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Isabelle Legeron, France's first female Master of Wine.

Isabelle Legeron wants to take wine forward into the past. France’s first female Master of Wine first made her mark as a London-based restaurant consultant, developing beverage programs for such fine eateries as the Michelin-two-star Hibiscus as well as the eco-resort Kittitian Hill in St. Kitts. For several years she hosted two shows on Travel Channel, Journey into Wine and the facetiously titled That Crazy French Woman in Georgia. Then, in 2012, she took her passion to the next level, launching Raw Wine, a London trade fair and public tasting devoted to low-intervention, organic and biodynamic winemaking.

Raw Wine has since expanded to include annual fairs in Berlin, New York, Los Angeles and, for the first time this November, Montreal, making Legeron arguably the most dynamic global champion of one of today’s biggest wine trends.

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She’s the godmother of fermented grape juice as it used to be, wine made with natural yeasts and no additives or technical trickery, such as reverse-osmosis machines that reduce alcohol content and filters and fining agents that strip away flavour and vitality for the sake of clarity and industrial consistency.

An advocate of greater label transparency, Legeron puts her money where her mouth is. Natural wines are all she drinks. I recently spoke with the author of Natural Wine: An Introduction to Organic and Biodynamic Wines Made Naturally about responsible farming, flavour and what’s new in New World wines.

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Legeron launched Raw Wine, a London trade fair and public tasting devoted to low-intervention, organic and biodynamic winemaking, in 2012.

Your family in southern France grew grapes for the Cognac industry. What was life like on the farm growing up?

We basically grew everything organically and made everything and harvested by hand. We had cows, pigs and cereals. Times got hard in the seventies and my mum and my dad slowly gave in to what they perceived to be modernization, using more and more chemicals and weed killers. They bought a machine harvester when I was about 15 or 16 and I saw the journey of our land from being vibrant, alive, full of wild mushrooms and salads and animals roaming around to being a complete desert. I witnessed first-hand the impact of conventional farming.

When did you get into natural wines?

When I started doing Journey into Wine I was coming across people like Johan Reyneke in South Africa who was just starting with biodynamic farming. There was a guy in Hungary who was making 140 different wines. I realized there are two sides to this industry. There are the big companies where you’re made to feel like wine is very complex and you need a lot of expensive equipment and a laboratory. Then there are these hands-off, small-scale farmers. For them, making wine is just a simple, easy thing. That’s when I properly fell in love with wine and my mission was clear.

How do you define natural wine?

Very simply, 100-per-cent grape juice fermented into wine. Nothing added, nothing taken away. And obviously the grapes have to be organic. Organically farmed grapes vinified without any additives or without any fining or any filtering.

So, for you it’s mainly about responsible farming rather than great taste or perceived health advantages?

At the end of the day, I think it’s a combination of several motivations. The first for farmers is about improving life from the soil, the biodiversity. And the better your grapes, the better your wine. For me the ultimate goal is to convert the planet, to convert acre by acre of land to organic farming and making sure that there are more and more people who want to drink these wines so that growers can sell at a fair price. You don’t need wine to feed people; it’s a complete luxury product. I think our minimum responsibility is to farm cleanly, properly.

What about people who feel that natural wines are healthier or cause fewer headaches?

I have a chapter about this in my book. There are studies that confirm that the issue is not sulphites. The issue is sulphites combined with alcohol. And the sulphites inhibit your body’s ability to actually digest the alcohol properly. So, it means that the impact of the alcohol on your body is much greater when coupled with sulphites. When you drink wine without sulphites your body digests it as a food. Obviously if you drink tons and you don’t drink water, it will impact you.

Your definition of natural wine extends beyond sulphites, though. You’ve raised issues with added sugar, tartaric acid and the Mega Purple grape concentrate used for colouring, for example, as well as the use of charcoal filtration and alcohol extraction. Are these widespread and unhealthy practices?

I don’t have an issue with that at all. If people want to add Mega Purple or they want to charcoal-filter their wines or they want to zap out excess water or excess alcohol, I don’t actually care. My bugbear is that we have no idea that that’s going on. Look at some iconic Champagnes made by the million bottles. They will probably be fined using a fish derivative, they might not be vegan-friendly. A lot of sherry is fined using animal gelatins. What is missing is transparency in the wine industry.

There are no certification standards or labelling laws for natural wines, correct?

That’s right. There’s no legal definition. The one that we use for the fair is the one that a lot of people use. But for me not all wines at the fair are 100-per-cent natural. Some people add some sulphites, but they are minimum amounts of sulphites, and they have to declare it on each wine that they bring. So, the wines at the fair are all farmed organically. They are all fermented naturally. The main difference is some people do not add any sulphites and some people do, and some filter as well.

Can you talk about flavour? Do natural wines have a discernible taste?

Expect something which is probably going to be more flavoursome. I would say fresh, juicy and easy-drinking, but still with age-ability. A lot of people making conventional wines will block what you call malolactic fermentation [the natural process by which bacteria convert sharp malic acid into softer lactic acid] to get that zesty mouth feel. When you work without sulphites, malolactic will happen naturally. The mouth feel is always creamier, fuller, richer. And you can expect the wines to look a bit hazy or cloudy because they’ve not been fined or filtered.

You’ve expanded the Raw Wine fairs to include Montreal. Has Quebec seized on the trend in a big way?

The scene in terms of restaurants and bars pouring natural wines is bigger than in London and I think it’s bigger than New York. The growers were super-excited to know that we were doing a fair there, so we were completely oversubscribed. I was expecting about 50 growers and we have 100 growers and we only stopped it because the room reached capacity.

Do you have a favourite natural-wine producer?

I’ve got loads. One I always come back to is called Le Casot des Mailloles from the south of France. They’re made in tiny quantities and everything is done by hand. Another favourite producer is Lorenzo Corino in Italy. He’s coming to Montreal, actually. He’s from Piedmont. He works with barbera and nebbiolo and makes tiny quantities. He only releases the wine when it’s ready. It ages amazingly well.

Any interesting New World producers coming to Montreal?

From Canada, Domaine du Nival, Négondos, Vignoble Les Pervenches, among others. We’ve got four growers coming from the United States. They’re all from the West Coast. We’ve got a guy called Old World Winery who works with the abouriou grape planted in California. Beautiful vines. Completely sulphite-free. The vines he’s working with are the oldest plots in California, I believe, and it’s from 1860 or something like that. There’s also a guy called Lo-Fi Wines, Mike Roth. He makes beautiful cabernet franc.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Raw Wine Montréal takes place Nov. 1 at Le Belvédère in the Old Port of Montreal. Tickets for the public: $45; for the wine trade: $25. For more information, visit rawwine.com.

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