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A Beginner’s Guide to Natural Wine
04.06.17
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Chances are you’ve already heard that “natural” things are better for you. This may inspire you to splurge on purple kale at the farmer’s market, but it’s likely to go right out the nearest window when it comes to the wine you’re drinking. As with most things, not all wines are created equal. Enter natural wine, an elusive variety that challenges traditional conventions of what wine looks and tastes like, why we drink it and, most importantly, how it’s made.

Defining natural wine (a logical place to start) is precarious because there isn’t one universally accepted answer. “Everyone has a varying version of what natural wine is,” says Justin Chearno, the wine director of Brooklyn restaurant and wine bar The Four Horsemen. “I’ve answered this question so many times and I answer it differently every time.” According to RAW WINE founder and the first French female Master of Wine Isabelle Legeron, “natural wine is grape juice fermented into wine with nothing added and nothing taken away. It is basically as nature intended.” In other words, no pesticides or chemicals are used on the vines and no additives, such as sulfites, or filtration methods are used in the cellar.

Reduced to its simplest form, Chearno summarizes the process of making natural wine as, “Vineyard. Grapes. Fermentation. Bottle. You.” Meanwhile, the origin story of conventionally made wine reads more like a novella than a haiku. In the vineyard, farmers spray pesticides that cling to the grapes throughout the winemaking process. Additives, such as sulfites, yeast, egg whites and fish or pig derivatives, are thrown in during bottling to silence nature’s unruly tendencies, but are left off of the label consumers see. It’s a classic tale of modernization of the agricultural industry: In exchange for using chemicals, added flavors and colorants, winemakers are promised consistency, optimal drinkability and lower risk of technical error.

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Cracking open a bottle and trying it firsthand is the best way to dive in. Though each natural wine has its own set of idiosyncrasies, there are a few key traits that set them apart from their counterparts. Upon first pour, the wine’s cloudier appearance (from lack of filtration) is apparent. A sip reveals these wines are lighter, fresher and brighter; the aftertaste alludes to a lower percentage of alcohol. Legeron finds that wines made this way, “actually taste better and are a more authentic expression of where the wine comes from.” Resist the urge to call these wines “off” or “weird,” even though that may be your first inclination. “It’s not funky,” says Jorge Riera, the wine director of natural wine destinations Wildair and Contra in NYC, during my recent drop in at his bi-weekly staff wine class. “It’s fucking good wine or it’s bad wine. That’s it.”

Superior taste is not the only bonus – there’s also the environment and your health to consider. “If you’re an environmentally conscious person, then drinking natural wine becomes the obvious choice,” says Legeron. “People who farm organically or biodynamically are farming for the future by looking after the biodiversity of their land.” Additionally, pesticide residue from conventionally grown grapes finds its way into your glass, as does a motley crew of additives introduced during the bottling process. The effect of such intervening forces on your body is unknown. To seal the deal, it’s empirically proven your body assimilates wine with lower sulfites better the next day, meaning fewer or no hangover symptoms. Just be sure to drink lots of water and you know, be smart about it.

Natural wine is worth exploring for the same reasons we seek out variety elsewhere. Newcomers need only bring an open mind. “It’s not for everyone,” says Legeron, “in the way that some people will never like a piece of époisses cheese because it’s too stinky.” In the best-case scenario, it could be a transformative experience. “For me, it wasn’t just that the wines taste different,” says Chearno, recalling his first encounter. “It was a really specific moment where I connected with the wines in a way I hadn’t connected with anything in my life — whether it was art, music or people.”

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For those looking to get into natural wine, Legeron says to, “Go to places where you trust the people who run the restaurant, bar or shop and go along with them.” In New York City, visit restaurants with killer natural lists like Wildair in the Lower East Side or The Four Horsemen in Williamsburg. Walk into Chambers Street Wines, Uva or Bibber & Bell and let the staff guide you. Start with places where people have been making this kind of wine the longest, like Jura, the Loire Valley or Auvergne, “because what you end up tasting is experience,” Chearno adds. No matter your approach, consider yourself forewarned: “The minute you start drinking natural and you go back to conventional wine, you don’t notice what’s there, you notice all the other stuff that is that you don’t want to drink anymore.”

Isabelle’s Picks

La Garagista Farm & Winery, Ci Confonde, Pétillant Natural, Vermont, USA, 2015; bibberandbell.com

“Husband-and-wife duo Deirdre Heekin and Caleb Barber were dancers before they became biodynamic farmers and winemakers. Working primarily with hybrid varieties, they craft a range of compelling wines. This pet nat made from Brianna grapes is a great place to start, especially since Spring is upon us.”

Sextant, Skin Contact, Aligoté, Burgundy, France, 2015; discoverywines.com

“Part of an exciting new generation, Julien Altaber is bravely making natural wines in an extremely classic and conservative wine region. This orange-style aligoté is particularly delicious, with floral and honeyed notes. Don’t worry if you can’t find this particular cuvée, just pick up whatever you can find from him. You won’t be disappointed.”

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Justin’s Picks

Le Coste, Pizzicante Moscato Procanico, Rosé, Latium, Italy, 2015; shopbanquet.com

“Le Coste wines can be pretty out there and wild. This year there are some really nice ones like this rosé, which is perfumey yet salty.”

Andi Knauss, Brut Zero, Württemberg-Remstal, Germany, 2014; chambersstwines.com

“A really fantastic sparkling wine. It’s much more complex than I expected it to be and very champagne-like despite being made out of riesling. I love it.”

Lizzie spends her days eating, drinking and talking about eating and drinking at Care of Chan. Follow her escapades at @lzznnn and @careofchan

Illustrations by Maria Jia Ling Pitt.

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  • ArtsDuMal

    Very informative and fun article! Definitely head down to Wildair if ya haven’t been, Jorge is a badass and a wonderful (if gruff) host. But be careful- last time I went we had seven (7!!!) bottles of wine, and the food, while amazing, isn’t substantial enough to support heavy natural wine drinking.

  • doublecurl

    Organic wines are great and people can generally guess at what exactly that means, but the word “biodynamic” can lure the same target customers by seeming like organic 2.0. In fact biodynamic farming is BIZARRE and borders on pagan/wiccan practices. It involves composting with cow skulls!!! I wish there were more upfront information about what biodynamic farming really is instead of just throwing the buzzword on the label to interest natural-minded consumers.

    • ArtsDuMal

      Ya I feel the same way about biodynamic wines as I do about “natural” beauty products that have crystals in them and claim to reduce toxins. Will give it to them, although the practices are bizarre, they do shy away from using pesticides. Also, it has nothing to do with how the wine is made, just how the grapes are grown.

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  • laura r

    i love this and natural wine. bar bandini is the place to go in los angeles. i think it’s the way of the future! carbonic, kombucha-esque wines that don’t have a standard taste but a deep connection to the terroir! so excited you all wrote about it 🙂

  • ijustlikewineokay

    There are a lot of great natural wines out there, and I’m glad that the trend with wine overall is moving towards less intervention in the winery, but there are a LOT of misleading statements in this article that frustrate me as someone working in the wine industry. For one, there are more sulfites in a glass of OJ than there are in most wines, even conventional, bulk-produced wines, so if you’re sensitive to sulfites, chances are wine is not the your main culprit. Also, grapes naturally contain sulfites, so even your “sulfite-free” organic wine still has sulfites by necessity because it’s made with grapes. (http://www.thekitchn.com/the-truth-about-sulfites-in-wine-myths-of-red-wine-headaches-100878)

    For two, this line really bothers me “A sip reveals these wines are lighter, fresher and brighter; the aftertaste alludes to a lower percentage of alcohol” – as compared to WHAT? Rieslings from the Mosel are known for being lower in alcohol, for instance, while Loire Valley red wines are known for being “light, fresh, and bright” along with the wines of MANY other regions.

    Three, the way conventional wine-making practices are compared to natural wine making practices in this piece makes it sound as though these two philosophies are black and white. The reality is that many “conventional” wines, especially those from Italy, and drier/less-humid parts of France are farmed organically, but don’t bother with certification (for a lot of these producers, that’s just the way they’ve always farmed – plus it’s expensive to become certified).

    Some “conventional” winemakers may use all the processing tricks up their sleeve; they may fine, filter, and add color to their wine, while others may do only one or two of these, or only sometimes, etc. There is a huge spectrum between the crunchy biodynamic winemaker who leaves all of her wines unfiltered and tends to the grapes lovingly according to the phases of the moon, and the Gallos and Barefoots of the world. Implying that there are these black and white categories just furthers the confusion. People have a hard enough time understanding and feeling comfortable buying wine as it is.

    Here’s what I tell people: buy from small producers. Find a good wine shop in your area and ask them about who made the wine you’re curious about. The producer matters; someone who is passionate and thoughtful about making wine is generally going to make wines with minimal additives, minimal intervention and a lot of respect for terroir. Maybe they didn’t bury a cow horn or decide to leave the lees in the bottle rather than filter it out, but that doesn’t mean it’s full of additives and animal by-products either.

    TL;DR – While I appreciate the trend toward more natural winemaking practices is gaining traction, don’t oversimplify it and penalize “conventional” winemakers by putting them all in the same box. Not everyone who uses conventional practices abuses them, and not all conventional practices are terrible for your health.