Olivier Cousin: Breaking The Law
A Loire legend who has stood trial for his methods
Olivier Cousin is as uncompromising a natural winemaker as they come, even fighting the French government in a suit a few years ago where he famously showed up at the courthouse with his horse, Joker. (See postscript for t-shirts supporting the shirtless man pictured above). Photo by Hannah Fuellenkemper
Olivier Cousin is one of those people I truly love supporting, though his notoriety and semi-retirement these days means he doesn't necessarily need my help to sell his wines. For me, it's more personal, as his "Pur Breton" was one of the first natural wines to really grab me. It was the 2005 "Pur Breton," and back in 2008 it felt like I was in on a secret. That it separated me from colleagues with more 'classical' tastes in wines only increased its ornery appeal. It was wild, rustic, and tasted like something people weren't ready for yet — after all it was at least six or seven years before customers requesting 'funky' reds was an everyday occurrence. So revisiting "Pur Breton" is always a moment of reflection for me, to see how my tastes have changed, how the wines have changed, and how the world has changed since 2008.
Olivier Cousin's wines are still as wild and uncompromising as ever, yet I also am pleased to find they withstand a level of scrutiny that separates them from the gallons of natural wine that now flow through our cities. They are not just funky, they are not simply a checklist of clichéd natural wine 'flaws.' Instead, they are deep, soulful wines with structure, power, and a playful spirit. And some funk, of course, but not enough to dominate, only enough to add layers and color. Cousin is not cashing in on a trend to help people maintain a keto diet, he is a true believer who has gone on trial, literally, for making wine the way he does (more on that below).
This release is one of the best I've tasted in the past several vintages. It's a bit more approachable, there's a little less barnyard, but it's all there for everyone to experience. Not only is there the "Pur Breton" Cabernet Franc, my proverbial 'gateway drug' into natural wine, but there's the old vine "Le Franc" and some big bottles of "Pur Breton." We've never offered these to the mailing list, so no idea if these will sell out quickly. But probably better not to wait if you're at all curious. At his age, it's unclear how many more vintages he will be releasing.
Cousin's story is one that energized a growing base of natural wine fans in 2011 when he was threatened with a €30,000 fine and two years of jail time by France's Fraud Control for supposedly misleading statements on his wine labels. Legally, because he was bottling table wine, he was not supposed to be putting the region or the grape variety on the labels. Cousin left the AOC — the bureaucratic organization which ultimately targeted him — because he felt that it increasingly subsidized wines made with harmful additives and ecologically-harmful farming methods. As it embraced bigger agro-chemical wine business, it also began charging more fees from members. Cousin was using organic and Biodynamic farming practices while making small amounts of wine (25,000 bottles a year) and little income, and he refused to pay. When the AOC permitted sugar and acid adjustments in 2003, he finally left for good, but continued to label his wines with the grape varieties and as coming from Anjou, which was truthful, but illegal. Cousin intentionally used the labels as a provocation calling attention to the fact that the AOC never once checked his methods in the 25 years he was a member. Yet when making Vin de Table — which should have left him more free of regulation — he was prosecuted aggressively for making wine the exact same way as before. He accused the agency of "being in the service of profitable wines that pollute." It was an argument that held a lot of weight.
For over four years the case dragged on in France's infamously congested court system. Cousin showed up at the courthouse with his plow horses and at times brought barrels of wine and supporters to picnic and protest. In late 2015, after many years of pubilc outcry against the ridiculously aggressive prosecution, Cousin was convicted — but without any punishment. Guilty, but no jail time, no fines. He and his son Baptiste continued on making wine in the same way. Olivier's first vintage was 1980, so he is making far less wine and handing over more and more of the work to Baptiste, who is now making sought-after wines himself.
For me, though, Olivier's wines will always be near and dear to me as a particularly baroque example of the ways that natural winemakers are unfairly policed for making wines as they have been for millennia, while the big agro-businesses have the support of government agencies and are largely free to manipulate wines, ecosystems, and laborers in the service of profit. I knew little of this when I first opened a bottle of "Pur Breton" some 13 years ago. But somehow in that bottle I found something compelling enough that I'm still writing about it. And, more importantly, still drinking it. Maybe you'll find something as inspiring in his wines, too.
POSTSCRIPT: Olivier Cousin Swag I discovered this link from 2011 to the importer's CafePress page supporting Olivier's case by selling shirts and totes sporting the offending labels. My shirt is supposedly in the mail — fingers crossed. An ironic way to support the topless man pictured above.
Olivier Cousin "Pur Breton" 2020
Ripe and dense Cabernet Franc, this demonstrates the juicier wines that can come from Anjou. As Cab Franc ripens, it sheds the green pepper notes, which are undetectable here. Though there's less barnyard and Brettanomyces than in previous vintages, there's enough there to add some more subtle funk. Aromatically complex, it has wild raspberry, fennel, leather, and dried red pepper flakes. The palate shows off a cherry glaze with tarragon and bee propolis. A lip-smacking rustic edge is giving definition by a crunchy, phenolic texture. Exciting, delicious, and still fresh and finessed enough to chill down and drink on its own, though it will pair really well with summertime grilled fare. Zero sulfur added.
Olivier Cousin "Le Franc" 2019
Olivier's old-vine Cabernet Franc, from vines planted in the 1950s on black loam infused with limestone. This is more dense than Pur Breton, as to be expected, but it retains the same playfulness and energetic freshness. Aromas of poppy seeds, black pepper, and strawberry with some gamey wildness. This is layered with spicy red fruits and pleasantly chewy tannins. It's clearly a rustic, natural wine, but it's far more serious to reduce it to that alone. There is a touch of barnyard but overall it's a wine with a lot of soul and balance, despite the expressive full-bodied style. Drink now with some richer fare or see what it does with some medium-term aging, maybe 3-6 years. Zero sulfur added.
Olivier Cousin "Pur Breton" Magnum 2020 [1.5L]