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Everything you need to know about natural wines, plus six to try now

Everything you need to know about natural wines, plus six to try now
A biodynamic vineyard in Oregon, tilled by draft horse. (Patrick Comiskey)

The term “natural wine” refers to wines made with minimal input and intervention. Its practitioners grow their grapes organically or biodynamically and employ native, indigenous yeasts in the winery, generally avoiding the additives used to shape, manage, or complete fermentation. They add no color, tannin, acid, oak flavoring, or water. They add little or no sulfur, believing that its use impedes a wine’s essential expression. The idea is to make something more reflective of grape and place than of the winemaker’s interpretive hand.

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On the face of it, the practice seems imbued with noble intentions, but it’s also fraught with risk. The wines can be glorious and pure, but without the prophylactic properties of sulfur, the wines can reflect some serious misadventures in biochemistry.

If you have more than a passing interest in wine, then you’ve probably heard of natural wine. Which likely means you’ve argued with someone over it or that you’ve been within earshot of someone raising a voice in its praise or damnation. If this trend has taught us anything, it’s that no one can be neutral on the topic

In the last decade, natural wines have attracted a vociferous breed of adherents who won’t drink anything else. There are natural wine bar and wine shop enclaves all over the world, beginning with Paris in the ‘90s , extending to London, Berlin, Tokyo, New York, San Francisco, Melbourne and many points between. Here in L.A., bars such as Bandini and Tabula Rasa are adherents, restaurants such as Bestia and Alma, and shops such as DomaineLA, Lou and Bar & Garden are fairly catholic in their offerings.

But as the cultural visibility of natural wine has grown so has the collective voice of its naysayers — skeptics who argue, often with good reason, that the wines are flawed, or unstable, or weird or all of the above.

Last month all of this was brought to a head at RAW Wine L.A., a wine exposition where converts and the curious alike convened over two days in downtown Los Angeles to taste 300 or so wines from 15 countries.

RAW wine was established in 2012 as a forum for wines of this sort. Its chief impresario is Isabelle Legeron, M.W., an energetic French author and journalist based in London, whose studies toward becoming a Master of Wine, tasting thousands of wines a year, had her gravitating toward natural wines.

“They resonated for me,” she says. “These were wines that didn’t need a million-dollar facility — they were made basically with a couple of buckets and tanks.”

Legeron staged RAW Wine in London and Paris and eventually expanded to New York, Berlin and San Francisco. The November event was Los Angeles’ first stint as a host city. “We’re not out to denigrate the wine industry, because it’s an industry and it employs a lot of people,” says Legeron. “But at the same time I really wanted to make sure these guys had a voice in this industry.”

To taste wines at RAW is to taste the sublime and the sullied side by side. The best wines feel transparent, diaphanous and full of energy. The worst are dulled by wayward fermentations, oxidation, microbial blooms. They taste of barnyard, mouse fur, vinegar, and compost.

And yet those who love these wines tend to love them unconditionally, praising their uniqueness, their verity, and ignoring more obvious shortcomings. Most troubling, there is an exasperating tone of superiority that runs through many of these wines’ adherents, an air of ‘holier than thou’ that can be maddening.

The truth is that these wines, when they’re on, inspire proselytization, not because they’re the greatest wines ever made, but because they’re the most volatile, the most alive. You can taste the chaos of nature in them, the sour tang of yeast conversion, of biochemical transmogrification, and of wild fermentation. Those who write them off wholesale seem to forget that many of the complex foods we love, such as yogurt, cheese, bread, kimchi and kraut, are products of heady and sometimes unruly fermentations.

Here are six wines to seek out at the venues mentioned above, all of them hits at the RAW Wine Expo.

Domaine de l’Ecu 2016 Muscadet Sevre et Maine “Orthogneiss” and “Granit

Two biodynamic Muscadets, grown on two different soil types. Both are exceedingly mineral (the variety, Melon, is a lens for soil): Granite is flinty and saline, with a lemon-lime suite of flavors; Orthogneiss is broader, richer, and more mouthfilling, apple spritzed with citrus.

Agricola Cirelli Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo Anfora

A light-colored and lighter-bodied style of Montepulciano; almost a rosato in style with a color of translucent cherry and flavors that are mineral and tangy, ideal for winter stews

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Natenadze’s Wine Cellar 2015 Meskhuri Red

As the oldest, and one of the most traditional wine regions on the planet, nearly any Georgian wine will have “natural” credentials. Giorgi Natenadze’s isolated ancient vines on his estate in the south of the country are, at 400 years old, some of the oldest in the world. The red is firm and smoky, with a core of dusted plum and a bracing, grippy texture.

Lo-Fi 2016 Santa Barbara County Malbec

Not your Argentinian grandmother’s Malbec, this one is made to reflect a Loire Valley style, with a scent of violets and turned soil, the flavors savory and darkly spicy.

Pearl Morissette 2016 Jeunes Vignes Creek Shores Pinot Noir Niagara Peninsula, Canada

An idiosyncratic Pinot Noir from the warming coastlines of eastern Canada, this edgy wine is intensely herbal and savory, with a scent of pine-tips and cedar and wild berry flavors — a touch sour, to pair with lentils and Swiss chard.

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