For our winter focus — which officially got underway in earnest last week to give everyone time to recover from the holidays — we’re changing things up a bit. Instead of spotlighting a region (like Oregon) or a style (like rosé), we’re taking a closer look at an ideology: the natural wine movement. If you haven’t noticed, natural wines are kind of having a moment right now — but they’ve been around, well, since some blessed soul discovered what happens when you let grape juice sit around too long.
The current trend, however, is rooted in a reformation that took place in the past 10-15 years that saw a number of prominent critics, winemakers and sommeliers call bullshit on the Hedonistic Fruitbomb style that had come to dominate first the New World and, increasingly, the Old. These were wines that, from the vineyard to the bottling line, had gone through an endless sequence of manipulations — microoxygenation, reverse osmosis, multiple filtrations, massive doses of oak, even, in some more heinous cases, the addition of color extracts like Mega Purple — to arrive at what is known as The International Style: heavy, decadent, jammy, often unbalanced wines aimed squarely at the pleasure centers. In the process, they've also been systematically denuded of a sense of place.
Natural winemakers reject all that. If great wine is made in the vineyard — a line you hear maybe a little too often when natural wine comes up — then his or her job is simply to stay out of the way and let the grapes tell their story. That means no interventionist processes, no corrections for color or acidity, an aversion toward cultivated yeasts and new oak, a laissez-faire attitude toward ambient bacteria like brettanomyces, and some serious philosophical wrestling with whether to use sulfur dioxide or not. (Some do, many don’t.)
Natural wines are risky as hell. They don’t always taste the way we’ve been conditioned to expect wines to taste. They can be funky and tart and thin. Sometimes they’re best decanted directly down the drain. They're inconsistent by design. But when everything aligns, they can be revelatory — a Russian novel’s worth of detail into the intimacies of terroir and vintage in the glass. We’re looking forward to bringing back a number of our favorite natural producers over the next few months and sharing new ones with you. Keep an open mind and an open palate — you’re bound to be surprised.