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.
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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
Illustrations by Maria Jia Ling Pitt.