Meet the French Hipster Winemakers Changing the Natural Wine Scene

The Mosse family has been building up a massive cult following with their natural wines from the Loire Valley. I spent a day with them to see how this magic stuff is made.

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Jun 8 2016, 8:00pm

While the thought of Anjou wine tends to conjure up rosés that go down easy with the promise of a headache, the vineyards of the Loire Valley, land of natural wines—to whom Anjou belongs—are rethinking their identity altogether. Historically, there are few prestigious appellations here, making it a blank slate for winemakers. And invention is precisely what the Mosse family focuses on, ever since they started cultivating vines in 1999.

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René Mosse. All photos by the author.

At their place around the large dining table, René Mosse presides in a lumberjack shirt and a baseball cap. He is blind tasting the wines that his son, Joseph, is serving him. In guise of a response to Joseph's inquisitive looks, he repeatedly notes, "Uh huh, it's good." Indeed, it's only the good stuff inside those glasses, and it's all from their estate: a mineral Savennières (Arena 2013), a corpulent white Anjou (2009), and a red Anjou (2007) that hovers somewhere between the fine and the rustic. The three have been selected and brought to the right temperature by Joseph, the eldest son.

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The complete Mosse family taking a lunch break.

Following in his father's footsteps, Joseph also likes to sport American culture. He's a sneaker head with a growing collection. Little brother Sylvestre reps a red Run-DMC t-shirt. This is a simple, laid back family; the mother's welcoming smile attests to that. She's the only woman on the property and handles administrative duties, sales, and viticulture. Each person has their place here, but each knows how to wear several hats, especially since the Mosse couple has always done everything together.

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In their old life, René and Agnès Mosse had a wine shop in Tours. There were only a few natural wines on the shelves, and when they decided to close up shop, that's the kind of philosophy they turned towards. René received training from natural winemakers in the area and in Bourgogne, then dove right into the deep end. In 1999, they bought a plot of land in the hills by the Layon river. The soil—contaminated with pesticides and weed killers—deserved a new life.

Thanks to information gleaned here and there, the soil was reborn as organic. Rather than killing weeds with chemicals, the family uses a little elbow grease to ventilate the earth. It also leaves a few other plants to grow among the vines. "We found chives last time," smiles Joseph. To fight against disease, the Mosses take a page from biodynamics: mixtures of plants, horn manure, and silica. René summarizes the approach: "We cultivate the vines well and make beautiful grapes that go in our wines."

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Famille Mosse 4 Sylvestre, the youngest Mosse, asses the extent of the damages after bouts of the "black frost" that's ravaged the vineyard.

The mantra is closely followed by the two sons—because even if Agnès and René are currently the only two names that shine on the bottles, the kids are following suit. The relay handoff came earlier than expected, after René suffered two injuries that have left their mark.

René Mosse recalls what his youngest son said when he asked him why he, too, wished to work in viticulture: "You've got friends, you knock back bottles, and pat yourselves on the back...That's all I need in life!" The kids went abroad to receive their training, only to come back stronger: Sylvestre went to South Africa for (where the oppressive heat led him to spend most of his time in the cellars), and Joseph headed to Chile. They worked with the same vines as their parents—chenin and cabernet—but in different completely different hemispheres.

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A bud of chenin that shriveled up after the frost.

Since then, "the place functions like a big team," according to Sylvestre, with the two Mosse brothers in charge. Last year, they created their first wines, following their parents' recipe: no chaptalization, no enzymes, no exogenous yeast, no taste additives, and very few sulfites. The grapes ferment at their own pace, with their own yeast.

The results? Straight-shooting wines that are alive and full of character; it's as if they figured out how to bottle the Mosse family's easygoing style.

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Tasting the "bonnes blanches 2015" in the cellar.

This year, the brothers continue to respect the original Mosse formula, but are also "having fun" and leaving room for experimentation, with carbonic and semi-carbonic maceration and blends.

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The Mosse brothers in the cellar.

Half the time is spent in the cellar, the other half in the vineyard. On this early spring day though, there's not much fun to be had as they survey the grounds on both sides of the Layon river. Joseph and Sylvestre assess the extent of the damages from the hanus "black frost" that's affected the Loire and Bourgogne regions. This insidious frost sneaks into the vineyards at night, and after several days in a row, leaves buds looking burnt, "as though someone had passed through here with a blowtorch," explains Sylvestre. The shriveled shoots he holds in his hands won't produce anything, just like "66 percent of our crops," concludes the young, saddened winemaker with mathematical precision.

But faced with these black frosts, all winemakers in the region are dealing with the same reality. Thankfully, Mosse's future is bright, and their audience is growing exponentially.