The term natural winemaking is one that can be as difficult to define as it is easy to practice, as the stylistic boundaries and guidelines are hotly debated. To get to the heart of the matter, natural wine is a minimally manipulated product of good ole Mother Earth. Untreated grapes are picked, pressed, and gently protected and looked after as they find their way to becoming wine through spontaneous fermentation. More and more winemakers from Italy to France, Spain and Austria — and even here in California — are focusing on producing a wine that speaks of its place of origin, letting the grapes do the talking. If we want to know where our grass-fed beef is from and the name of the farmer who’s growing our organic asparagus, the same should apply to the wine we drink, right?
Here’s the essential info. you need to know about natural wines:
- Grapes are grown organically or biodynamically, sometimes certified and sometimes not. Ask your friendly wine-shop clerk to show you wines made this way, as labels don’t always reveal what’s in the bottle. Tip: Get to know importers that usually work with producers making wines this way and then check the back labels of a wine to see a name you recognize. Louis/Dressner, Savio Soares, Jenny & Francois and Jose Pastor are just some of the great importers bringing these wonderful wines to us. Domestically, Amy Atwood Selections and Revel Wine distribute some of my favorite West Coast natural wines.
- Instead of added commercial yeasts created in a lab, the just-pressed grape juice spontaneously ferments on its own from the native yeasts living on the skins of the grapes and in the cellar.
- Sulfur Dioxide, a natural product used to prevent oxidation and other potential bacterial wine flaws, is thought by many natural wine enthusiasts to be just as harmful as it is helpful if used in too large of quantities. You might see some wines with absolutely no added sulfites, but usually most will have some very small amount added after fermentation or at bottling to protect them for whatever journey they take to your glass.
- No added sugars, acidification, reverse osmosis or any of that funny stuff. There’s also no filtering or fining. Don’t beware the sometimes slightly cloudy natural wine! You would want to drink the organic, unfiltered apple juice with bits of pulp and such over the crystal-clear processed stuff stripped of all its nutrients, right? Same thing.
For some tasty, all-natural wines to try now, read more:
2009 Domaine Breton “La Dilettante” Moustillant, $25: A unique just-bubbly-enough Chenin Blanc from Vouvray in the Loire Valley. Cloudy, chewy and a touch of residual sugar make this a great pairing for a creamy lobster roll or spicy seafood.
2009 Quarticello “Rivellino” Lambrusco, $20: A dry, inky Lambrusco that’s serious enough for a steak and fun enough for a party and some conversation.
2010 JP Brun Terres Dorees Beaujolais Blanc, $20: A fantastic lemon-y, crisp Chardonnay from a master of Beaujolais. If you think you don’t like Chardonnay, give this a try and it will surely change your mind.
2010 Domaine de la Pepiere Muscadet, $14: A stunning example of excellent affordable wine year after year is Marc Ollivier ‘s Muscadet. 100% Melon de Bourgogne, bursting with minerality and salty sea water. Couldn’t be more perfect with fresh oysters.
2010 Benito Santos Igrexario de Saiar Albariño, $18: A single vineyard, organic Albariño from Rias-Baixas in northwestern Spain with clean, zippy citrus fruit and excellent acidity. Pretty fantastic with ceviche or fish tacos.
2010 Prentice “Ramato” Pinot Gris, $18: Australia is not asleep on the natural wine front! This is all Pinot Gris made with brief contact from the skins of the grapes, leaving the wine with a beautiful faded coppery pink color. Is it a rosé? A white? It lies somewhere in between and is delicious.
2009 Broc Cellars Red Blend $23: 50/50 Pinot Noir and Syrah sourced from California’s Central Coast. Only 100 cases produced and without sulfur additions, it’s a crowd-pleaser with some cool factor.
2009 Chateau d’Oupia ”Les Heretiques”, $11: A steal of a wine. Ripe, juicy Carignan fruit with a touch of funky earthiness from old vines in Southern France’s Languedoc region.
2009 Valli Unite “Gaitu” Barbera, $18: A perfect pizza wine made by a co-op of 4 families in Piedmont in northern Italy, all harvested by hand and made with care. This is rustic, honest Italian wine at its best.
2010 Clos du Tue-Boeuf Cheverny Rouge, $19: Thierry Puzelat is one of the more well-known naturalists working in France. Together with his brother, they make wines under the Clos du Tue-Boeuf label. This bottling is a blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay and is light, bright and a little quirky with wild red fruits with vibrant aromatics.
2010 Tami Nero d’Avola, $17: Arianna Occhipinti is a 30-year-old rock star of a winemaker in Sicily. Her wines consistently impress, and this is no exception; unoaked, dark berry fruit and a little musk and dusty tannin make this a complete, balanced red wine at a great price.
For more from Whitney Adams, check out her awesome blog, Brunellos Have More Fun.