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's Loire Legacy
A natural wine provacateur's golden years
Olivier Cousin is in semi-retirement these days. He has fully earned his stars as a natural wine pioneer in the Loire Valley. He's scaled back his production and given up most of his acreage to his son Baptiste, who is a leading natural wine figure in his own right. Olivier hardly needs my help to sell his wines, but I think it's important to acknowledge his legacy and importance — and the fact that his wines have remained as relevant and tasty as ever.
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 many people were seeking 'funky' reds. 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 lots of natural wine that is later to the party. 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, 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 as great as ever to experience the stubborn, rustic appeal of his wines. There's the "Pur Breton" Cabernet Franc, my proverbial 'gateway drug' into natural wine, but there's the old-vine "Le Franc" as well. At his age, it's unclear how many more vintages he will be releasing. Regardless of his age, his wines stand out and demand attention.
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.
It all began because 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. He refused to pay. When the AOC permitted sugar and acid adjustments in 2003, he finally left for good, preferring to use the less prestigious 'table wine' or vin de table designation. In spite of this he continued to label his wines with the grape varieties and as coming from Anjou, which was truthful, albeit illegal, to include on the label of lowly table wines.
Cousin intentionally used his 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 with winemakers and wine drinkers alike.
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 guilty — but with 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 simple table wines, too.