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Hotly debated, endlessly complicated and, for all practical purposes, undefinable, natural wine might be the perfect adult beverage for these polarizing times. Over the last 15 years, it has split the wine community, pitting back-to-the-earth purists in the thrall of its freshness and sustainable methods against traditionalists who thumb their noses at its often-funky flavors and hipster cachet.
No matter which side you stand on, though, one thing can’t be debated: Natural wine is red hot. According to wine and spirits consultancy IWSR, global consumption of organic still wine, which accounts for a portion of all natural wine, is predicted to reach up to 1 billion bottles annually by 2022, up from 349 million bottles in 2012. Once relegated to major metropolis areas such as L.A., New York City and San Francisco, natty wine has quickly blanketed the country, popping up in bars, restaurants and retail shops in such cities as Dallas; Denver; Helena, Montana; and everywhere in between.
“What most people don’t understand is that, as much of a trend as natural wine is, it’s really just the traditional way of making wine. It’s ‘conventional’ wine that’s new,” says Alex Bernardo, the owner of Vineyard Gate, a small bottle shop just south of San Francisco that has been specializing in artisanal wines since 1998—before anyone used the phrase “natural wine,” a term that both frustrates winemakers and confounds consumers.
Longtime natural wine champion and author of “Natural Wine for the People” Alice Feiring describes natural wine as “wine without crap in it.” That crap, especially in the hands of large-scale megaproducers, can be anything from synthetic fertilizers and lab-made yeasts to a laundry list of colorants and additives to the use of reverse osmosis machines designed to shock wine into a more homogenized product.
Natural wine rejects these practices and many others. Grapes are picked by hand. Juice is fermented with native yeasts. High-tech filtration systems are avoided. Preservatives, such as sulfur dioxide, are used sparingly, if at all. In short, it’s wine that lets the vineyard do the talking.
The problem is, consumers aren’t always attuned to the message. Most natural wine is made in small quantities by microproducers with little to no marketing budgets. And the labels themselves are famously unforthcoming when it comes to what’s actually in the bottle.
Beyond that, there’s the lingering perception among natty wine naysayers that the lack of sulfites and preservatives can result in bottles that are unpredictable and flawed, often producing funky-tasting wines that, while interesting, are short of good.
Bernardo sees it differently. “People coming at natural wine for the first time may be put off by some of the unfamiliar flavors,” he says. But in contrast, he argues, those who regularly drink it taste an altogether different set of flaws in many conventional wines, which can be “overly oaked, overly ripe, flabby and flavorless.”
“After all, [natural wines] are individually crafted, not rolled out of a factory floor, where they’re constantly edited and manipulated to produce a uniform product,” says Bernardo. Therefore, if a natural winemaker is unskilled, the mistakes are more likely to show. The key to avoiding a skunky bottle you won’t enjoy? Get your wine from a dependable source.
Call it what you want—”raw,” “naked,” “low intervention”—but a large part of natural wine’s success has been at the hands of restaurants and wine bars. And with those businesses locked into an extended purgatory as of autumn 2020, the onus has fallen on retailers to get the word out.
“Our business is up 40% since March,” says Eileen Elliott, the director of operations at Social Wines. The shop, with two locations in the Boston area, carries a deep selection of natural labels. “We’ve had to assume more of a hospitality role when it comes to natural wine. Some of the avant-garde selections can be temperamental and require a bit of explaining. Helping guests figure out how to enjoy a wine at home, as they would in a restaurant or wine bar, has really come into play for us.”
Bernardo and Elliott offered recommendations for what you should be drinking right now.
Bodega Cota 45 2017 Sanlucar de Barrameda White UBE Miraflores
“Made in the Sanlucar de Barrameda region of Spain, most famous for manzanilla sherry, this stunning white comes from vineyards that are 80 to 90 years old,” says Bernardo. “Like manzanilla, it’s aged under flor, a thin layer of indiginous yeasts that protects the wine from air contact. The result is a wine with extraordinary depth and complexity, and it clocks in at only 10.5% ABV.”
Bodegas Albamar 2019 Rías Baixas Albariño
“This lovely white, from winemaker Xurxo Alba, comes from his cellar in Cambados, Spain, close to the Atlantic Ocean,” says Elliott. “It’s an albariño al alba del mar, which means ‘next to the sea.’ I love its dry, salty edge and lean minerality. It’s a great natural alternative to everyday Sancerre.”
Day Wines 2019 Vin de Days Rouge Chehalem Mountains
“Brianne Day is amazing,” says Elliott. “From a hardworking restaurant server to mother to winemaker, Day is a true dynamo in the natural wine scene. This young red is juicy and slightly chillable, a great example of a well-made Oregon pinot, with 75% pinot noir, 24% pinot meunier and 1% pinot gris.”
Johannes Zillinger 2018 Velue Zweigelt
“This family operation in Austria’s Weinviertel region has been making wine for 350 years,” says Elliott. “Johannes Zillinger took it over in 2013, and it’s one of the first wineries in the area to convert to organic viticulture. The wine is 100% zweigelt and tastes a bit like biting into a fresh black raspberry—super vibrant and juicy, with a hint of black pepper. It makes for a great pairing with charcuterie.”