Isabelle Legeron: Grapes, Food Pairing & Low-Intervention Wines
By Phoebe Ollerearnshaw
We pick the brain of Master of Wine, Isabelle Legeron—natural wine enthusiast and creator of RAW WINE fairs. In our detailed Q&A she shares with us her opinion on the world’s best grapes, improving your palate and the importance of biodynamic farming.
Question: What made you realise your love for wine?
Isabelle Legeron: It’s a family thing. I come from a long line of vignerons in Cognac, southwest France. My family (on both sides) have grown grapes and distilled for generations. In fact, my great grandfather used to ride around the French countryside with his horse, cart and mobile pot-still, distilling for entire villages. I was thrown into it, so to speak, at a very young age and was expected to help out in the vineyard and cellar year round. As a teenager I rebelled, went to university and got a job in London, but after a few years I missed farming. Wine was my way of accessing that world again. I knew lots about grape growing, but very little about wine itself, or rather next to nothing about the culture of wine. I didn’t have a clue, for example, that Sancerre was made from Sauvignon Blanc or that Chablis was made from Chardonnay. But the minute I began tasting wine, I was hooked. Seven years and many tasting notes later, I became France’s only female Master of Wine and have never looked back.
Q: Are you impartial to a particular type of grape, if so, which one?
IL: In my experience, the more you taste, travel and meet growers, the more you realise that all grapes are capable of producing interesting wine. The most important thing is that the grapes are grown well with as much respect for nature and for the vine as possible—good wine can only come from good grapes. This requires balance (not pushing the vines too much) and proper nourishment (that vine and soil are connected, which is only possible if the soil is vibrant with microbiological life)—insipid ingredients are never going to give you a good broth. After that, as one winemaker once told me, ‘wine makes itself’ so the aim is just not to muck up the naturally occurring process that is fermentation. The winemaker should aim to be a gentle, guiding hand rather than an imposer. That way, grapes are able to express terroir and produce beautiful wine.
Having said all of that, if I were to pick a wine for this evening, it would probably be a white wine and perhaps a grenache blanc. I do have a soft spot for white Mediterranean grapes.
Q: What advice would you give somebody hoping to improve their palate for wine tasting?
IL: Depends what you mean by improve your palate. If you mean drink better, then I would say that the best thing to do is simply listen to what your own palate and—perhaps more importantly—your gut are telling you. We have a tendency to over-rely on other people’s opinions—in terms of tasting notes and ratings—and to be too intellectual about the whole thing. When you sip a wine and forget about what everyone else has to say, you know instinctively if it is moreish (you really want another glass) or not. Wine can be either an intellectual exercise or an intensely physical/emotional experience, the key is to try to make the distinction.
However, if you mean develop your ability to identify flavours and retain these in your mind that is a different question. The key is to remember that, generally speaking, we’re very disconnected from our palates. I think this is because we live in such a visual modern world. If you want to make your palate work more for you or help it retain information more precisely, it is a good idea to try to reconnect with it in a meaningful way. This basically means get rid of the visual and then exercise it as you would any muscle. It needs focus. Here’s something you can try at home (you’ll need someone else to do it with you): chop up foodstuffs into tiny pieces so that shape and texture are difficult to determine. Taste each one blindfolded and try to work out what it is. It’s actually trickier than it sounds. Try telling macadamia from hazelnut, when the piece in your mouth is minuscule and you have no idea that you’re even eating a nut. Your sense of taste is extremely powerful and although it might take a few times, you’ll start finding it easier to identify and pinpoint flavours.
Q: How should one go about pairing a meal with the right wine?
IL: In terms of wine and food pairing, I tend to be all or nothing about it because for me, I don’t personally get pleasure from doing it somewhere in the middle. It’s either I don’t bother at all or I go full hog. If the former, I am mostly driven by my mood and who I am drinking the wine with. I just decide what I fancy drinking and don’t really worry about whether or not it will ‘work’. This is a surprisingly successful tactic since natural wines (which is all I ever drink), are extremely versatile thanks to the complexity of their ‘livingness’. In fact, I can only really think of one time where I thought ‘oh yuck, that really doesn’t go’ and went to get another bottle.
That said, when done really well, food pairing is a beautiful thing. As cliché as it sounds, the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts. A wine, or indeed any complex drink, can highlight aromas in the food that you wouldn’t have noticed without, and vice versa. The combination and experience of the two become the ‘dish’—the wine and food its ingredients. And that can be really sublime.
If it’s that you’re trying to achieve, again don’t worry too much about rules or preconceived matching, instead be adventurous as there is no substitute for experience. The more you try, the more you’ll work out your own ‘recipes’. In fact, some of the best pairing experiences I have had would have been ‘no-nos’ on paper. A good rule of thumb though is don’t ignore intensity. If the flavours in either your drink or food overpower the other, you’ll definitely lose in the match. Also, lower-intervention wines are usually a good bet—they tend to be fresher with less reliance on oak and fruit extraction so are definitely easier to pair.
Q: What inspired you to found the international series of RAW WINE fairs?
IL: A love of wine and nature—cheesy but true. I drink natural wines, I prefer them, and I became a committed environmentalist when I realised what the cost had been, on both my family and our farm, of the way my parents had managed the land in their care. They were part of the green revolution era and farmed conventionally all their lives. I also met lots of grower-makers of low-intervention, organic, biodynamic and natural wines who were struggling to sell their extraordinary drinks. Many are tiny outfits that produce a few thousand bottles, and I wanted them to succeed, for their farms to be viable, so that more producers would choose this path. The combination of all of this gave me the drive to effect change. That’s why I created RAW WINE London. The growth and international-ness of the project, though, happened totally organically. I didn’t set out on that path but that is what it has become.
Q: RAW WINE London is now in its seventh year, did you have any idea it would be so successful when you started?
IL: None whatsoever as otherwise I’m not sure I’d have had the courage to start. The evolution has been very organic—we decided on new places depending on where growers asked us to go and so we did it. If you’d have told me back then that this is where we’d be now, with an annual event in Berlin, New York and Los Angeles I wouldn’t have believed it. I am very proud of my mini team.
Q: What are biodynamic and low-intervention wines and where are they available from?
IL: Biodynamics, like organics, is primarily concerned with farming. Like organic farming, it eschews the use of man-made synthetic pesticides or herbicides in the treatment of disease or attacks on the plant. Biodynamics goes a step further though, as it is not simply about finding clean solutions but actively promoting the health of plants and the environment with the aim of eschewing the problems in the first place (having said that, organics done properly does exactly the same thing too). Biodynamic farms don’t consider the plant in isolation. Instead they recognise that it exists in a complex system—amongst other vines, on a farm, in a landscape, on a planet, in a solar system. All of which are connected and impact the growth and health of the individual that is the plant.
‘Low-intervention’ applies to the cellar—you can, for example, have wines that are farmed biodynamically and organically but are treated much like conventional wines once the grapes hit the cellar. Yes certain substances won’t be used in their making, but the aim is still to fashion a product that is consistent and reproducible. It is man-made, if you like. Low-intervention wines on the other hand, are wines that are guided in a natural process, rather than made in a heavy-handed way. As little as possible is done to influence their outcome—as few additives as possible are added (if any at all) and as little as possible is removed.
When low-intervention in the cellar is combined with good farming, this is when greatness is possible. And it is those wines that interest me. That is why RAW WINE is dedicated to low-intervention organic and biodynamic wines, as well as the most low-intervention amongst them—‘natural wine’, to which nothing is added and nothing removed.
Q: You have made several appearances on cookery programmes offering your expertise, is this something you enjoy?
IL: Yes I genuinely love working with chefs as they get flavour and don’t have any of the preconceived ideas that the wine trade sometimes have. In fact, for the fairs, we have made a very conscious effort to engage with those in the kitchen as these are very foodie wines and most chefs totally fall for them.
Q: Are there any particular wines that are new to the market that you are excited to try?
IL: The grower-makers in this world never cease to amaze. They’re always coming up with great ideas, inspiring projects and delicious wines from the heart. It might be reviving heritage grape varieties, exploring forgotten techniques (which brought about the renewal of interest in clay pot wines) creating crazy blends and co-ferments (a fruit salad-type drink that can include all sorts of fermentables like grapes, apples, plums, honey etc.). At the moment, for example, there seem to be lots of producers making blanc de noirs (white wines from black grapes), which is massively interesting as it shows you different facets of grape varieties you thought you knew. Another exciting project to look out for, which hasn’t yet hit Britain’s shores, is Jason Ligas’ new project on the island of Samos. He basically stumbled across a coop with abandoned tanks in it, which had been left untouched since the 50s and the wines are amazing. Unfortunately the wines won’t be able to make it to London. Jason’s sister Meli will be there instead with the family’s mainland wines, but Jason has promised he’ll bring them to RAW WINE Berlin.
Q: What projects do you have coming up in the near future?
IL: There are a few projects on the horizon. There’s more I’d like to write, so a second book is on the cards and we’re always exploring new destinations for the fair. I am hoping to add one or two new ones to the roster for 2019. I would also love to open our own RAW WINE place so that people could come and see us on a regular basis rather than just once a year. It is something I have been thinking about for a while but never got the time to develop properly. There are a few possibilities in the pipeline so fingers crossed. But in the end, my biggest ambition of all is, eventually, to go back to farming on a small scale and maybe even make a little bit of natural wine on the side.