Even though natural wine is an increasingly popular wine category, it lacks a precise definition. Stacey Khoury-Diaz, owner of Dio Wine Bar in Washington, D.C., says most experts describe natural wine as wine where the grapes are farmed organically or biodynamically and where there’s little to no intervention in the cellar.
However, there are some natural wine producers who do add things in the cellar such as sulfur (sulfites) to keep the wine stable. “This is where the gray area is right now,” says Bobby Stuckey, owner and master sommelier of Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, Colorado. “The concept of natural wine has not yet been codified like biodynamics and organics winemaking, so there is a lot of misinformation out there. There is not an official set of rules about what makes a natural wine at this point.”
Despite the murky definition, Matt Tunstall, partner of AOC Hospitality and co-owner of Stems & Skins in Charleston, South Carolina, considers natural wine a break from commercial plonk that fills the grocery store shelves. “It really is in conjunction with the farm-to-table food movement. People are becoming more and more concerned with what they put in their bodies, from a food and beverage standpoint, and I think that natural wine gives them a sense of wines that are better for them,” he says.
To be sure the wines under consideration are indeed natural, Khoury-Diaz suggests asking very specific questions such as: Are the grapes farmed with chemical pesticides or herbicides? Is the winemaker inoculating or using native yeast? Are the winemakers fining or filtering? And are there sulfites added—if so, how many?
Imperfection is often a hallmark of many natural wines, because of the lack of any chemical inputs to manage flaws—hence the final product can be fizzy or a trifle cloudy. Tunstall embraces that unpredictable dynamic in natural wine. “I don’t have to drink perfect wines all the time. A little bacteria or a little volatile acidity can add unique flavors and textures,” he says.
However, Stuckey of Frasca suggests that wine buyers strive to be more disciplined when delving into natural wines. “It is important to avoid getting caught in the romance of having a natural wine. Our job as the sommelier is to know if a wine is flawed. We should not try to romance that flawed wine to the guest.”
How you approach the flaws sometimes found in natural wine depends largely on the community you are serving, explains Khoury-Diaz. “If you’re in a city or community that has very firm ideas about how certain varietals or regions should taste, then you will probably meet resistance with some natural wines. In Washington, D.C., we get plenty of folks that are excited and curious about the wines we serve as well.”
As far as natural wines to try, Stuckey recommends pouring the macerated white wine selections (some call these orange wines) from northern Italy. “Many forget the whole macerated movement started in Collio, Italy. They have been producing natural wines for over 20 years and they have a lot to share with one another, so these wines are really well made and consistent.” Two producers he likes are Damijan Podversic and Josko Gravner. Given the extended skin time, these wines are wonderful with veal shank or with richer dishes that can deal with tannins.
Khoury-Diaz notes that while the “culty” natural wine brands like Partida Creus, Gut Oggau, and Frank Cornelissen are deserving of their status, they always get the love. Instead, she recommends wines from Vermont’s biodynamic winery La Garagista, Mariam Losebidze’s wines from the nation of Georgia, Kelley Fox Wines from Oregon, and the wines from Weingut Koppitsch winery in Austria.
Tunstall is fond of the French wines of Domaine Mosse, Domaine Matassa, and Domaine Rimbert, and the Italian wines of Walter Massa at Vigneti Massa. “As far as pairings, we plate a lot of tinned seafood at Stems & Skins so we keep a good selection of high-acid, salty, coastal, white wines that flourish with these dishes.”
Quirks aside, Stuckey says that her customers love talking about natural wine. “It’s a great buzzword, they are very interested and there is so much talk about on the subject. More importantly, customers love to hear about the passion and commitment behind how their wine is made.”