Maybe you’ve heard it through the grapevine: Natural wines are in. There’s a grape debate, from the exact definition to shelf life, but these passionate producers typically use biodynamic or organic farming and do little intervening in the cellar. That means skipping additives that conventional winemakers use to deliver consistency: loads of sulfites, more sugars and yeasts, plus gelatin, food coloring, egg whites and oak chips—none of which has to be listed on the bottle. (Yet another reason to hate labels.)
“You’re letting the grapes sing their own song,” according to Sara Markey, co-owner of 7-month-old Field & Vine, who set up her restaurant around the corner from where she met and worked with Andrew Brady at Bronwyn. Now the couple churns out dishes using locally sourced produce, dairy and meats with a minimal carbon footprint—a philosophy that extends to their wine program. Says Markey, “It just seemed like: If we’re committing ourselves so much to food this way, how can we not be just as committed to the drinks that we pour?”
So, what can a natural wine drinker expect? “You’re going to find flavors that you aren’t necessarily used to,” Markey explains, though she insists you could dive into a natural wine and never know that’s what you’re drinking. Americans are accustomed to big, bold, upfront notes, and—with words like funky and barnyard swirling around the natural wine world—you might come across beer-like brettanomyces or “mousiness” when you first uncork a bottle. “That might be off-putting to some people,” Markey admits. “But if you know what you’re signing yourself up for, that can be really exciting.” And there can also be some inconsistencies from bottle to bottle—though detecting those nuances can be part of the fun: “I think people who understand that process are almost just as excited about that because it’s alive. You’re seeing how the grape has transformed.”
Markey says the most fun aspect, however, is falling in love with the vintners’ backgrounds, from the Loire Valley’s Jean-Pierre Robinot, who listens for symphonies in his barrels of chenin blanc and pineau d’aunis, to Frank Cornelissen, whose vineyard sits atop Mount Etna. Like New York chef-turned-rapper and natural wine enthusiast Action Bronson, Markey’s a fan of Cornelissen’s Contadino. “It’s just so good. It’s floral and it’s mineral-driven and there’s so much to think about and go back to with each sip.” Field & Vine guests agree—a few who got a taste came back the same week for more.
And those oenophiles are on to something; with small-batch production comes higher turnover on the wine list. Field & Vine blew through two cases of Boaz from Evan Lewandowski, who harvests grapes in California and drives them back to his Utah home. “Now we’re just waiting for the next vintage to come out. Once you get down to just a few bottles, I start to feel like maybe I should take it off the list and just keep it for us,” Markey jokes. So, you might want to get your hands on the limited-edition prizes while you can. Bring your thirst—and an open mind.
Follow your nose to these restaurants stocked with natural wines for picks from the pros themselves.
Forlorn Hope Dragone Ramato
Made of pinot gris fermented on the skins, this tangy, floral bottle ($55) is listed as an orange wine at Tasting Counter. It’s made at a Sierra Foothills ranch by Matthew Rorick, who beverage director Justin Spaller considers one of the most exciting natural winemakers in California.
Roland Pignard Morgon
This husband-and-wife team has overseen the same 11 acres since 1977, plowing the vineyards by horse and harvesting the grapes by hand. Café G chef Peter Crowley loves this 100-percent gamay Beaujolais ($14, glass) for its “wild character” that can stand up to roasts or richer meat dishes.
Togni Rebaioli Martina Rosato
At Enrico Togni’s Lombardian vineyard, sheep graze for weeds among erbanno, a nearly extinct grape that’s used for this rosé ($15, glass; $50, bottle), which Babbo sommelier Luis Betancur says has finishing notes of pomegranate and raspberry.
Domaine du Pech Le Pech Abusé
Hailing from little-known French appellation Buzet, this blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc is released as it’s ready—2009 is the current vintage. Puritan & Company wine director Peter Nelson says this bottle ($65) has turned the most die-hard cabernet fans into natural wine believers.