Uncorking the Wild World of Natural Wine
Why you should be drinking additive- and preservative-free wines from artisan producers
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.
But isn’t wine already natural? A good question—and the answer is yes, just as cheese is, at its most basic, “natural.” But consider how many processes many typical foods go through or have added to them, from cereal to soda to yogurt, to make them taste a certain way or have longer shelf life. Similarly, most wine has added ingredients, too, but since it’s not technically a food, those things—which include artificial yeasts, colorants, enzymes to accelerate fermentation, acids, fake tannins and preservatives known as sulfites—aren’t listed on the label for consumers to see. Virtually every mainstream, commercial winery adds some or all of these substances to their wines.
The world of natural wine stands in contrast to this approach; it’s a small but dynamic movement of farmers and urban winemakers who believe in organic viticulture (better for workers, better for the planet, better for your wine and better for you); don’t use additives to change the flavor of wine; respect the nuances of particular vintages so that their wines don’t taste the same year-to-year; use new oak hardly or not at all; and try to add minimal sulfites so that the wine is—literally—more alive.
According to Matty Colston, a sommelier who previously worked at Chicago’s Parachute Restaurant and who is now learning winemaking, natural wine is “a form of minimalism: to do only what is absolutely necessary for the grapes to go from the vineyard and its environs to inside the bottle with as little intervention as possible.” Without sulfites, he says, “The wine is alive, pure, raw, naked, natural—whatever you want to call it!”
If you are ready for a complete revolution in taste, go out and seek natural wines. But since there’s no “natural wine” certification to put on labels, it can be challenging to learn what makes a natural wine.
Here are a few tips for natural wine newbies:
Be prepared to be surprised by the appearance and taste of these wines. “Natural wines are unfiltered, so sometimes they look cloudy if the wine is young,” explains Jenny Lefcourt, who imports natural wines via her company Jenny & François. But, she says, “this isn't a flaw—it means the good stuff is still in there and the wine will be more aromatically complex.” Natural wines can also be higher in acidity, adds Lefcourt, “because organically grown grapes are better balanced and have natural acidity. It wakes up the taste buds!”
Natural wines look different alongside the mass produced bottles found in most grocery stores, and they do have some quirks. True natural wine geeks prize the appearance of lees (spent yeast cells, leftover from the fermentation process) remaining in the bottle, and they sip pét-nat sparklers that get their fizz from live fermentation. While organic grapes are a minimum requirement for natural wines, many growers even follow biodynamic principles, including some seemingly esoteric guidelines such as fertilizing with cow horns full of manure, harvesting under moonlight and spraying grapes with protective herbal tinctures.
To start exploring natural wines, head to the most progressive or trendiest wine seller in your town, and ask: “Do you have any organic, low-sulfite wines from small producers?” Hopefully, there will be someone who is familiar with natural wines, and if you’re lucky you’ll stumble upon a true geek who is happy to spend half an hour picking out awesome bottles for you to try.
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.
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!