Ten Natural Wine Fascinations of 2021
The bottles that kept recurring.
When writing about wine, I try not to dwell on particular cuvées or, especially, specific vintages of particular cuvées. De-emphasizing this information is a way to suggest that, when buying wine, it is the story of the vigneron that matters, not the story of some bottle with a price tag on it.
But hell, it’s the end of the year. I thought I’d share ten bottles that defined 2021 for me.
A selection had to be made. I removed from consideration any impossible-to-find micro-cuvées, e.g. wines produced on a scale of under five-hundred bottles. (So no Jurassien pineau d’aunis, or Rhône rkatsiteli.) And the vintages had to be available on the market. (So no well-aged unsulfited Faugères.) I limited the selection to bottles that I returned to several times throughout the year, seeking them out on wine lists, or opening them at home with friends.
Don’t take this as a buying guide. It’s just a peek at what one fussy, reflective natural wine obsessive in Paris was drinking this year. A lot of pale, spritzy reds, and a few structured whites. (If nothing else, knowing the limitations of my taste in wine may lead you to take my other recommendations with a healthy grain of salt.)
TEN NATURAL WINE FASCINATIONS OF 2021
In alphabetical order.
Guy Breton - Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau “Cuvée Fanchon” 2021
Guy Breton’s primeur is perennially the lightest, keenest, and finest of the region. But in the cool autumn of 2021, suffering from back troubles and aided by his longtime friend Yann Rohel, Guy Breton bested even his own high standards, producing a masterpiece: lithe yet ample, gooseberry-toned, upward-tilting, with a level of CO2 and leesiness that would make his juniors blush. I went through four bottles between Le Verre Volé and Le Repaire de Cartouche in November.
Further reading: Beaujolais Nouveau 2021
Domaine de Saint Pierre - “Savagnin Autrement” 2018
Fabrice Dodane had the wisdom - and the balls - to wait out the long fermentations of the 2018 vintage without intervention. His topped-up “Savagnin Autrement” is an object lesson in the arcing, saline grace that can arrive when a slow, nail-biting fermentation comes to a perfect finish, some two years later. I shared a bottle with friends at the Auberge de Chassignolles shortly after harvest, and another with visiting friends from New York at the Comptoir des Tontons in Beaune in November, an occasion that is unbearably poignant in retrospect.
Further reading: A May 2021 interview with Fabrice Dodane
Justin Dutraive - Beaujolais “Les Bulands” 2020
“Les Bulands” is a flat, clayey parcel behind a lame restaurant in Romanèche-Thorins. Dutraive himself admits it is basically “corn terroir.” The 2019 “Les Bulands,” which had seen a peculiarly short vatting, was a trebly, head-scratching sort of gamay rosé. But in 2020 Dutraive doubled down on this new stylistic direction, and succeeded this time, creating a mouthwatering, red-floral masterpiece that evokes the work of the more inventive young vignerons of the Gard. I tasted it with Dutraive during a party at Le Doyenné, and later found it poured by the glass from magnum at Le Dauphin.
Further reading: A May 2016 profile of Justin Dutraive
La Vigne du Perron - Vin de France “Les Etapes” 2019
Back in November I embarrassed myself among several renowned sommeliers in Copenhagen by talking up this vintage of François Grinand’s Bugey pinot noir and searching, without success, for its particular winsome, tonic, cherry cola charm in bottles of the 2017 and 2018 vintages, neither of which were quite as successful. Tant pis. I re-encountered Grinand twice this year, first at the Salon des Vins Libres in Mittelbergheim, and later at Brut(es) in Mulhouse, and each time I’ve been delighted to purchase a few more bottles of the 2019. They go fast.
Jean-Yves Péron - Vin de la communauté européenne Barbera “I Vicini” 2019
Savoie natural wine maestro Jean-Yves Péron’s 2019 barbera effectively reinvents the grape variety. Its bristling, luminescent berry fruit bears little resemblance to previous, blacker vintages of the same wine, because in 2019, unlike in 2017 or 2018, Péron was finally able to harvest at the (lower) level of ripeness he desires. I crossed the Alps by car on three occasions this year and on two of them I stopped to purchase this barbera from Péron - specifically to share it with vignaioli on the other side of the border.
A evanescent, rose-tinted blend of 85% pinot gris and 15% pinot noir from adjacent plots, vinified and aged in used barrel separately before blending and further aging, “Ponderosa” is as keen and cosmic as a Jimmie Dale Gilmore chorus. It’s the work of radiant young Nahe icon Christine Pieroth, who I first met in May, and have been delighted to run into several times since. I’ve lost count of how many bottles of “Ponderosa” I’ve enjoyed this year. (It helps that her Paris importer is a good friend, and his wine bar, Chambre Noire, is across the street from my apartment.)
The 2019 “Les Croses” saw a micro-dose of sulfur dioxide during its long, troubled fermentation, but you’d never know to look at it, or taste it, for that matter. A direct-press, oak-aged rosé of mourvèdre with a touch of syrah, “Les Croses” is brickish, oxidative, leesy, abundantly volatile - and strangely beautiful. A rosé from hell. I never fail to order it wherever I find it, whether it be at La Part des Anges in Nice, or, most often, at La Courtille in Tavel. (I should mention that Charles Soulier forswore further sulfitage after this experience, since, as he puts it, it had no effect whatsoever.)
Further reading: A March 2021 interview with Charles Soulier.
Weingut Franz & Christine Strohmeier - “Lys-Rød °31” 2020
Shortly after learning about Franz Strohmeier’s experiments with minimal pruning, I had the occasion to harvest several parcels of unpruned vines in the Languedoc. I couldn’t help making the (perhaps fanciful) connection between the fruit that results from minimal pruning - many tiny bunches, low in alcohol, high in acidity - and the fruit one finds on abandoned vines. Anyway as I mull this all over (and prepare to devat one of my own wines from unpruned vines) I’ve enjoyed a several bottles of his pale, berry-toned “Lys-Rød °31,” purchased from Delicatessen in Paris. Somehow pointillist in profile, the wine seems to glow with its own profound equilibrium.
Further reading: Franz Strohmeier on minimal pruning.
Plucky sommelière turned transnational natural wine négoçiant Jas Swan is making waves in the Mosel with her unorthodox approach to varietal assemblage (not to mention some of her glorious wine labels). No amount of optimism about Swan’s career prepared me for the lightning bolt that is her 2020 “Sigyn,” a truly inspired blend of 60% regent, 30% dornfelder, and 10% riesling. The acid filigree of the riesling (and a high level of entrapped CO2) carries and uplifts the darkness of dornfelder, while regent, a hybrid grape, lends its own peculiar, lipsticky off-dry quality. I begged Swan for a few bottles when I saw her in May and opened them all for vignerons and wine buyers who I thought might get the important message contained in dashing, succulent wines from majority hybrid grapes.
Further reading: A November 2020 visit to Jas Swan
Jakob Tennstedt - Riesling Landwein “Perl Mutt” 2018
“Perl Mutt” could be considered natural Mosel wunderkind Jakob Tennstedt’s bastard child, for he has since relinquished the steep, pre-phylloxera parcel from which it derives. (He was unsatisfied with how the wine held up after opening, finding it oxidized faster than his other wines.) He was a harsh critic of his most immediate wine. “Perl Mutt”’s panoramic, uplifting apple-blossom and white floral tones hit me like an epiphany when I first tasted it in November 2020, and the bottle followed me throughout the following year, like the “little phrase” in Proust’s Vinteuil Sonata, appearing in restaurants ranging from Mokonuts in Paris to NOMA in Copenhagen, where sommelier Mads Kleppe paired it, counterintuitively, with a bright apple salad.
Further reading: A November 2020 visit to Jakob Tennstedt.
Were these natural wines of any interest to you? Top ten lists are not my stock in trade, to be honest. It just seemed a nice way to congratulate the vignerons, and to share a little about what I like to drink these days.
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