On a Sunday morning last November, the natural wine world’s biggest party was kicking off in a yeast-scented Brooklyn warehouse, where hundreds of winemakers, industry types, fans of the art, and members of the drinking press were tasting and spitting as fast as they could.
Some of the wines were elegant, others earthy and rustic. Some popped with fruit; others tasted of smoke and savory spice. Some blazed with acidity, intensely aromatic and jumping with the fresh flavors of fermentation. Others were soft, honeyed, and subdued. Still others tasted like a wild animal had slept in the fermentation tanks (in a good way!).
The annual New York installation of the RAW Wine fair—a multi-city event showcasing several hundred producers whose wines must meet strict criteria—was a celebration of the intense, pastoral flavors that inhabit what has come to be called natural wine.
One row of tables was particularly mobbed: a contingent of winemakers from The Republic of Georgia pouring glass after glass for giddy tasters. The Georgian wines were among the fair’s most unusual: enticingly savory to funky to searingly astringent. But their popularity illustrates the current rage for natural wine.
The production methods—unchanged for thousands of years—epitomize the sacred hands-off approach that has swept up a community of wine drinkers in a crusade against the industrial winemaking model. But it’s the way natural wines taste that has its most ardent supporters electrified.
Natural wines vary enormously from one another, but if you taste a natural wine next to your average grocery store booze bomb, the differences are immediately clear. Many conventional wines are chemically engineered to taste a certain way, usually an approximation of something popular that came before. Natural wines are untouched—the winemaker’s job is to maintain a healthy ecosystem for the grapes to grow and a nurturing facility in which to ferment. As a result, they taste like they’ve come in from an invigorating, refreshing, slightly sweaty day exploring nature’s bounty—alive and vigorously mutable, sip to sip, glass to glass, bottle by bottle.
“There’s so much bottle variation,” says Craig Heffley, owner of the Triangle’s two Wine Authorities shops. “Even if you are given the same thing over and over, it’s like a different wine.”
These qualities attract not just wine nerds looking for the next big thing, but people of all stripes who support sustainable food systems. Natural wine has been popular in France for a decade and a half, but it really began taking off among American oenophiles about five years ago—and not just in New York.
Restaurants, bars, and wine shops all over North Carolina are brimming with these wines, although whether they are identified as “natural” depends on who is making the lists.
At Durham’s Bar Brunello, which specializes in orange wine, owner Esteban Brunello says that because he works with small, independent producers—many of whom have been farming and making wines the same way for generations—most of the wines he pours could be considered natural. But they’re not designated as such on the menu.
“Orange wines are mostly natural anyway,” Brunello says. “To me, natural wines are just something I enjoy the flavor of. Sometimes they get weird, sometimes not.”
The term may have captured the zeitgeist, but there’s no set definition for what constitutes a natural wine. It’s generally agreed that the grapes must be organically or biodynamically farmed, hand harvested, and the wines must ferment spontaneously with no added yeast or additives. The use of sulfites is acceptable only in minuscule amounts, and the wines are not clarified and are usually unfiltered.
Within this framework, however, there is an enormous amount of variation, which can be confusing for the average drinker. Heffley estimates that nine out of ten customers who ask for natural wines are doing so out of curiosity rather than knowing what they’re looking for.
So far, defining natural wine has been up to a group of associations and certifiers, each with different criteria. Some require organic or biodynamic certification, while others rely on the producer’s word to ensure organic farming methods. New oak barrels are typically eschewed but not banned outright. Filtration is welcomed by some, taboo for others.
The use of sulfites as a preservative is another sticking point. Producers at the RAW Wine fair are allowed a total of 70 mg/L, but other organizations and certification groups permit as much as 100 mg or as little as 20 mg. These amounts are vanishingly small compared to conventionally made wine, but depending on whom you talk to, a few milligrams here or there can determine whether a wine is “natural.”
Like any artisan community with passionate practitioners and apostles, differences of opinion can lead to argument.
“It’s so politicized,” says Jay Murrie of Durham’s Piedmont Wine Imports. (Disclosure: The author’s wife works for Piedmont Wine Imports.) “In the Wine Nerd Universe, it’s hard to have these conversations because everyone has such staked-out opinions.”
Murrie prefers “a big-tent approach,” where bona fides aren’t determined by a rigid set of guidelines.
“[Even] the producers that I import who are the least ‘natural wine’ are exponentially better stewards of the land and making much healthier products than the agribusiness industrial producers who make the bulk majority of the wines that people encounter,” he says.
Heffley, who estimates that 5–10 percent of Wine Authorities’ wines adhere to the strictest natural-wine guidelines, agrees that there are other ways to reject the Wine Industrial Complex. In fact, it’s a core part of his philosophy.
“Wine Authorities is a reaction to industrial wine,” Heffley says. “[We work] only with small family farmers who control the entire process.”
But being a part of the natural wine community—and intentionally following the rules set by its most venerated practitioners—can carry meaning beyond a simple rejection of mass-produced wine. John Hale, who owns Asheville’s Crocodile Wine, chooses his selections according to the strict guidelines of his mentor, the celebrated sommelier Lee Campbell.
To Hale, making wine this way and selling the resulting products is as much an act of defiance as a hunt for a certain style.
“Choosing to farm this way is inherently political,” he says. “It’s a stance against chemicals and a stance against industrial agriculture. There is no way to make natural wine on a large industrial scale, so making it is taking a stance.”
“Natural wine seems to be a reaction from winemakers against these industrial people who are allowed to make ‘Frankenwines,’” Heffley adds. “It’s a reaction to something they found distasteful.”
Natural wine is nothing if not trendy, which has led to skepticism from some corners of the wine world. Without rules and a firm definition, Heffley is concerned that natural wine will be taken over by the same corporate interests absorbing the craft beer movement.
Murrie has already seen inferior “natural” wines in the market, skating by on buzzwords and hip labels.
But trends can also help a small community reach larger audiences.
“People need trends to move forward,” Brunello says. “Trends can expose people to a product and help them understand it.”
Five Natural Wines to Seek Out on Local Shelves
Visintini, Rosato (Merlot)
Venezia Giulia, Italy, 2017
Hitting the glass in a splash of vivacious pink, this rosato (rosé) strikes a balance between juicy red fruit and herbal complexity. Bone-dry and full-bodied, this is an excellent pink wine for hearty winter meals. ($16)
Combel La Serre, Le Pur Fruit du Causse (Malbec)
Cahors, France, 2017
This is a Malbec from its ancestral home in Southwest France, and it bears little resemblance to its Argentine cousins outside of its gorgeous deep purple-black color. Fermented and aged in cement tanks, this is bright, minerally, and silky with blackberry fruit. ($19)
Morella, Mezzanotte (Primitivo)
Puglia, Italy, 2016
Lisa Gilbee of Morella is redefining Primitivo in suddenly fashionable Puglia, Italy’s boot heel. This is a big and powerful wine, but one that doesn’t overwhelm with jammy, warm fruit. Cherry and herb give way to notes of cocoa and licorice for a graceful finish. ($23)
Meinklang, Juhfark “J13”
Somló, Hungary, 2013
Meinklang maintains wild and wooly biodynamic vineyards on both sides of the Austria-Hungary border, and they stole the show at RAW Wine 2018. This is a decadent white, with rich flavors of pear and honeysuckle balanced by fiery acidity. ($29)
Bichi, Listan Prieto
Baja California, Mexico, 2017
Listán Prieto (or Misión) is possibly the first vitis vinifera grape varietal to be planted in the New World. This wine comes from hundred-year-old dry-farmed vines in the mountains outside Tecate. Floral and spicy with threads of sunbaked earth, this is made for N.C. barbecue. Serve this red wine chilled. ($33)