Alexandre Bain makes controversial wines. Often, people think his wines are “orange,” meaning that their amber-brown hue is derived from the Sauvignon Blanc grape juice staying in contact with their skins—but in fact, the hue is from botrytized grapes, and an oxidative winemaking process, both of which are extremely uncommon for the region of Pouilly-Fumé, where Bain makes wine. Since launching his own label in 2007, Bain now makes about 50,000 bottles per year from 11 hectares that he rents.
In 2015, the French entity INAO, who is tasked with regulating appellations all around the country, effectively kicked Bain out of the Pouilly-Fumé AOC. This interview, conducted in the New York office of his importer, Zev Rovine, outlines Bain’s approach to winemaking, and why he is fighting back against the INAO.
What’s the history of winemaking in your family?
My grandparents were farmers; they had cows and goats, and grew wheat. But nobody in my family was vigneron. I was interested in wine, so I studied at the viticultural school of Beaune, and then worked for Domaine Henri Poulet in Menetou-Salon; Flowers in Sonoma; also in Ventoux in the South of France. I also worked for Louis Latour, a big chemical producer [laughs], but it was interesting for me because it was my first job and I learned there how to prune and work with the tractor.
Somewhere along the way, you became interested in natural wine.
I became aware of organics through my mother, because all the time she cared for us with homeopathic medicine, and we ate organic food. When I was at school in Beaune, I also learned there about organics. I had jobs on the weekends, doing pruning, and I always tried to do it at organic estates just to get to know the philosophy. After that, I met [natural winemaker] Sebastian Riffault [in Sancerre] and told him I would start my own winery soon, and said I wanted to work with horses, rather than plowing with tractors. It’s very different working with a plow versus horses. I went to train with Olivier Cousin [who also works with horses] and I met other people like Benoit Courault, Jerome Saurigny, Réne Mosse—and I decided to work organically or biodynamically. To me, biodynamics help regenerate the soil faster. To make natural wine, you must work organic. Biodynamic for me is the best—especially when there is no life before you start.
Tell me about getting expelled from the Pouilly-Fumé appellation.
Puilly-Fumé, it’s a kind of brand. If you are at the limit of the border, or if you harvest by hand but ripened fruit [as opposed to underripe,] green Sauvignon Blanc, [you can be expelled]. When you have a little botrytis you have jammy fruits; to me this is more interesting to drink, more drinkable—in French, we say it is appetànt. It means if you smell it, you want to drink it. To make this kind of wine, you must make it with yellow fruit, pink fruit—not green fruit. But you cannot harvest this quality of fruit with a machine. Why? Because the machine moves the row. All of our vines are on still wires. If the machine moves, if the berries are ripened, whole berries will fall on the ground. So most people, when they use the machine, they harvest grapes still green. When they use this kind of berry, and sulfur is used in the fields and during fermentation, and they use yeasts, sugar, enzyme, tartaric acid, to me they make technological wine, and it’s a kind of brand. Everybody uses the same brand of harvest machine and sugar and yeast—so at the end, it’s a kind of brand. To me, if you do not use all of this, you make wine, terroir wine.
The official panel tasted your wine and told you it didn’t fit into Pouilly-Fumé?
They said, you mustn’t sell this wine, it’s not a Pouilly-Fumé because it’s oxidative.
What did you first feel or think when you got that phone call?
Fighting! I like all of my wines; they are not perfect but I work hard and try to do my best, and it’s a risk. The problem is, to me, I make a Pouilly-Fumé because I make a Sauvignon Blanc within the boundaries. I do not use fertilizer or yeast, I do not use sugar, I do not use yeast from Copenhagen. So, I make a Pouilly-Fumé. For French people, for vignerons, appellations mean something. Of course, it’s 2016, and we know that sometimes vin de france is better than appellation—but I care, so I’m fighting.
Where are you in the fight?
At this moment, I am fighting with the INAO. I’m waiting now for the trial to take place.