French Master Promotes Natural Wines in North America
Isabelle Legeron was easy to miss at her own international tasting salon. With her grey sweatshirt, sneakers, and backpack, France’s only female Master of Wine didn’t exactly stand out among the hundreds who crowded into the Salon Richmond in Montreal last month to speak and sip with natural winemakers at the two-day event. You likely wouldn’t guess that this woman with a slight French-British accent is a wine world celebrity as well as an author, a former television host, and one of Vanity Fair’s 50 Most Influential French People in the World in 2017. She’s also in no small part responsible for the growing interest in natural wines in North America.
While wine has been made “naturally” for millennia, the contemporary natural wine movement—which focuses on “living” or “low-intervention” wines—started in Parisian wine bars in the 1980s as a reaction to conventional wines, says Legeron. The latter often involve commercial yeasts, pesticides, fungicides, sulphites, and other additives, while natural wines are generally made with indigenous yeasts and organic or biodynamic grapes—certified or not—with nothing added besides a small amount of sulfur in some cases. Natural wines are often thought of as juicier, lighter, or funkier than conventional wines and a better reflection of terroir (the effect of a specific environment on the wine it produces).
To help spread the movement she’d come to love in France, Legeron launched RAW WINE in London in 2012. This wine fair grew into an annual tour of Berlin, New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and Montreal. Each stop brings together growers, importers, sommeliers, and wine-lovers to taste and better understand natural wines, which range from earthy and oxidized to elegant and smooth.
To help spread the movement she’d come to love in France, Legeron launched RAW WINE in London in 2012.
Her timing was perfect. The salons capitalized on the burgeoning natural wine scene in each carefully chosen city while initiating newcomers with a sip of a volcanic Etna red here, a macerated Georgian orange there.
Now in its eighth year, RAW WINE is by far the largest natural wine fair in the U.K. and North America. “There were so many growers that this year was more like a natural wine tsunami sweeping across North America,” says Legeron.
A tsunami, indeed, as sommeliers and natural wine lovers from Quebec City, Toronto, Chicago, Boston, New York (which has its own salon, but not all the same winemakers), Mexico, and Puerto Rico came to Montreal to taste.
The number of growers who attend is also increasing, as the salons often lead to increased sales. “A great example is David Large, who develops his export markets from this fair alone,” says Legeron. Even having a profile on the RAW WINE website has given him credibility and garnered interest from importers and wine shops unfamiliar with him, she adds.
Legeron thinks demand in Toronto might soon be large enough to create a second Canadian stop. After that, who knows? People certainly seem thirsty.
But Legeron is staying humble. “I feel a great sense of achievement. I also feel immense gratitude to all the growers who have put their trust in us,” she says. “But my job won’t be done until natural overtakes conventional, both in terms of production and consumption, and until we have full label transparency. So we’ve got a little ways to go yet.”
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