A State of Mind with Sebastien David & Chahut et Prodiges
Much has changed in the perception, production and market of naturally made wines over the past ten years. Of course we’ve had winegrowers such as Robert Sinskey who has been organic and Demeter certified for 25 years, and Pierre Frick who has farmed organically since 1970 and biodynamically since 1981, but ‘natural wines’? That’s another story. This week, we sat with Sebastien David, Gregory Leclerc of Chahut et Chahut et Prodiges and his wife Anne Paillet of Dm Autour de L’Anne, to discuss organic and biodynamic wines in France and abroad.
Sebastien: In France, there was a long time ago that it was only Paris. And then it transferred to the other parts of the country. Now, everybody who was in France with the natural wines got out. They went to Tokyo, London and New York, and now we are meeting the same people everywhere.
Anne: I remember coming here probably ten years ago, and it was only Ten Bells and Chambers and that’s it. It was exactly the same in Paris at that time, probably four or five places, now you have plenty. At first people said, ok I’m going to make natural wine. And they made kinky bizarre wines, and now it’s disappearing because natural wine is not about just trying to make wine that is sometimes not even drinkable. If you make wines that are too bizarre, then people don’t get it.
Gregory: It’s a state of mind.
Anne: You can’t decide to be a natural winemaker if you’re not in that state of mind.
Gregory: There’s no recipe. The grapes are different every year, and the winemaker is also different every year. He’s not always in the same state of mind.
Anne: If you have personal problems, or psychological or physical, then you don’t make good wine, because it’s very sensitive. It’s very artistic.
Sebastien: Now it’s the new guys or girls who have arrived, who are moving and changing their lives at 35 or 40. They come to the natural wines for the political situation. They like to be green. Then the come to us and we share and we open our minds and their minds. You need to accept that there are new people in the business and the market because it’s like that. It’s freedom to them. Even if it’s more difficult for them because it’s not so free to get the vinification of natural wines. You have to be more careful than if you use a lot of sulfites. There’s no more yeast or anything. You have to be more careful when you go to natural winemaking.
Anne: To me, I haven’t yet made the perfect wine. The one that I have in my mind. And thank you for that! Because once you think you’ve done it, then it’s finished.
Sebastien you come from 15 generations of winemaking; Gregory you were a wine journalist.
Sebastien: My family was in the commercial wine business [since 1624], so I changed so much. I moved to natural winemaking and they didn’t understand. I learned a lot from my father and grandfather, but Greg learned at school. I told them I’m going to stop the winemaking and it’s going to be different now, and they said ok, but you’re going to have to do your own business. But we say it’s for the next generation. If you destroy it now, there’s not going to be anything for the next generation. You have to leave it clean.
Why did you start making natural wines?
It’s because I met two winemakers, one from Loire, one from Alsace. And they made me taste something else. I got so much pleasure that I didn’t sleep well that night. Maybe I drank a lot [laughs] but the point is, I was surprised that the next morning I had no hangover [laughs]. And I said oh my god, this is something special!
Gregory: That was the same for me. Making wine is like being reborn. I didn’t imagine making wine in any other way, so I directly went to natural wine, through meeting people, talking to people, I learned how to make this kind of wine. But the first one was beginners luck. And then I had a vintage that wasn’t good, so I talked to a lot of people and learned.
What was it about the natural wine?
Gregory: The emotion.
Sebastien: Emotion. It’s crystalized. There’s something. It’s like when you are in the garden in spring and you get the flowers with the grass, at the same time the sun is shining, there’s some water and you feel all of these sensations.
Anne: When I was working in Paris, I used to work in a wine bar after my normal work, and we made an experiment. We bought conventional wines and natural wines and we had 10 people and asked them to close their eyes, taste the wine and then write something about the wine. With the natural wine, everyone wrote about forests, animals, mountains, things like that, trees. And about the conventional wines, everybody described like a motorway, it was really bizarre. Very linear, narrow, a lot of concrete. Not natural things. Concrete. Steel. Cars. Noise. And not birds, bees, mushrooms, deer, trees, water…
Anne: All the people are always talking about the food, the acidity, the minerality, blah, blah blah. They never talk about their emotions. They do that in Japan actually.
Gregory: We don’t care if it smells like strawberry, raspberry, whatever. If you have an emotion, it doesn’t really matter if you spell strawberry or raspberry.
Anne: You have people walking past a Picasso and they don’t care. And some others are like wow! Amazing!
Sebastien: You can’t learn it at school. At wine school, you can learn what you say about acidity and tannins, but you don’t care at the end. It’s like Parker’s notes. You don’t care if it’s 95, 97, or 100. Whatever. If it’s good, it’s good.
I’m certified organic, but I’m under the allowed levels. But you don’t have to let all your vineyards get destroyed because you don’t want to spray just a bit.
Anne: If you don’t use treatments, then you’re crazy. With vinification and sulfur, I think it’s better to use one or two grams, rather than putting on the market a wine that is completely deviant.
Sebastien: I used before 2007, but not any more. I use gas, CO2, nitrogen and argon. Many times it’s like you can talk about sulfites like your arm. You want to put just a little finger, and with time you use a little bit more and more sulfites, and at the end you use the whole packet. Then you destroy everything and you need selected yeast and to acidify.
Anne: For me, it’s like a kid. You don’t want to give him antibiotics everyday, and that’s what conventional winemakers do. But some times if you have a kid that’s really ill, you take him to the doctor and give him antibiotics. If you have a wine that is ill, then you give it some sulfites, one or two grams, to put it back in line.
Sebastien: In France, we say you need two liters of water to make one liter of wine. We’re always washing everything. It’s like surgery.
Gregory: We spend more time cleaning than doing the operation itself.
Sebastien: I started organic in 1999, and biodynamic in 2004. I think you always have to progress. Now I’m more permaculture. You always move.
Gregory: I’m only organic. I work with some plants and things that are used in biodynamics, but I’m not really biodynamic.
Anne: I think you have to be ready in your mind and also in your way of working. You don’t just decide, okay, I’ll go biodynamic because it’s cool. If you’re not ready for that, you’re not.
Gregory: I use biodynamics in the cellar. I try to move wine on the good days. Bottle on the good days.
Anne: To be honest, if you want to really work biodynamic, and you use the calendar in the vineyard, you never work! [laughs] Because you have to prune when the moon is descending, and when it stops raining because it’s not good for wine to prune under the rain. And it’s happened to me, it’s Sunday and you have no one and the next descending day is a root day, and a good day is seven days later, so you can only work two days per month! [laughs]
Sebastien: In France, the AOC is trying to make a new certificate for natural wines. The government tried this one month ago. They want to clarify what is natural wine. Maybe it’s a good idea, but like every good idea, at the end many times it’s nothing. I think about my natural wine. Gregory thinks about his natural wine. It’s not the same winemaking. You can’t say, natural is like this. If natural is sulfite free, it’s like the NOP. Okay, it’s natural, but we’re going to find another word.
Anne: Exactly! A friend of mine said, If they take that word for wine then the big winemaking companies they’re going to use the label, certification, and they’re going to call it ‘natural wine’, then we’ll find another word. We’ll call it ‘free wine’, or something else. You can take the word if you want to, but you can’t take this.
Sebastien: The first harvesting machine was 1975 or ’77 in France. They didn’t say it was going to pick the grapes better. They went and asked one farmer how many people he feeds when he’s harvesting. Oh, 20. So next year you won’t have to cook for anybody. They said next year, you’ll be more free.
Anne: And they think it’s cheaper.
Sebastien: It’s our nature to provide work, and to pick with people. Because when you employ one person, in fact you feed one family. There’s organic, biodynamic, natural and social [responsibility].
Anne: It’s a hard job because we often are alone and it’s hard. It’s physical, and it’s outside. It used to be the church guys were making the wine, and they were working all together. In Languedoc, it’s really like this. There are a lot of people working in the vineyard. Most of the time they’re from Chile or Argentina, but there’s a lot of people working and they took away a lot of harvesting machines. They’re switching back to people.