Tasting and the Villa Maria award for Viticulture when she became an MW, and last year was awarded the WSET’s first Outstanding Alumni Award, voted for by WSET Diploma graduates. Since becoming an MW, and armed with a newfound platform, Legeron has made it her mission to raise the profile of natural wines and increase consumer awareness of sulphites in wine, while boosting routes to market for producers of wines that are created using natural farming methods and low-intervention techniques. Her first book, Natural Wine: An introduction to organic and biodynamic wines made naturally, was shortlisted for the Fortnum & Mason Best Drinks Book as well as the Louis Roederer and André Simon awards. A huge advocate of organic farming, Legeron states openly that for her the world’s best wines are natural and that is all she personally drinks. Initially considered a “bit of a misfit” by her industry, Legeron’s work in wine is now internationally acclaimed, making her an influential force for natural wine, both in London and across the world. Currently, she consults on the wine list at Bibendum Restaurant & Oyster Bar in Kensington), whose kitchen is managed by chef Claude Bosi, of the former two-Michelin starred Hibiscus in Mayfair, whose wine list was also managed by Legeron. She also oversees the lists at Borough Market’s Elliot’s, and The Richmond in Hackney. Most recently, she has been a driving force in the opening of Neptune, on Russell Square, curating its wine list. Adding to an already impressive CV, in 2017 she was chosen as one of the most innovative women in food and drink by Fortune, and as one of the 50 most influential French people in the world by Vanity Fair. When not working in wine, Legeron is happiest foraging for mushrooms and watching boxsets of Nordic Noir. She lives in east London with her partner and their Border Terrier, Huckleberry Finn.
How did you arrive at the position you are in today?
It wasn’t a person so much as a realisation. While I was studying for my MW (Master of Wine) I happened across an alternative wine world that turned my life on its head. I was gripped by what is now termed ‘natural wine’ but which in those days didn’t really have a name at all. They were (and still are) wines grown organically or biodynamically, made with minimal intervention in the cellar (no additives, a light touch), and grown/made – for the most part – by small producers. They captivated me taste-wise in a way that conventional wines didn’t and resonated with me on all sorts of levels, so I decided I wanted to dedicate myself to getting these wines out there on lists for others to discover and enjoy. My first consultancy was with two-michelin starred chef Claude Bosi, with whom I worked for about 8 years across a variety of restaurants and projects. He and I have the same attitude to taste and through him I fell in love with the world of fine dining and the use of drinks as an extension of a taste experience – what we French call l’Art de Table.
What’s your favourite part of the job?
Tasting wines regularly and keeping up to date with all the new releases, new growers etc. Being a buyer has you keep your finger on the pulse especially when you work with natural wines as they can be very different from one vintage to another. I also obviously love tasting new dishes with the kitchen and opening bottles to find the perfect match. This is a very rewarding exercise and it also help connect the wine team to the kitchen, which I think is often lacking.
What’s the biggest misconception about the role of a consultant?
That it is all about putting anything that takes your fancy on a list. Designing a successful wine list is as much about hitting price points and understanding where the business is going as it is about flavour. Like everything it is has to generate for the establishment otherwise it won’t last. You need to create a list that has an identity, that works well with the kitchen and delivers value for money.
What’s your go-to drink at the end of a long day?
Definitely a glass of wine – perhaps a refreshing pétillant naturel or a full-bodied white from the Med – either way it would definitely be sulphite-free. Or then again maybe I’d have a craft ale. Or actually maybe one of my own creations – I am often to be found mixing, fermenting or macerating in my East End kitchen. There are so many exciting things to taste out there, I am loathe to constrain myself to one habitual drink!
What’s your most embarrassing moment as a wine professional?
A few years back I ended up hosting a wine show on Travel Channel, Journey into Wine, which lasted for four series and was a total hoot – we travelled to all sorts of far flung destinations, exploring their histories, cultures and people through the vehicle of wine. On the first shoot, my director decided – in all his wisdom – that it would be a great idea to shoot a promo for the show with me naked in a vat of fermenting syrah! Because of the risk of passing out thanks to the carbon dioxide coming off the juice, we had to fix up fans and then, surrounded by filming crew and the Boekenhoutskloof cellar team, I had to ‘gracefully’ descend into the liquid totally starkers. Somewhere in the Travel Channel archive lies some very embarrassing footage.
If you could give your younger self advice when starting out, what would it be?
Don’t go to university straight out of school! Get practical experience instead so that you can actively choose your further education path based on where you want to go. In my case that would have meant ditching the 5 years of business and languages (which I did up to DESS – the first year of a PhD in France) and heading off instead into the world of organic farming. I would then have gone back to studying and would have opted for something like geology (or another earth science), which I am fascinated by. But most importantly, I would remind this mini me to spend as much time growing and making as possible, even while studying – life gets busier and busier so make the most of your time while you still have official vacations!
What bottle sparked your love of wine?
There is no one specific bottle but rather a way of life. As a child during harvest (I was brought up in Cognac, in a grape growing family) we would drink grape must that had begun to ferment. As the vintage progressed so too would the juice, which would become more and more like wine as the 3 weeks of harvest elapsed. This ‘Vin Fou’ – half wine, half juice – was murky, brown and surprising thirst-quenching – fruit juice with a bit of a kick. For me it came to mean a time of togetherness, of hard work and celebration. I guess I started young!
What to date has been your most memorable wine experience?
A few years ago, I was very fortunate to be invited to take part in one of Pierre Overnoy’s famed blind tastings in the Jura. We spent an extraordinary afternoon tasting through a collection of his wines, the oldest of which dated back to 1959, and all made entirely without sulphites. There were examples from the 70s, 80s and 90s as well. There was Chardonnay, Poulsard and Savagnin, and they were all magnificent. A magical day and one of the most profound wine experiences of my life.
Which client habit annoys you the most?
Forgetting that as the consultant you are part of the team, which is sometimes easy to do since you are not onsite every day. The main problem with this is that it can mean that you are the last one to know about changes that affect your list, which can be hugely counter-productive. The best clients I have worked with tend to over, rather than under, include me and it shows in our results.
Who is your inspiration in the gastronomic world?
I have been really lucky to work with some extraordinary chefs throughout my time in the business, many of whom have been personal heroes for different reasons. For the last few years, for example, I have got to work closely with the amazing Brett Redman who is genuinely inspiring for his commitment to provenance. Nowadays it is the done thing to talk about the sourcing of products but what I have found is that while lots of people talk the talk, few genuinely mean it. Brett does and his work at Elliot’s, and now Neptune, is testament to that. The food is delicious and you know that what you are eating is truly considered which is so, so important in our modern world.
What’s your ultimate food and wine pairing?
I recently went to Greece to spend time with wine producer Jason Ligas. We went to a fish taverna and Jason poured Selosse VO Champagne with top-notch bottarga from Greece. That pairing was incredible.
Where would your fantasy vineyard be?
Africa. Once the continent gets under your skin… My fantasy vineyard nearly became reality a few years back when I put in an offer on a farm in South Africa, which had dramatic views, was perfect for grapes, had old citrus trees on it, as well as Buchu and wild fynbos, and was even paid visits by the occasional Cape Leopard. But sadly, it wasn’t to be.
If you weren’t a wine consultant, what would you be doing and why?
A subsistence farmer and maker of a little bit of wine. I love the earth, I love the natural world and I love to nurture and help things grow. In fact, I probably try to practice hands-off farming like Masanobu Fukuoka.
Which wine (grape/style) do you find it impossible to get along with?
To be honest, anything made with high levels of added SO2. I literally can’t stomach them any more and I find drinking them an almost pointless exercise since the flavours are stilted and feel like they have been placed in a strait-jacket. As one grower once said to me – “sulphites lobotomise a wine” and the more I go down this road, the more I get how true it is.
Who is the most memorable client you’ve ever worked with and why?
That would have to be Kittitian Hill – a farm-to-table, eco-luxury resort in the Caribbean. It was a wonderful project with big dreams that sadly turned out to be somewhat bigger than could actually be delivered on, which was a real shame. Their whole raison d’être was to reinvent the identity of the Caribbean resort so that rather than being an outpost of a large international chain shipping in produce, products and staff from elsewhere (mainly the US), KH was created and staffed entirely (from build all the way through to service) by local people. The ambition had been to only stock produce that was grown or collected locally, either from its boutique farm (where you could find some 40 different types of mango trees, including a collection of heirloom varieties!) or by local farmers and fishermen. I was hired to develop the drinks offering, which featured unique creations using local plants and fruit as well as a strong natural wine component from around the world. In fact, at the time, it was the only place in the Caribbean where you could drink natural wine. A large part of my job was about developing the front of house team as I had to design a course and train them all from scratch as most had never seen a grape before let alone ever tasted wine. It was a hugely rewarding experience, which made me completely rethink training.
What makes you most proud to be working in London?
The way the food scene has evolved in the last 7/8 years or so. I think London is barely recognisable from a local food scene with tons of local restaurants especially in East London embracing local food, artisan bread and proper wine. There is a lot of room for growth and I know the climate is very challenging right now but I hope this trend continues.
What’s on your wine bucket list?
Spend an afternoon with Bernard Noblet, former cellar master at DRC, and taste through some of the earlier wines that he made from the 1970s and 1980s.
Finally, what wine and paired plate would you pick from your list and why?
I would pick something from our bar menu at Neptune, which is just about to launch. Our hot buttered crab roll is a dream with one of our brut nature grower Champagnes, such as Fluence by Franck Pascal for example. All the Champagne producers we work with on our wine list (which, by the way, is entirely organic) work with low yields, generally complete malolactic fermentation and are mostly made without any dosage. This style works really well with food as the resulting Champagnes are full-bodied and vinous.