Weird and Wonderful: Natural wines, the funky punk-rock stars of the wine world, are coming into vogue
Purists will love the idea of natural wines. They’re made from grapes that are grown using organic practices, for starters, but they’re also unadulterated in the winemaking process. In a nutshell, the philosophy is to let the grapes do what they do, add nothing (or very little) and take nothing away. To me, the minimal use of sulphur dioxide is what defines “natural,” but it’s also the reason natural wines have only a tiny presence at the LCBO. Without sulphites, wines can easily oxidize, become vinegary or even overdevelop gamey flavours related to a yeast called Brettanomyces (a.k.a. brett). Poorly made natural wines can exhibit all of these flaws to varying degrees. Even the best are often judged as atypical because they fly in the face of today’s polished, cleansed, commercial wines. Like funky cheese, they’re an acquired taste. But they deliver penetrating fruit depth and exquisite textural lustre. The flavours can be authentic and expressive in a way that processed wines are not. My preconceptions cracked wide open after tasting dozens of offerings from importers like Nicholas Pearce, the Living Vine and Le Caviste at Archive Wine Bar, Toronto’s epicentre of the natural wine movement. Here are a few of my favourites and the restaurants that serve them.
Tawse 2014 Unfiltered Quarry Road Chardonnay
Niagara | 91 Points
Wineries can be coy about saying “natural” on labels, because definitions and perceptions vary. The fine print here says “produced without the introduction of sulphites.” The wine shows minimal oxidation, lovely pear and spice flavours and fine, creamy texture, with a mineral finish typical of the Quarry Road site. Look for it at Barque, Chantecler and Böehmer.
Domaine J. P. Picard 2014 Sancerre
Loire Valley, France | 92 Points
From a 400-year-old vineyard, this biodynamically produced, low-sulphur white captures classic sauvignon blanc lime, fresh herb and green chestnut aromas. It’s intense and pure, with rich texture yet brilliant acidity and balance, plus outstanding length. Try it at the Black Hoof, Canoe and DaiLo.
La Vinyeta 2013 Heus Negre
Emporda, Spain | 90 Points
Grenache, syrah and carignan grapes grown in the granite soil of Emporda, a small Catalonian region on the French border, deliver this charming red blend. No funk here. It shows lovely perfumed, floral, plummy-berry fruit flavours set in a smooth, ultra-fresh texture. A great summer red. Available at Hopgood’s Foodliner, Bar Isabel and Archive.
Domaine Viret 2012 Cuvée Renaissance
France | 93 Points
Southern Rhône varieties like grenache, syrah, carignan and mourvedre, all farmed according to “principles of geo-biology and flows of energy,” come together in this low–sulphur red. It’s intense and concentrated yet lively, with almost piercing sour plum and cherry fruit aromas. Try it at Dandylion, Midfield Wine Bar and George.
Movia 2011 Ribolla
Slovenia | 93 Points
Situated right on the border of Italy’s Collio region, Movia’s organic vineyards go back eight generations. Ribolla is a local white variety lifted to amazing heights with an exotic nose woven with pineapple, fennel and honey. It’s a lush wine, but shows great acidity, focus and concentration. Try it at Hopgood’s, Archive and The Chase Fish and Oyster.
Yannick Pelletier NV L’Oiselet
St. Chinian, France | 89 Points
This winery in Languedoc in southern France uses no sulphites, period, and even goes so far as to steam clean bottles rather than dust them with sulphite as wineries normally do. There is “bretty” gaminess here, then an explosion of wild sour plum fruit (grenache, carignan, cinsault) with violets and licorice. It’s powerful yet poised, with fine, silky tannin. Try it at Edulis, Bar Isabel or Richmond Station.
Occhipinti 2014 SP68
Sicily | 91 points
This is a youthful, energetic and deliciously gulpable warm-weather red from native nero d’avola and frapatto grapes. No oak, no funk, just lovely, fragrant aromas of red roses and wildberry set in a juicy, tart, slightly spritzy texture. Find it at Woodlot, Midfield Wine Bar and Fat Pasha.