What Does La Dive Bouteille Stand For?
Decades-old fractures re-emerge in natural wine's most iconic salon. Plus: a new archive interview with Sarthe vigneron and pivotal natural wine advocate Jean-Pierre Robinot.
Last December, the journalist and author turned Loire vigneronne Sylvie Augereau sent what she considers a fairly pro forma email to vignerons participating in La Dive Bouteille, the iconic natural wine salon she has organized since 2002. Her brief message confirmed the usual dates and location for the salon, before closing with the following piquant warning to participating vignerons:
Merci encore de garder vos cuvées un peu trop barrées à la maison, pour ceux qui croient que les vins vivants c’est forcément déviants… On est vraiment pas là pour alimenter ce discours dangereux. Il y a des intrants qu’on préfère à certains intrus !1
It was the final, alliterative phrase of this paragraph that caused consternation among many recipients - such that I began to hear about it from several corners of France. Whether by accident or design, Augereau had thrown her weight on one side of a key ideological rift within the natural wine community, one generally papered over by large tasting salons like La Dive: that between natural winemakers who truly add nothing whatsoever to their wines, and the less-dogmatic majority who add small amounts of sulfites, and / or employ filtration, and / or use yeast nutrients or lysozymes or other taboo winemaking additives.
MURMURS OF DISAGREEMENT
The murmurs of disagreement with Augereau’s sentiment - or at least, its phrasing - had become an ambient background roar by the time of the natural wine salons in Montpellier and Sète last weekend. Those vignerons I spoke to who do not, under any circumstances, employ additives such as sulfur dioxide were unhappy with the suggestion that their wines were necessarily the ones that risked giving natural wine a bad reputation. At least one such vigneron, Axel Prüfer, decided to cancel his participation in La Dive Bouteille as a result. (In light of the high demand for stands at Augereau’s salon, this could be considered the natural wine equivalent of skipping the Met Gala.)
“In my understanding, the way she expressed herself incites people to intervene in a manner more systematic than timely,” says Prüfer. “Which would be fatal [for natural wine]!”
Alsace vigneron Christian Binner maintained his own appearance at La Dive Bouteille this year. But he, too, has reservations about Augereau’s discourse about additives.
“In light of the tightening market, Sylvie advocates that people produce good things,” he reasons. “Nonetheless, what she says will favor the industrial, three-quarters-natural wine. Which works well, which isn’t expensive, and which any sommelier can sell.”
For northern Beaujolais vigneron Philippe Jambon, a former La Dive Bouteille exhibitor who ceased presenting at the salon several years ago, the issue goes beyond mere sulfite addition.
“I also prefer good wines to bad wines. When there's too much mouse, it's not good. But you can have lightly sulfited wines that still have mouse. So it’s not sufficient to suggest just a little additives,” he says. “I find the phrasing very maladroit.”
A GRAM NEVER KILLED ANYONE
For her part, Augereau sees nothing controversial in her admonition to vignerons at La Dive.
“It’s not the first time I’ve said this,” she says. “It’s above all to say, guys, the point is not to make wines without sulfur. It’s to make good, digeste wines.”
She does concede that, in efforts to express herself succinctly, her language might have been open to misinterpretation.
“It maybe came across like I had a brick in my hand,” she says. “But we’re here to make a living from our profession, putain. It’s so hard to work this way. We’re not going to fail because we didn’t want to add a gram of sulfites. A gram of sulfites never killed anyone.”
Regarding the instantly notorious phrase “additives we prefer to intruders,” Augereau specifies that by “additives” she meant to condone only minimal sulfitage and the addition of yeast nutrients during fermentation. By “intruders,” she meant things like brettanomyces, mousiness, and spikes in volatile acidity. (And not, as some have worried, some kind of dog-whistle appeal to France’s nativist hard right wing.)
“We’re not just talking about the salon,” she says. “I’m sick of throwing my friends wines in the sink.”
A HISTORICAL SCHISM
For Augereau, the debate between zero sulfitage and a little sulfitage is a non-issue. And indeed, the recent kerfuffle is just the latest manifestation of a debate that has been raging since early 2000s, when Sarthe vigneron Jean-Pierre Robinot, then just embarking on his career as a vigneron but already an influential voice in natural wine, began advocating completely additive-free, zero-added-sulfites winemaking.
“I prefer to drink a natural wine full of faults than a chemical wine,” he still says today. “The chemical wine I won’t drink; the faulty wine I’ll drink.”
This position and its ramifications precipitated a schism within a French natural wine community that Robinot himself - alongside earlier Paris natural wine bistrot proprietors like François Morel, Bernard Pontonnier, and Olivier Camus - had helped nurture.
“Robinot is my friend. But he said a lot of bullshit,” says Paris natural wine bistrot institution Le Baratin’s Philippe Pinoteau, who might be considered the Sarthe vigneron’s ideological opposite nowadays. “The ultra-categorical parts of natural wine are, in my opinion, totally detestable.”
Like Pinoteau (and Robinot, for that matter), Augereau considers herself an acolyte of the late Morgon vigneron Marcel Lapierre, and invokes him frequently in conversation. In her mind, acknowledging sulfite addition and the use of yeast nutrients, if only obliquely, was simply a matter of being honest.
“Marcel used to say, ‘We have to say what we do and do what we say.’ If you put this or that in your wine, you have to say it to your vigneron friends,” she says. “Rather than letting young people who are just starting out believe that you can really put nothing in, and that no one puts anything in.”
But could it be, that in the twenty-four years since La Dive Bouteille began, there has arisen, among natural vignerons and their clients, a populous, passionate subculture that believes you don’t have to - and indeed should never - add sulfites or anything else to wine?
“No, I don’t think so,” says Augereau. “Cavistes can think that, or certain guys who don’t understand anything, who don’t know what we do. But it’s not about making wine without sulfites. No, no, no.”
WHAT DOES LA DIVE STAND FOR?
It has been some time since La Dive Bouteille was considered a radical or cutting-edge natural wine salon. (Witness the fractal-like proliferation of smaller, younger, and more stylistically-unified salons on the calendar.) But La Dive’s more radical vignerons always had reason to believe Augereau supported their work, on the evidence of their inclusion at the fair.
This is where Augereau’s recent witticism may have been too on-the-nose.
“It’s really strange, as a phrase,” says one Loire winemaker (and La Dive Bouteille participant) who preferred to remain anonymous. “The goal is still to make wines that are natural and straight, true natural wines, and that involves taking risks. And these risks imply that it can go wrong sometimes.”
When it comes to straddling the ideological boundaries within natural wine, it’s often better business to ask a question rather than supply the answer. This is the neat trick performed, notably, by the fine folks at Domaine Marcel Lapierre, who despite decades of producing both sulfited and unsulfited versions of their Morgon, have yet to reach a firm conclusion about which is the better approach.
Is all this just a tempest in a tasting glass? Perhaps. But the episode seems significant for how it reveals the increasing ideological stratification of the natural wine world, and the relative inertia of its institutions.
Subscribers can delve deeper into natural wine history with this NEW ARCHIVE INTERVIEW with Sarthe vigneron and pivotal natural wine advocate JEAN-PIERRE ROBINOT.
As for me, I’m regrettably missing all the Loire salons this year, because I’m on dad duty in Paris with a four-month-old baby. Raise a glass of natural chenin for me! Any kind of natural you like ; )
“Please, again, keep your slightly too crazy cuvées at home, for those who believe that natural wines are necessarily deviant… We’re really not here to nourish this dangerous discourse. There are some additives that we prefer to certain intruders!” (My translation.)