Whether you want to understand how to serve natural wines at parties or just how to enjoy the best of them at home, respected wine journalist, natural winemaker and now author, Rachel Signor has your back. Her tips below will have you and your friends sipping in style — just a sip from her new book, You Had Me At Pét-Nat!
Remember the first time you had a vine-grown tomato from a farmer’s market? That’s what your first natural wine taste is like—it’s the earth and its seasons, made into pure fermented grape juice, reflecting the place it’s from and the individuals who made it.
Although wine labels don’t display all the additives that go into their production, dozens of flavorants and adulterants are permitted in winemaking, and most supermarket wines are full of them. Consider how the grapes are grown: any mass-produced bottle is almost guaranteed to have come from a vineyard that was treated with harmful herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides, unless it’s marked “organic.”
Enter natural wine: though not a certification per se, it’s a movement of growers and makers who opted out of this hyper-commercial approach to wine, and instead prefer careful, chemical-free or even regenerative farming that will enhance the soil for future generations, alongside a hands-off approach in the cellar. Natural wine is organic, unfiltered, and contains only a minimal dose of sulfites (a common preservative) or sometimes none at all—and the result is incredibly singular, alive, and surprising.
Learning about natural wine can be overwhelming, so I’ve written a guide to finding some bottles for entertaining at home — or bringing along if you’re a guest. If you’re curious to learn more, I’ve written a memoir about my own personal journey with natural wines including my stint as a Brooklyn waitress, a Parisian magazine publisher and now Australian winemaker. The book is called You Had Me At Pét-Nat, which is out now.
Natural Wine Tips for Entertaining
Start your gathering with pét-nat: I put “pét-nat” in the title of my book because it stole my heart, and I do think it is the most charming wine style in the world.
Fizzy, fruity, beautifully hued whether white, pink, or orange, pét-nat is the best possible way to start your gathering.
The energetic bubbles whet your palate, get conversation going, and make your guests want to snack on the cheese platter you’ve set out. When people ask about the wine, you can explain that it’s organic and made only from grapes with no added yeasts or sugar—a great opener to discussion about making sustainable choices. Unlike Champagne, pét-nat is made through one single fermentation—more on that in my book. Serve straight out of the fridge, as cold as possible, in regular wine glasses, not flutes—it enhances the flavor more.
Try: For a truly American wine experience, seek out a bottle of chëpìka, a collaboration between master sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier and Finger Lakes, NY winemaker Nathan Kendall, featuring a hybrid grape called Catawba made in the pét-nat style. Super pleasant, breezy, and about as unique as you can get.
Another great option is Domaine la Boheme “Festejar!” whose name literally implies, this is a wine for partying. It’s pink (made of the red grape Gamay, see below), zippy, dry, fruity, and will go down fast so maybe get two bottles.
If you’re having trouble finding a pét-nat, this style also goes by the name méthode ancestrale, so give that a whirl.
Skin-contact or orange/amber wine: It’s a white wine that’s… not.
Picture this: White grapes come in at harvest time. Instead of pressing them directly, the winemaker chooses to let them soak in a big tank or barrel for a day or two. The skins, which hold all the tannin and color, make the juice turn nicely orange and add some punchy, tart flavor to the wine. Voilá, that’s what orange wine is! Because it’s neither here nor there, it’s a very versatile wine that’s incredibly good with many different kinds of foods—especially veggie-based dishes (hello, vegan feasters) but also roast chicken or even duck if you’re feeling fancy. Orange wine is best served slightly room temperature—not too cold, not too warm.
Try: Oriol Artigas makes wine about twenty minutes north of Barcelona from high-elevation coastal vineyards featuring unusual varieties. All of his white wines are made in the skin-contact style, so they all count as orange wines, but they’re very gentle and smooth, as opposed to some orange wines that can be intense. Try his “Canya” made of Garnacha Blanca for an excellent introduction to these wines, or look for one of his wines made of Pansa Blanca (related to Xarel-lo, which is in Cava). No sulfites are added to any of Oriol Artigas’s wines.
Another fun orange wine: California winery Donkey and Goat’s “Stone Crusher” Rousanne is a fruity, richly-textured wine that will balance out heavy foods like turkey and gravy.
Gamay—from Beaujolais or elsewhere: Familiar with Beaujolais wine, from southern France? Then you’re already in-the-know about one of the natural wine movement’s star grape varieties, Gamay.
This light red wine is a bit of a chameleon—it can be really fresh and light, as in the Nouveau style, or moody and complex, such as a “Cru” Beaujolais from one of the special appellations like Brouilly. But France isn’t the only place making Gamay wine—you can find it in Oregon, California, and Australia. There is no better wine paired with turkey, in my opinion, then a great bottle of Gamay. Pop it in the fridge for a half-hour before serving.
Try: Division Wine Co’s Gamay Noir “Renardière” from Oregon. Winemakers Tom Monroe and Kate Norris are incredibly talented at finding amazing vineyards in the Willamette Valley and turning them into gorgeous wine in their Portland urban winery. They have a very contemporary approach with a bit of European flair. Their 2019 is the current release, which means the wine has aged a bit and should have matured wonderfully.
For a French Gamay option, an easy one to find that’s great value and delicious is Chateau Cambon from Beaujolais. If you have a devoted natural wine shop in your area and you want to try something special, ask for a wine by Julie Balagny—slightly expensive but totally worth it.
Serving natural wines in style
With a pét-nat in the fridge as your guests arrive, and an orange wine and Gamay sitting ready for the main course, you won’t have to think too much about who prefers what kind of wine—there’s something for everyone.
Invite people to try them in that order, from sparkling to orange to Gamay, but don’t stress if it doesn’t work out—natural wine isn’t about rules, or snobbery. It’s about having fun and enjoying life while choosing things made in an environmentally conscious way. Of course, once your guests do try the main course with a glass of Gamay, they may be so knocked out by the pairing that they’ll want another glass—do consider splurging on a magnum bottle, which is a whopping 1.5 liters (twice a normal bottle), to make sure there’s enough to go around.
Wondering what to serve with dessert? Another rosé pét-nat could do the trick—you could even find an off-dry one like my personal favorite, from Les Capriades in France’s Loire Valley, if you ask around. Be careful, though—one glass of that, and the next thing you know, you’re moving to Paris to live amongst the world’s best natural wine bars, or flying off to Australia to make it yourself.
Read me next: Berries, Yeast, Terroir: Here’s How To Become A Natural Wine Geek