Like a tale pulled from fiction or the great sagas of history, the story of natural wine actually goes back to the battlefield. When U.S. military personnel went overseas during World War 2, they were armed with a powerful tool: insecticide. DDT — a shortened name for the chemical compound — wasn’t exactly new, but it was revived because of its capacity to prevent deaths by diseases that were transmitted by insects, a significant problem in previous wars. It seemed like an advantage, tamping down lice in Italy and mosquitos in the South Pacific.
At first, the insecticide appeared miraculous. It killed the “bad” bugs with seemingly little human or environmental impact. At home, farmers wanted a shot at this chemical that could eliminate insects they considered pests, and chemical treatments for their needs were quickly developed and put to use around the world. Investment and research within the industry also gave life to the first weed killer, herbicide.
What does this have to do with wine? Quite a bit, actually. After the war, grape growers (like their colleagues in other agricultural pursuits) began to employ chemical treatments to suppress insects, weeds, mildew, and more. This appeared to be a win for the post-war generation, and though we now understand the vast and detrimental impacts of DDT and many of its successors, at the time this seemed like new technology to embrace, to increase productivity, yields, and of course profits.
Jean Foillard 📷: wineterriors.com
While not every wine grower put chemicals to use, many did. This is why the sustainable methods behind natural, organic, and biodynamic wine felt new or even crazy when certain producers re-introduced them in the 1970s, 80s, and beyond. Jules Chavet, a Beaujolais negociant, has been called the “father” of natural winemaking for his studies, practices, and publications from the mid-to-late 1900s. He advised against using chemicals and synthetics in the vineyard and cellar, concerned that their application would upset the natural balance of the terroir.
Chavet’s work influenced a group of Beaujolais producers who have been dubbed the Gang of Four: Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, Jean-Paul Thévenet, and Guy Breton. Their concern was for environmental impact, as well the commodification of wine when made in an overly commercialized or tech-heavy way.
Many of today’s natural wine growers and makers look back to the foundations that these people laid down. In terms of the U.S. market, importer Kermit Lynch is credited for broadening the conversation and interest of these wines when he included them in his portfolio.
“During the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, people were looking for more inexpensive alternatives to Burgundy,” said Rajat Parr, in an interview with VinePair. This moved the needle for natural Beaujolais, transporting it from local bistros to New York City wine lists. Now, many somms share a commitment to natural wine a la the Gang of Four and well beyond.
The appeal of these early pioneers hasn’t faded. They’ve not only influenced the next generation of sustainable winemakers — quite literally as some of their children are now at the helm of the domaines — but their labels are still sought out for their validity and quality. In the face of many trends, these producers represent the sort of wine we aspire to drink and to ponder.
Jean- Paul and Charly Thévenet
We still live in a world where tech and tradition are balanced, where innovation and old-timey must coexist. It’s not hard to imagine what these winemakers and their families felt when they made the choice to avoid chemicals and new-fangled shortcuts in the name of balance, biodiversity, and purity. The easy way, the fast way, the new way had to remain shelved in a world where natural threats persist.
If you are only getting to know natural wine, the Gang of Four is literally that big red arrow indicating to start here. These wines are a lesson in sustainable practices, terroir, and great taste. Here’s a short bio along with a shopping list syllabus for each:
Marcel Lapierre took over his family’s estate back in 1973, though the winery’s trajectory really changed when he met Jules Chauvet in 1981. Since then, all chemical fertilizers and herbicides were removed from the family’s vineyards. Fruit is harvested late, meticulously sorted by hand, fermented with native yeasts, and aged extensively on the fine lees in used wood. Although Marcel tragically passed away in 2010, his legacy is carried on by his son Mathieu and daughter Camille, who continue to pioneer the honest winemaking techniques — as well as the introduction of biodynamic principles — that their father fiercely supported. Lapierre wines are produced in the heart of Morgon and are known for their fleshy fruit-forwardness and ageworthy potential.
Jean and Agnès Foillard have been farming 14 hectares of vines centered around Morgon’s famed Côte du Py slope since 1980. As in the case of Marcel Lapierre, Foillard’s vines are also meticulously tended and most of them boast a relatively old age. Foillard’s wines are known for being structured and complex, with a silky mouthfeel that makes them both approachable in their youth and capable of long-term aging in the cellar. For Beaujolais produced in a rather ‘Burgundian’ style, these bottles are just the ticket.
Guy Breton’s domaine is small yet fierce. Comprising just seven hectares of vines, most of which are centered around the village of Villié-Morgon, Breton’s fruit always leads to spicy and honest wines that are marked with a distinct mineral character. Herbicides are never used, minimal sulfur is added (if at all), and final wines are never filtered. Breton’s vines range from 8-80 years in age, all of which are rooted in low pH soils across a slew of microclimates. For a deep and expressive dive into the world of Morgon, these small-production wines are the answer.
Unlike the other Morgon-based vignerons in Lynch’s ‘Gang of Four,’ Jean-Paul Thévenet and his son Charly produce their bottles in the appellation of Régnié. The duo farms five hectares of vines all organically and biodynamically, most of which are dedicated to old vines (some up to 110 years in age!). Natural composts and herbal infusions are also used at the estate, and fruit is rigorously sorted prior to long native yeast fermentations. Aging on fine lees and bottling without fining/filtration are also implemented practices. Only 2,000 cases of these highly sought-after wines are produced annually- when we say quality over quantity, we mean it.