12 Natural Wines to Drink Now
As polarizing as natural wine has been, as heated and contentious as the arguments have gotten over its name and its reasons for being, its audience continues to expand, as do the number of producers.
Recently, I went shopping online for natural wines and found a dozen that are a pleasure to recommend. I might have included twice that many as I found bottles everywhere and from all over. The 12 I recommend are from New York, California, Australia, Chile, the Czech Republic, Spain, Germany, Austria, Italy and France.
Among natural wine’s growing audience, some have surely been attracted because they think it’s fashionable. Others are curious about wines made outside the norm, wines that combine a respect for nature with traditional methods of production and that both taste and feel really good.
Regardless of the initial allure, for many the appeal has lasted. Most striking is how popular natural wine seems to be among younger people, the demographic that the mainstream wine industry has the most difficulty reaching.
But though the number of producers has grown, the production of natural wine is necessarily small and labor intensive.
The ethos of the genre is to farm organically; to ferment the grapes while adding nothing except, perhaps, a little sulfur dioxide, an antioxidant and stabilizer that has long been used in wine; and to remove nothing. It is a hands-on process that cannot be automated or mechanized for efficiency’s sake.
Natural wine is ultimately an ideal that producers aim for, but are not always able to meet. So it is fitting that these winemakers’ intentions are idealistic. Whether their objective is to work in harmony with nature rather than exploiting it, to preserve local traditions and culture or simply to make the best-tasting wine for themselves and their customers, the wines and the production principles take precedence over profits.
In mass-market winemaking, wine must be protected against possible spoilage during every step of the production process. The cultured yeast, the enzymes and the overuse of sulfur dioxide are all compromises aimed at protecting the investment.
By contrast, natural winemaking is risky. It requires meticulous care in both the vineyard and the cellar as overly casual viticulture or winemaking can doom a batch of wine. To look at it another way, making natural wine requires great skill because mistakes can’t be undone with additions or technology.
It’s an arduous task, but the results can be thrilling.
This is not to say that people should drink only natural wine. An entire spectrum of methods and intentions exists between the poles of natural and industrial, and consumers have their reasons for selecting what they like, whether preference, convenience or budget.
I’m drawn to natural wines because I love the unmediated flavors and expressions that come from grape to glass. I love the clear sense of place I often find and being able to sense the personalities of the producers in the glass. I’m moved by the respect for culture and tradition inherent in natural wine.
This last point is important. Natural wine producers in historic regions are largely responsible for rediscovering and protecting local grapes and styles, which, if bureaucrats and powerful critics had their way, might have disappeared. Instead, we have the diversity of grapes and styles that is the joy of wine culture today.
I’m not blindly devoted to natural wines. Certain flaws occur that I don’t see in more mainstream bottles, like mousiness, an odd quality reminiscent of cedar shavings in mouse cages that can only be sensed retronasally, after the wine has been in the mouth.
I found a few mousy bottles in this batch and did not include them among the 12 bottles, just as I would not recommend unbalanced or insipid wines, flaws more typical of mainstream labels.
Because it is so laborious and personal to produce, natural wine is hard to scale up. It is necessarily made in small quantities, so these wines may only be available in certain parts of the country.
One characteristic of natural wine culture is to question authority, including that of wine critics. So, even if you do find these bottles, feel free to experiment, to try other others. Good wine shops ought to at least have a small selection, so ask for suggestions and make your own discoveries.
Here are my 12 recommendations, from lowest to highest price.
Roberto Henríquez Secano Interior Itata Rivera del Notro Blanco 2020, 12 percent, $23
Roberto Henríquez Ascencio made wine in Canada, South Africa and the Loire Valley before settling in the Bío Bío region of Chile. He works with very old vines that have been farmed organically or biodynamically. This fresh orange wine is made of roughly equal parts sémillon, muscat of Alexandria and corinto, better known as Pedro Ximénez. It’s intensely floral, lightly textured and altogether delicious. (T. Edward Wine, New York)
Absentee Winery California Red Wine 2019, 14.5 percent, $26
The minimalist label on this bottle tells you almost everything you need to know. The wine? It’s red. The ingredients? Grapes. That’s it. The proprietor, Avram Deixler, worked all over the world before setting up shop in Point Reyes Station in northern Marin County, where he grew up. This bottle, as I later learned, is made with carignan, syrah, zinfandel, petite sirah and abouriou, all grown organically in Mendocino County. The wine is fresh and alive, mildly tannic, direct and to the point. It’s potent, but wears its power lightly. Abouriou, by the way, is a grape from southwestern France that used to be popular in California, where it was known as “early burgundy” for its tendency to ripen quickly.
Ca’ de Noci Emilia Rosso Bio Sottobosco 2020, 10 percent, $27
When I drank this earthy, savory, sparkling red wine from Emilia-Romagna I imagined I had gotten it directly from a farmhouse there. It’s not rustic, it’s simply wonderful — bone-dry, moderately tannic, fruity and stony, unaffected by commercial polish or marketing sensibilities. Not surprising, given Ca’ de Noci’s excellent track record of making superb wines without sulfur dioxide, this wine was perfectly stable. Drink it with pizza, Italian sausages or just for fun. (Louis/Dressner Selections, New York)
MicroBio Correcaminos Castilla y Léon 2020, 13 percent, $29
Ismael Gozalo is the founder and proprietor of MicroBio. He gets grapes from a variety of sources, but his home territory is the village of Nieva in Castilla y Léon, northwest of Madrid. This particular wine, Correcaminos, was made of old vines of verdejo, farmed organically, aged in steel vats and bottled without sulfur dioxide. It’s slightly cloudy, fresh and alive, with earthy, refreshing flavors of fruits, flowers and herbs. (Selections de la Viña/Fruit of the Vines, Long Island City, N.Y.)
Wild Arc Farm New York State Blackbird 2020, 10.5 percent, $30
Wild Arc Farm in the Hudson Valley got its start in 2016 and already is in the vanguard of young, imaginative producers working with hybrid grapes. It is best known for its revival of piquette, a lowly beverage given by preindustrial landowners to their agricultural workers, which historically was made by refermenting grape pomace with water. Wild Arc turned it into a delicious, sparkling, low-alcohol beverage that has been widely embraced. Blackbird is not piquette. Rather, it’s a blend of riesling and noiret, a red hybrid, which are fermented together. The result is a thirst quenching, deliciously refreshing, spicy wine that goes down easy.
Milan Nestarec Czech Republic OKR 2020, 12.5 percent, $30, 1 liter
Milan Nestarec makes natural wines using grapes from his family vineyards in the Moravia region of the Czech Republic, which is closer to Vienna than to Prague. Over the last decade his wines have gotten better and better. This easy-drinking white blend of chardonnay, grüner veltliner, sauvignon blanc and savagnin is macerated with the skins briefly for a touch of texture and a hint of tannins. With its lively acidity, OKR is like a bolt of energy, dry and thoroughly refreshing. (Jenny & François Selections, New York)
2Naturkinder Black Betty Landwein 2019 11.5 percent, $30
Michael Völker and Melanie Drese, the proprietors of 2Naturkinder (meaning two children of nature in German), make luminous wines from sometimes unlikely combinations of grapes. This one is made mostly of domina, a cross between blauer portugieser, a once popular German grape, with pinot meunier and a little bit of pinot noir. It’s pale garnet, and though domina has the reputation of making tannic wines, this is delicate, almost fragile in its purity and loveliness. The wine is named Betty after the first lamb born in their domina vineyard. (Jenny & François Selections)
Florèz Wines Santa Clara Valley Free Solo Old Vine Heritage Blend Red Wine 2020, 13.4 percent, $32
James Jelks works with dry-farmed, organic and sustainable vineyards in the Santa Cruz area. Free Solo is made with a half dozen different grapes including zinfandel, mourvèdre, carignan, alicante bouschet, petite sirah and black muscat. Made without additives, it is lively and fragrant, with aromas and flavors of flowers, herbs and red fruits.
Partida Creus Catalonia BB 2020, 13 percent, $33
Massimo Marchiori and Antonella Gerosa, the proprietors of Partida Creus, are originally from Italy but settled in Catalonia, about an hour southwest of Barcelona. They make wines largely from little-known indigenous varieties. This red wine, made with bobal, is a bit of an oddity in that bobal is more typically found down the Mediterranean coast in Valencia. In their hands the wine is fresh and pure, full of energy and tasting deeply of spices, herbs and red fruits. (Selections de la Viña/Fruit of the Vines)
Lucy M Adelaide Hills Stupefacente Sangiovese 2020, 12.5 percent, $35
The Basket Range region in the Adelaide Hills of South Australia is home to a thriving natural wine community. Anton van Klopper, the proprietor of Lucy M, works resolutely without additions and is one of its leading lights. When I took my first taste of Stupefacente, it seemed bright, brashly angular and vibrant, but nothing like sangiovese in my experience. After giving it time in the glass, though, the sharp edges receded and the wine settled into an earthy, dusty, lightly tannic deliciousness. By the way, those who read Rachel Signer’s recent memoir “You Had Me at Pét-Nat” might recognize Mr. van Klopper as the character she called Wildman and later married. (Terrell Wines, San Francisco)
Christian Tschida Austria Himmel auf Erden Weiss 2020, 11.5 percent, $40
Christian Tschida is an uncompromising grower and producer. He farms organically and biodynamically and uses no sulfur dioxide in his winemaking except a little bit in a few reds. This white wine is made from old vines of weissburgunder (or pinot blanc), and scheurebe, both grapes that have not been held in particularly high esteem. Himmel auf Erden Weiss is a dry, refreshing wine of depth and beautiful texture. In the mouth it seems opaque and mysterious, with each swallow inviting another sip in an effort to get to the center of the riddle. (Jenny & François Selections)
Matassa Vin de France Tattouine Rouge 2020, 10 percent, $42
Tom Lubbe, the proprietor of Domaine Matassa, was born in New Zealand. He came to Roussillon in the south of France 20 years ago fromSouth Africa, where he was working. He bought land and started Matassa, where he practices regenerative farming and makes wine with minimal additions. This pale, unfiltered red represents the union of carignan and grenache gris. It’s spicy, earthy and floral and though only 10 percent alcohol, it’s tannic enough to make itself felt on the lips and insides of the cheeks. (Louis/Dressner Selections)
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