It’s Friday night after work, and you’re at the grocery store. You reach for the same bottle of vino that you sipped on last weekend, but hesitate—you’re ready for something different, a new wine that tastes exciting. Maybe that means selecting a bottle from an unfamiliar wine region, or a grape variety you’ve never tried before. Or, you could have your drinking world totally rocked by exploring a category of wines that will change everything you thought you knew about fermented grape juice: natural wine.
Be prepared to be surprised by the appearance and taste of natural wines.
If you’re wondering what to expect in terms of price, anticipate paying more than you do for your average merlot from an faceless, large brand. aAs with organic produce at the farmer’s market, natural wines are more costly to produce because they’re made by independent families who tend their own vineyards, in contrast to large-scale, corporate operations with factory wineries. Your $20 or $25 per bottle of natural wine are supporting artisans who treat their grapes with care and put their heart-and-soul into making wine.
Can’t find a knowledgeable employee at the local booze shop? Try checking the back label, where it shows who imported the wine. The U.S. now has a handful of nationwide importers focused on bringing in natural wines. Some to look for include: Louis/Dressner; Jenny & François; Zev Rovine Selections; Selection Massale; Avant-Garde Wine & Spirits; Camille Rivière Selections; and Critical Mass Selections. And guess what—there are American natural winemakers, too!
In Oregon, upstart winemaker Andy Young has been gathering a following for the wines he makes for his label St. Reginald Parish in a shed on the outskirts of Portland, with pinot noir, pinot gris and chardonnay, sourced from organically farmed vineyards around the state. Good farming, without pesticides, is essential to the quality and purity of his wines, he says: “Natural wine is a movement about trying to get to the heart of something distinct, so working your way around pesticides is a non-starter for this community.” While commercial wineries use technology such as laboratory yeasts, crossflow filtration machines and high-tech computers for controlling temperature, in Young’s winery you’ll find nothing more than “only a press, a tank of CO2 for carbonic fermentation, a power washer and a drain in the floor.”
Young remembers the days when he liked nothing better than a $6 Chilean carménère that was one of a million bottles tasting exactly the same. An internship at a small winery turned him onto the idea that wine can be made thoughtfully and carefully, without adding things to change the flavor. He also discovered the wine style known in French as vin de soif—literally “wine for thirst,” characterized by juice that’s low in alcohol (12 percent ABV or below), fresh and easy to drink, and not too tannic or oaky. To this end, Young makes wines in a style called “carbonic maceration,” which results in fruity, light wines that you can crush on a patio without getting an immediate headache, as you would with most commercial wines.
Like most natural winemakers, the St. Reginald Parish label is limited production—just about 20,000 bottles are made each vintage. But even if you can’t find it in your town, there are plenty of other natural wine labels out there to try. Below are a few more recommended producers and regions to seek out.
Matty Colston is currently sipping bottles from Austrian winemaker Claus Preisinger, who makes whites with excellent acidity, often made using skin contact—meaning the grape juice isn’t pressed off the skins right away, so it has added color and texture—and reds primarily from the local grapes Blaufrankisch, St. Laurent and Zweigelt, ranging from chuggable vin de soif called “Puzsta Libre” to complex and age-worthy styles. Also, Matty recommends checking out Martha Stoumen, who makes Italian-inspired wines in Mendocino, California.
Jenny Lefcourt loves drinking natural wines from less obvious places, such as the Czech Republic, Austria and Slovakia. From those countries her company imports some real gems, including Milan Nestarec, Gut Oggau and Strekov 1075.
To explore the wine range of styles in the natural wine scene, look for bottles from Domaine Mosse (Loire Valley, France), Arianna Occhipinti (Vittoria, Sicily), La Clarine Farm (Sierra Foothills, California), Celler Escoda-Sanahuja (Catalunya, Spain), Matassa (Roussillon, France) and Chateau de Beru (Chablis, France). Any of these producers should ignite thirst for unfiltered, wild fermented grape juice!