The World of Natural Wine by Aaron Ayscough (Book Review)

Occasionally a wine book can be eagerly-awaited for quite some time, and The World of Natural Wine by Aaron Ayscough is one of them. Aaron has been on my radar for many years, via his blog “Not Drinking Poison” (originally “…in Paris” which I believe he started in 2010). He was a resource for many of us just a few years getting into natural wine in the earlier part of this century. He always seemed to have his finger well placed on the natural wine pulse through his knowledge of the early proponents in France, and the Parisian (initially) bars and shops which took up those wines and promoted them.

Aaron has worked as a sommelier in North America, and France, then as a journalist with articles in as prestigious publications as The New York Times and Financial Times. He has also gained hands-on experience, working at wine estates making natural wine in France, especially in the cradle of natural wine, the Beaujolais hills.

When Aaron’s first book dropped through my letterbox, I had an idea what to expect, but this is a heavy hardback with excellent design and production values. The kind of book which impresses from the off. Of course, wine books are quite expensive for a number of valid reasons, and this one will cost you £31.99 in the UK, where it will compete with some other pretty notable volumes released recently. As I hate having to read to the very end of a review in order to see what the reviewer thinks, I shall state right here that it’s worth the money. Many, like me, will find it essential reading.

That said, the purpose of my review is to explain what this book is, and perhaps what it is not. I don’t feel the need to be critical of the detail, especially not the choices made by the author regarding who or what to include. There may be a few producers I’d wished to see (especially one or two in any event mentioned in passing, and one whose cellar appears in a photograph on page 96), but it’s Aaron’s choice. There are also what I call minor omissions, such as a couple of important natural wine festivals (in Strasbourg and in Moravia) which do not appear on the festival list.

My only real surprise aside from those was that where, towards the end of the book, the author gives recommendations for natural wine shops, bars and restaurants in a section called “Natural Wine Metropolis”, he doesn’t include Vienna and Berlin, which for me have thriving natural wine scenes probably at least as healthy as Rome, Montreal and Chicago, but then I guess he has to spread the love for the transatlantic audience, fair enough.

But I hope Aaron doesn’t take those comments to heart. This is a review of what’s in the book, and what is there is brilliant. With no disrespect to other authors, if you want to get to know natural wine generally, and to learn about how it developed, in France and in Paris, you’ll not find a better explanation. Where the book goes further is a bonus. If one wants more, that’s a positive.

The book begins at the beginning – What’s Natural? being the title of Part I. Here we discover, if we didn’t already know, that natural wine requires a totally different approach and way of thinking to conventionally produced wine. It’s what all natural wine lovers learn, usually in a lightbulb moment, and what those implacably indifferent, or antagonistic, towards natural wine find so hard, set as they are in their conservatism and prejudice. This is no short intro, but thirty pages packed with history, anecdote and people, divided by twenty-six subtitles and vignettes.

What better to help us understand this overarching necessity than an explanation of how natural wine is made, both in vineyard and cellar. This follows next. The author is very much an advocate for the purest forms of natural wine, one aspect of this being zero added sulfites. Fear not if he can appear uncompromising. Later on, in talking about natural wine importers and retailers, Ayscough does accept, and not at all grudgingly, that people trying to create a business from selling natural wine may not realistically be able to have such a strict approach. That said, of course, in the UK we know that Gergovie Wines and Tutto Wines have proved they can find a market for only natural wines made without the addition of sulphur.

I’m sure I read somewhere that Aaron was studying winemaking. For sure his technical knowledge seems confident, and although I, like plenty of professional readers, have a good knowledge of viticulture and winemaking, I still learned some things I didn’t know.

Part II, A Pantheon of Natural Wine, is the meat of the book, taking up around 225 pages out of circa 430.  This comprises fourteen chapters, thirteen of which cover French wine regions, with only the latter stepping outside France and into “Europe and the Caucasus”, which means just less than twenty pages on Spain, Italy, Czechia, Austria, Georgia and Germany.

So, this is the first place to outline what the book is not. You will read extensively about natural wine in The Beaujolais, The Jura, or Roussillon, and in fact any other French wine region where natural wine is made. You’ll be introduced first to three “Wines to Know”, which perhaps epitomise natural wine in each region. Then you get profiles of the major names, interspersed with relevant sections on local tasting salons or festivals, forerunners to natural wine production etc. There’s always a page on local dining in each region, where natural wine tops the wine lists, and then a page or two of “Legends in the Making”. You’ll know many of these producers, perhaps, but some not so well.

Ayscough is most at home in France, where one feels his knowledge is considerable, and where his relationships with many of the producers are even quite personal. This is, of course, what makes the book so valuable. I’m sure that in some other countries, in fact some more than others, the author has travelled less and met fewer producers. In France it seems there’s almost no one he doesn’t know.

I don’t suggest this is bad. For a start, a comprehensive guide to natural wine covering every country where you find it would be way too big. As the author says emphatically himself, this is not a buying guide. Equally, he clearly feels, correctly, that natural wine in Europe (discounting Georgia, which is an altogether different case, along with the post-Soviet States, where natural winemaking grew out of the home-use winemaking which survived in the Soviet era) began in France. That history is well detailed throughout this book. For writing on natural wine in other countries, especially in North America, Australia and New Zealand (and indeed the UK, where it may be only just post-nascent, but it is there if you look), one must venture elsewhere…or wait.

When Aaron ventures to other countries one senses a slightly decreasing level of experience from west to east, but I don’t intend that to sound disparaging. I mean, for Germany he includes the one essential family, the Trossens, and to be fair a lot has happened in German natural wine in the last three or four years. Nevertheless, I was thrilled to see the Czech Republic included, and although the sheer breadth and vivacity of the natural wine scene there doesn’t come across, the three winemakers mentioned (Petr Nejedlík, Jaroslav Osička and Richard Stávek) are exactly the three to highlight if you are going to stop there.

The only country I feel really suffers from lack of space is Austria, but again, you cannot have everything when an author is likely restrained by the publisher (as so many are). Austrian natural wine has benefitted from a unique set of catalysts, in particular a new and younger generation taking over family estates at a broadly similar time, and all of them working to erase the memory of the Austrian wine scandal, which did so much damage to the image of Austrian wine. They are succeeding magnificently. The new Austria deserves a book all of its own, I feel, especially as it has gone from new natural wine frontier to a country which has done so much to establish natural wine within Europe in what is a shockingly short amount of time.

So, to sum up Part II, you get a very detailed coverage of France with, insofar as I can tell, no major omissions (what some others might call minor omissions I call the acceptable subjectivity of the author. Regular readers will know my own star producers). Because France has been at the centre of natural wine in Europe, you can’t fault this approach from a journalist who has been at the heart of this scene for over a decade.

By the time we reach the end of Part II we only have around 70 pages left, but Part III Enjoying Natural Wine is no less important than the region/producer profiles of the preceding part. It is divided into “how to taste natural wine”, “how to serve natural wine”, and “how to find natural wine”. All three require explanation.

The tasting and serving bit of Part III contains practical advice, but all couched within that framework we’ve already discussed, the need to think in a totally different way about natural wine, including its place in our lives. Like many older people who came to natural wine after half a life drinking conventionally made wines, I took time to leave behind the baggage. One suitcase contains the idea that wine is special, somehow elevated above other forms of nourishment. Of course, it is special, but now I think not perhaps in that way.

There’s also a rucksack, so to speak, containing a load of posh glasses. I still use my Riedels, Zaltos and Schotts. I don’t pretend that the glass doesn’t have a marked effect on how a wine can taste, and I still enjoy my mostly natural wine at home from my Zalto Universals, but I’m less obsessive over what we used to call “stemware” these days. I enjoy wine just as much out of a Duralex tumbler now, if that’s what it comes in. It does help that the generally lower alcohol levels in natural wine (well, mostly) encourages me to consume them more like a thirst-quenching beverage than a holy experience, to be sipped slowly in silence. Let’s face it, you could do little else with some of those old oak monsters.

That change in appreciation of natural wine also reflects a political side to the movement (hate calling it a movement but I can’t think of an alternative). I mean in a very general sense. Bordeaux is mostly made by either very posh people, or large corporate bodies, at least those owning the production. Burgundy has a more “paysan” past, but the cost of land has inevitably led to ultimate ownership being, in many cases, out of the hands of the families who farmed these vineyards in the last century, at least in the Côte d’Or and much of Chablis. For both regions, maximising profit from fine wine is overwhelmingly the desire.

Natural winemakers most often identify with a paysan past, “paysan” in French of course having a very different connotation than “peasant” does in class-ridden Britain. Not all of them have leftist views, of course. Some French wine regions famous for natural wine appear staunchly right wing, at least at election time. But they do all share a common appreciation of the value of working hard to live off the land, and most of them enjoy a good meal more than they crave vast sums of money. In fact, those making fortunes from natural wine are sadly not the winemakers, but more often those who manage to hoard their Miroirs, Overnoys and Leroys for speculation and profit.

The final Chapter of the book, “How to Find Natural Wine” is massively useful. Although the author says this isn’t a buying guide, you will nevertheless find info here about importers and retailers, plus bars, restaurants and Salons/wine fairs which major in these wines. There’s a city guide covering some major European centres with a natural wine culture, plus a few in North America.

As I say in my intro, this is the only part of the book where I feel like vocalising that something is missing in the omission of Vienna and Berlin. Vienna’s natural wine culture promotes the city’s own natural wines, along with other nearby regions (especially Burgenland, whose natural winemakers are often found in a selection of Viennese haunts, like Weinbistro Mast). Berlin’s natural wine culture is one of the most youth-orientated I know.

There’s a page too on visiting winemakers. I wish more people would think a bit before they visit. As I’ve written myself (The Visitor, article on this site, 26 August 2021), it is especially true of small artisan wine producers that they are emphatically not sitting around all day waiting for people to turn up. Their time is money. They may commonly not have wine left to sell from their tiny production, and if they opened up their range for every wine tourist turning up at their cellar they would be broke within a year. I feel like slapping every person I hear who suggests that they are there merely for the visitor’s convenience simply because they commercialise a beverage. Rant over!

There’s a further reading section, which highlights those books already written on natural wine along with several not strictly on the subject, but which cover the natural wine producers pretty well whilst covering a specific region, or wine style (especially recommended by me from this second group would be Wink Lorch’s Jura book and Simon Woolf’s “Amber Revolution”).

The final pages list resources by country under the sub-headings of importers, bars & restaurants, and wine shops. The cities covered here are in North America (including Canada), Great Britain and Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand.

Thankfully (not always the case these days with publishers cutting costs) the book has an Index.

Postscript: After reading through this review I had a few more thoughts, especially regarding natural wine in France. The landscape has changed so much in the past decade. When I first discovered natural wine, like Aaron, France and Paris were my lodestones. It helped that my wife and I speak French and had been travelling to France together since the mid-1980s, visiting wine regions since the beginning. In those early 2000s, natural wine producers were exceptionally welcoming, pleased that a couple of foreigners knew what they were doing.

Likewise in Paris, where we have long had friends, there were a very limited number of places to try these new wines. A few bars, some the new “caves-à-mangers” and a handful of shops (back then I used to visit “Panthéon” and “L’Insolite”, then Verre Volé on the Canal St-Martin and the shop in Oberkampf). Hardly any actual restaurants we knew had natural wines. But of course these places were magnets for people just like me.

Today the world of natural wine has expanded. More places have begun to specialise in natural wines. Of course, we discovered new venues (Septime La Cave, Clown Bar, and Camille Fourmont’s La Buvette were always favourites). At the same time, more people discovered them too. Crowds thronged the pavements and cherry pickers, especially from my own country, hoovered-up all the most critically acclaimed wines. Such wines became known, for obvious reasons, as unicorns. They began to disappear under counters, reserved for close friends of the owner.

Such a state of affairs soon transferred to London. Whereas I could find the wines of Overnoy-Houillon freely available on the shelves of the American chain Wholefoods for a time, soon even when I knew the importer, I wouldn’t be able to buy the wine (Domaine des Miroirs, the tiny estate run by Kenjiro and Mayumi Kagami at Grusse in the southern sector of The Jura, is the classic example).

The mood towards my fellow countrymen has changed as well, largely as a result, I feel, of Brexit. French vignerons and Parisian bar owners seem less well disposed towards us, even though in so many respects we are all on the same side. Speaking French, and having a wife with a great accent, unlike me, helps, but once the staff who might remember you move on, there is sometimes an invisible wall there.

Out in the regions even the Jura, which I have been visiting for over 35 years, is more difficult to arrange visits within. Here, harvests have been terrible for many recent years, a combination of frosts and hail, and I compound my own problems by living by my own example…”please, don’t open a bottle just for me, but if you have a few bottles to sell me that would be amazing”. Alsace seems to remain the most open of the natural wine regions to visitors, but then the producers here have lived off German wine tourism through times when the rest of France didn’t want the wine. It does now.

I think that this is why I began to venture towards new natural wine frontiers (hence my coverage of first Austrian, and then Czech, natural wine). The new frontiers are always most welcoming and you can get to know the best wines before they become over-subscribed.

I think that my point here is that Aaron’s book is important as a document of a wonderful story, especially that of the rise of natural wine in France. In a way it is a snapshot of a world which is to some extent out of reach for many now, not helped by the increasing restrictions on European travel, for Brits at least, in a post-Brexit, post-Covid, world with a spiralling cost of living. But only to some extent. That world is still accessible to a degree, and these wines are worth making the effort to seek out and enjoy. Whether you are fully immersed in this world, or quite new to it, I cannot think of another resource as helpful as Aaron’s book.

I think it’s a book most regular readers of Wideworldofwine will want to read.

The World of Natural Wine (What it is, Who makes it, and Why it matters) by Aaron Ayscough is published by Artisan Books, New York, a division of Workman Publishing Co (2022). In the UK it will cost £31.99 from two of the major online retailers. US price is $40, or $50Cdn.

About dccrossley

Writing here and elsewhere mainly about the outer reaches of the wine universe and the availability of wonderful, characterful, wines from all over the globe. Very wide interests but a soft spot for Jura, Austria and Champagne, with a general preference for low intervention in vineyard and winery. Other passions include music (equally wide tastes) and travel. Co-organiser of the Oddities wine lunches.
This entry was posted in Artisan Wines, Natural Wine, Wine, Wine Books, Wine Merchants, Wine Travel, Wine Writing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.