"It's almost spiritual, in a way," says Nick Tilly, general manager of June, a one-year-old natural wine bar in Brooklyn's Cobble Hill, of the winemaking process. Tilly launches into a story about a Catalonian natural winery called Partida Creus and its co-owner, Massimo Marchiori. When Marchiori was in New York for the city's first natural wine fair over the last weekend in February, Tilly asked him about when he decides to pluck his grapes. "I look into my soul. And that's it," Marchiori replied.
If it sounds dubious, a deeper look into the booming natural wine industry may convince you otherwise. The industry's ethos rests on the principle of interfering as little as possible in the winemaking process, the idea being that the laissez-faire method lets the terroir and grapes speak for themselves.
"It's being able to go back to traditional methods to make something that's really positive for the environment and the earth, and be able to express a time and a place," Tilly explains.
In contrast, conventional modern winemaking relies on additives such as commercial yeasts, enzymes used to extract more color and flavor, preservatives and concentrates like the famous Mega Purple, which enhances the color and lends a fruity flavor. What's more, many vineyards spray pesticides and fungicides to protect their vines.
As consumers become increasingly interested in organic, minimally processed food, as well as transparency, it stands to reason that they would show similar concerns over wine. In recent years, the wine world has been cultivating this interest in greater numbers, making it easier than ever to seek out these minimally processed wines.
But just because access to and interest in natural wine is increasing doesn't mean that it's readily understood. Though the terms natural and organic sound inviting, they in fact indicate just as much complexity and variety as wines made through modern methods. Because of the minimal interference during production, natural wines reflect the year's climate more than a commercial wine that might have been altered, so they can vary tremendously vintage to vintage. They could even change dramatically after sitting in a glass for a few minutes.
"Think of it like a Roquefort blue cheese," Jared Brandt from natural winery Donkey & Goat says. "A Roquefort may develop in your fridge over time," he explains, while a generic blue is more stable and has less personality.
Living Wines Collective's Pinot Noir vineyards in Sebastopol | Photo: Martha Stoumen
With so much potential variety, the natural wine genre is an unexpectedly complicated entry point for new wine drinkers, although it may not be as approachable as it seems.
Designations, such as organic and biodynamic complicate, rather than clarify, because different qualifications exist for organic certifications in Europe and the United States. "Current labeling laws make it very unclear as to what is or isn't organic, so that's an issue," David Lillie of Chambers Street Wine says.
For a wine to be certified organic in the U.S., it can't contain any added sulfites (preservatives), and both grapes and yeast must be certified organic. Additionally, the vineyard's land must have used organic practices for at least three years. The certification is costly and the requirements restricting, which means many winemakers eschew the official label. In Europe, on the other hand, certified organic wine can contain minimal added sulfites.
Biodynamic refers to farming practices that are sustainable and holistic, "where everything is seen as an interdependent living system," Beatrice Cointreau's Organic Wine explains. Biodynamic wine refers to wine that has undergone almost zero processing from vineyard to bottle, and wine made with biodynamic grapes allows for intervention in the winemaking process—such as adding sugar or altering acidity levels—so long as the grapes were grown biodynamically.
Meanwhile, the term natural is a safe blanket term that can apply to all minimally processed wines. However, what makes it safe also makes it sort of meaningless. In sum, labels, whether organic, biodynamic or just natural, are loose at best and entirely irrelevant in some cases.
The most common confusion surrounding all of these delineations centers around sulfites, which help preserve wine. While adding sulfites precludes American winemakers from obtaining the official organic certification, many American winemakers who are considered natural or biodynamic, such as Donkey & Goat, add a little sulfur before bottling. Adding sulfites at the end instead of during the winemaking process ensures as little manipulation as possible, which is the guiding principle of the whole movement.
So the moral of the story is this: Sulfites or no sulfites, organic certification or not, it's almost futile to judge a bottle by its label. The best bet, Lillie says, is simply getting to know the producers.
Inspecting grapes at Donkey and Goat Winery | Photo: © Erik Castro
"There's no pretentiousness in natural wine," Tilly reassures. "People really are just like a family. Everyone from the importers to the winemakers—it's a really small, tight-knit community, and you just get this incredible human sense."
"It's such a small, fun group," he continues. "At the end of the day, these winemakers are just making wine that they want people to enjoy, and that's it, so you can't help but feel a connection."
And if you're not sure where to jump in, don't start with the funkier wines, whose barnyard quality tends to come from a lack of sulfites and may alienate first-timers. Instead, go with the natural wines that are easier to appreciate. Though many American consumers perceive organic wine as automatically funky, "it's simply not true," Lillie says.
In fact, many natural wines are produced explicitly to be highly drinkable. Jay Porter, owner of The Half Orange and partner at Oakland's Salsipuedes, calls the easy-drinking stuff "crushable juice." Whether you're out to crush or not, natural wine is ultimately an "everyday product," Porter says. It's made quickly and is meant to be enjoyed casually.
Once you've gotten to know producers and flavor profiles you like, you can experiment with the funkier varieties. After all, whether it's a subtly funky flavor or a cloudiness, "a little flaw allows you to appreciate the beauty," Brandt points out.
Pressing grapes at Donkey and Goat Winery | Photo: © Erik Castro
You can explore at the growing crop of natural wine stores like New York's Wine Therapy and San Francisco's Terroir, and at natural wine bars—a trend unto itself, thanks to newcomers like June and The Four Horsemen. You'll also find an increasing number of restaurants, like Salsipuedes and New York's Wildair, which are building wine lists that exclusively feature natural producers.
Wherever your preferences take you, trust your gut, because that's the whole point: It's a movement meant to highlight distinction, hard to define but easy to love. Explore, enjoy and as, Partida Creus's winemaker does, don't be afraid to look into your soul.
Here are some great natural winemakers to start with:
From California, check out Broc Cellars, the Living Wines Collective and Donkey & Goat. From France, try Benoit Courault ("Le Petit Chemin" Chenin Blanc is "very affordable," Tilly says), Jérôme Jouret (which is "super drinkable and ripe," Tilly says) or Philippe Tessier. From Italy, "anything from Cascina degli Ulivi is "really approachable" and "also affordable."