French Natural Wine in Val de Loire – The Traditions of Winemaking


Natural wine evokes notions of exclusive wine bars and fine dining, but, as One Planet Journey’s Enrico Belcore discovers, the world of natural wine is rural. After a month’s hard work, taking part in last year’s harvest in the French region of Val de Loire, he finds sustainability, tradition, and connection with nature at the core of the entire process. 


The heat was hard to handle while squatting in the vine rows. The plants were loaded with grapes – it was a good year, one of the best in the past five harvests, as Jean, the owner and winemaker of the domaine, liked to remind us every couple of hours. A single plant was enough to fill up the bucket, so that we needed to yell  ‘bucket!’ across the vineyard every fifteen minutes to get a new one. The word would summon a young man who frantically paced up and down the row, emptying our buckets into the large crates lying on the sides.

All around the vines the grass stood tall and we walked with high knees. Spiders, ants and ladybugs were popping up under every other leaf – the vineyard was beaming with life.

“Take a walk in the vineyards down the street,” Jean would challenge us at times.You won’t see a single patch of grass. Those are lab grapes.”

People harvesting grapes in between vines
Harvest time in Val de Loire


What is Natural Wine?

The term natural wine has become increasingly popular in the past few years. At its core, it refers to a methodology based on the philosophy of low intervention, meaning producing wine without any additive or manipulation in the fermentation and preservation of the product. 

While natural wine is often associated with glamorous wine bars and high-end restaurants—sometimes considered no more than a bourgeois product—the world of natural wine is rural, a choice that places sustainability and connection with nature right at the core of the entire process.

Deciding to produce natural wine is often a lifestyle rather than a mere business model. Untreated grapes are subject to bug infestations and diseases, and even when they make it to the press, several other factors can compromise the success of the final product. Not being able to fully control the fermentation process requires extra attention from the winemaker, who needs to select grapes at different stages of maturation to balance the juice while still in the press. Even small mistakes can lead to the loss of several bunches of grapes, resulting in over-fermentation in the bottle or the development of moulds.

It’s a risky business that requires an enormous amount of work and, as it often happens in these cases, passion.

Morning fog in a vineyard
Start of the day in the vineyards


The Grape Picker’s Perspective

I had a taste of what it means to produce natural wine when I took part in last year’s harvest in the French region of Val de Loire for a local natural wine producer. The whole experience was a mix of hard work and community living – a month spent camping among the vineyards with a group of young vendangeurs who became as close as family. 

The work was intense and physically demanding, and so were the feasts that followed each day of work. After five hours in the vineyard, were two hours at the table, sharing homemade delicacies and, of course, wine.

It’s part of the tradition. The harvest is not only a moment of work, it’s also a moment of celebration. It’s when months of intense labour finally pay off; when the effort put into the vineyard throughout the whole year shows its results. 


French Winemaking traditions and the niche of natural wine

Everything was tackled with that same love for traditions, from the tools used at the domaine, such as the ancient wooden press, the horse used to carry the crates out of the field, or the hand bottling machine, to the very winemaking techniques.

Horse helping with wine harvest in vineyard
Horse helping to move crates full of grapes


I remember seeing Jean tasting the grape juice on various phases of fermentation to test its acidity, and the same was done during the bottling process to make sure that each bunch would get filled up with the right mix of grape juice. 

There are more modern and efficient ways to do it, but natural wine is never about efficiency; it’s about producing a sustainable product and putting a bit of yourself and your passion into it. More than once Jean complained about the large wine industries all around the area, about their pesticides dispersed in the air and in the water layers of the region. 

‘I could easily double my profit if I were to produce industrial wine. All the cellars around here make three times the quantity of wine I make, and in some cases, they have even less land. But why in the world should I be doing that?!’ 

Regardless of the constant care put into the vines throughout the year, it was not uncommon to discard entire plants. We were precisely instructed on selecting the right grapes – anything that smelled too acidic or was too brownish had to be either discarded or, if in doubt, tasted. It’s something that natural winemakers take into consideration from the beginning. If you go down this route, you can expect the same results as regular wine productions.

Close up of vine.
Inspecting vines for natural wine production


This is part of the reason why natural wine still has a very high price tag, even when compared to other wine labels, such as organic or bio-dynamic. The very nature of the product makes it difficult to produce it on a large scale. It requires a lot of human work and attention in several parts of the process, making it more suitable for small enterprises. Adding the fact that most supermarkets see natural wine as a risk, since there’s always the chance that the natural bacteria present in the wine spoil the product, natural wine is sold in smaller retailers, causing the price to grow even higher. 

It’s a niche product for a niche public, and it seems like most producers are fine with that. Jean had his own sellers who bought directly from him and then resold to restaurants and wine bars in the rest of France. One of these was a small company that bought natural products around Europe every spring to then sail across the Mediterranean Sea all the way to Asia, selling different organic and low-impact products along the way. 


an eternal civil war –  wine industry controversies 

It’s clear that when a product is sold at double the price of its competitors without any kind of formal recognition, controversies will start to rise. 

Lacking a certified label leaves the term ‘natural’ open to interpretation. And while there have been several debates on whether to introduce proper regulations for natural wine, the wine industry is slow at responding to the market needs and, at times, reluctant to change. It was only in 2023 that the EU managed to impose the wine producers to list the ingredients on their labels, and exclusively via a QR code printed on the back.

It doesn’t seem that the term will be regulated any time soon, and for some natural wine producers this is the best outcome possible. Many producers complain about an already large amount of bureaucracy, fearing that further regulations would do more harm than good.  

During my stay at the domaine, Jean would often complain about fellow natural winemakers who used a certain amount of sulphites in their wine, or spayed the vineyard in case of particularly bad diseases, still claiming to be producing a completely natural product. 

Group of people eating in a vineyard.
Sunday Feast in Val de Loire.


The distinctive taste of natural wine

Jean was quite drastic in his methods, believing in a firm philosophy of low intervention. But if natural wine is not a certified methodology, if every producer has a different take on it based on their own philosophy, how can the consumer navigate through the world of natural wine?

For Jean there were no doubts. It’s the taste. And I must admit, even for someone without a strong knowledge of wine, the difference between natural and regular wine is abyssal. Perhaps it’s not for everyone, but it’s a clear difference that anyone can recognise, as if you were tasting something else completely. More fruity, and flavoursome to the point of being associated with juice; once you enter the world of natural wine it’s hard to go back to the regular products. 


When slow living is celebrated in a product

The end of the harvest was marked by the fete de vendange, an event happening in several French regions that reunites all the vendangeurs of the area to celebrate the end of the harvesting season. There were dancings of traditional ballads and local groups of musicians that quickly alternated on the stage. There were local dishes, meat, roasted veggies and bonfires. And above all, the star of the night, bottomless reserves of wine. With a signed declaration from Jean at hand, we granted ourselves a free entrance as vendangeurs and spent the night attempting the dancing happening on the stage. 

A house and tower in the background of a vineyard
Producing French Natural Wine in Val de Loire


After an entire month spent discussing natural wine, we were all together, people working in any kind of cellar, from the most intense grape-lab production to the smallest farm of low-intervention vineyards – it didn’t matter anymore. No one even complained about the lack of natural wine at the event; we were there to celebrate the end of an exhausting and rewarding month. We were all in the same boat, after all, no matter the terminology used on the bottle. 

It was the pinnacle of the whole harvest, and for a good reason. Not only were we celebrating the end of the season, but the entire world of winemaking, its traditions, its music, and the rural life that had been intrinsic to it for years. It was a lode to an old way of living – outdoor and slow – that still thrives, in some places more than others, and surely abounds in natural wine. 


Have you tried natural wine? What did you think? Let us know in the comment section! Subscribe to our newsletter and benefit from travel guides, sustainable tourism and luxury travel tips, insightful interviews, and inspirational places to visit. One Planet Journey – The World’s First Deep Travel Magazine.


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