RAW WINE Fairs Come to Canada: Meet Isabelle Legeron MW, the Doyenne of Natural, Responsibly Farmed Wine

poster showing RAW WINE fairs in Toronto Montreal New York and Los Angeles

The annual RAW WINE Fair month – the world’s largest gathering of “low-intervention, organic, biodynamic, natural wine producers” – is making its debut in Toronto on November 16, 2022 and it’s sure to be a tasty celebration for local wine lovers.

Toronto is the 6th wine loving city to join the RAW WINE tour, a list that includes London (May 14/15), Los Angeles (Nov 6/7), New York (Nov 13/14), Montreal (19/20) and Berlin (Nov 27).

According to the folks at RAW WINE, 77 growers and makers (aka: producers) will be sharing their wines in Toronto: 4 Canadians, a smattering of Americans and the rest Europeans led by natural wine hubs Italy, France, Spain and Austria.

Isabelle Legeron – centre – and natural wine fans, on RAW WINE 2022 tour. Photo credit: Instagram RawWineWorld

RAW WINE: A purer, delicious, living wine experience

RAW WINE is of course, the brain child of France’s first female Master of Wine, Isabelle Legeron MW, the standard bearer for the artisan, natural wine movement and one of the most influential women in wine. Her list of credentials is ridiculously impressive and you can do a deep dive into her industry accolades here.

In 2012, Legeron held the first RAW WINE fair in London, introducing a skeptical trade audience (bar/restaurant owners, importers, distributors, retailers = “the trade”) to low-intervention, organic and biodynamic winemaking, all, under the strategic umbrella of Natural Wine.

In 2014, she launched her first book, a treatise on the importance of responsible farming and wine agriculture: Natural Wine: An Introduction to Organic and Biodynamic Wines Made Naturally.

In those early days, her steadfast belief and unbridled enthusiasm for all things natural wine helped steel her from the character assaults, lobbed from a highly defensive, conventional wine industry.  Where were the parameters and what was the formal, industry-sanctioned definition of natural wine, they wanted to know. Puffery, they claimed.

In reality, Isabelle was simply arguing for long-overdue transparency from the wine industry: ingredient labelling, additive disclosures, processing details and environmentally responsible agriculture.

She invited conscientious growers and artisan winemakers from around the world to join her on this transparency journey. London begat the Berlin fair, then New York, LA quickly followed and soon, RAW WINE fairs and wines made naturally took on a larger-than-life, well….. life of their own (#nattywine ….more on that later).

If Isabelle’s ‘first act’ – to borrow a familiar metaphor – was about building a groundswell of support amongst proud growers/makers and retail, her ‘second act’ was about educating wine consumers about the quality, health and environmental considerations around buying and consuming wine.

Ten years later, RAW WINE is leading the way on transparency and disclosure. The RAW WINE quality indicators (aka ‘charter’) are well defined and well understood. Visit the website, or come to any of the fairs and you’ll find artisan producers sharing sulfites, additives, agricultural practices and winemaking processes –  with abandon. Isabelle has thrown down the gauntlet; it’s time for the industry to come clean (….so to speak).

photo of Montreal wine fair with people enjoying natural wines
RAW WINE Montreal 2018. Photo credit: RAW WINE

four wine glasses showing different colours of natural wine
Photo credit: RAW WINE

What’s in your glass?

I connected with a thoroughly energized Isabelle Legeron on the heels of COP 27 (big sigh) and the morning before RAW WINE New York.  Her optimism is contagious, and I will admit to now having a wine crush on this spirited ‘godmother of the fermented grape’ (per the 2018 Beppi Globe and Mail headline).

In the interest of transparency – a key RAW WINE pillar – I confess to being a natural wine newbie, although I drink, support and have written extensively about organic, biodynamic and regenerative wines in the traditional distribution stream. I’m also a boomer, so y’know… I’m boring and not frequenting natty wine bars.

So, who is a raw wine consumer, I ask Isabelle. Who really cares about what goes into their glass? (Because I can assure you, it’s not my boomer friends….)

“Our RAW WINE audience is young, urban and very respectful of the environment,” she confirms. “They have strong ethical beliefs and they are looking for authentic, terroir-driven wines.” 

But there’s a lot of different language being used to describe terroir-driven wine these days, and it can be a little confusing. Organic, biodynamic, regenerative, natural, clean (good luck with that), and now – suddenly – every wine out there is sustainable.

How should wine lovers approach this claim, I ask?

“Well, yes, it is confusing,” she admits. “There’s a lot of greenwashing that exists around the term sustainable and a lot of marketing value. Of course, wine farming should be sustainable. But every winery and region and regional marketing group defines it differently, so consumers need to accept it with a grain of salt. It really comes down to transparency and specific disclosure on their environmental impact and practices. If you care what goes into a glass of wine, you have to demand disclosure.”

Regenerative, she adds….. it’s a new term being used to describe a traditional way of farming. “It’s very popular now in North America but in Europe, responsible agriculture is regenerative agriculture. Regenerative is a given for our growers around the world,” she says, “because they do it with their heart, not to help their bank accounts.”

Regenerative means responsible agriculture and includes respectfully grown, organic, biodynamic, additive-free, natural agriculture and permaculture, that’s by extension regenerative!  She says RAW WINE growers are focused on restoring life in the soil with cover crops and microbially rich soils, ensuring active fungal communities and communication through root systems that in turn provide nutrients for the vines and the juice.

vineyard filled with vines and flower cover crop and butterflies
Good organic viticulture is about incorporating a diverse cover crop and encouraging biodiversity. Photo credit: Isabelle Legeron, RAW WINES

Good organic viticulture is about more and more biodiversity, says Isabelle. Vineyards augmented with compost, a diverse cover crop and respectful of the environment, with no residual products, chemical fertilizers/pesticides/herbicides/ fungicides.  These growers are carbon conscious, climate change aware and savvy to the benefits and importance of keeping carbon in the soil….a carbon sink. Like Antonella Manuli‘s vineyards. She’s carbon negative. Her La Maliosa winery captures more carbon than it emits. You need to speak with her, Isabelle tells me.

Not much puffery there, I’d argue.

I find it interesting that natural wines have moved so far away from the sulfite debate, to label design, natural wine colours and the tasting experience. In my mind, natural wines used to largely be a ‘one note’ story. And while sulfite explanations and transparency are still a significant consumer concern (see Isabelle’s fascinating and evidence-based deep dive into sulfites on the Napa Valley Wine Academy site), increasingly, young audiences want to understand the farming behind the wine and its effect on the environment.

When you can get consumers to think about wine as an agricultural product, their expectations change, says the equally controversial Alice Feiring, natural wine journalist and the keyboard behind the natural wine newsletter, The Feiring Line.

natural wine bottles that are orange and red
Photo credit: RAW WINES

healthy, organically grown syrah grapes
Photo credit: Scout Vineyard

Isabelle’s definition of natural wine?

Grapes that are organically farmed and vinified without any additives, fining or filtering.  Essentially, 100% grape juice fermented into wine with nothing added and nothing taken away.

The quality specifics?  Wines produced with minimum intervention, handpicked, fermented by natural yeasts found naturally on the grapes or in the ambient environment. Wines that are fermented naturally, with no added sulfites or minimal sulfite additions….. whatever the winemaker thinks is enough to ensure microbiological stability. And no other additives (yeasts, enzymes, vitamins, lysozymes etc) or high-tech winemaking gadgetry (reverse osmosis, cryo-extraction, spinning cone, etc).

Pretty clear, eh?

Follow these guidelines, she says, and you will have a delicious, living wine, that reflects the health and indigeneity of the soil and the truth of place.

Will all producers adhere to those practices? No, says Legeron. Some producers may have to occasionally use additives, but the Hippocratic oath taken by RAW producers is “thou shalt be transparent.” Declaring the amount of sulfites added to each bottle and all other farming practices is mandatory. These are no bullshit, no greenwashing fairs.

And #nattywine, I ask? The Instagram hashtag du jour? How do we make sense of the memification of natural wines?

“Yup. Social media has helped grow the natural wine movement amongst young consumers and that’s mostly a very good thing,” she says. “It’s important to us and our audience.”

“But some producers have lost sight of the values, philosophy and compassion behind these naturally produced wines – these farmers who have been working hard making these traditional wines for 50 years. They’re not sexy and fashionable. More and more it’s about influencers and marketing. Some producers are choosing clear glass bottles so consumers can see the colours and not using recycled glass or light-weight glass which is so important to climate change and reducing the industry’s carbon footprint. They may claim natural wine status, but don’t adhere to the quality standards or environmental practices, that we know are so important to naturally produced wines. Again, it’s about transparency. Wine audiences need to demand transparency.”

Merci beaucoup Isabelle!!

Note: this interview has been condensed and edited.

Here’s more information on RAW WINE fair tickets in Toronto / #rawwineTOR and Montreal #rawwineMTL

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