Natural Wine for Naysayers

F&W's Ray Isle used to think that natural wines were just weird. Then a tasting with a passionate believer surprised him.

Natural Wines for Naysayers
Photo: Courtesy of Agnès et René Mosse

At a dinner party once, an actor from Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company told me that there was really only one way to deal with an awful performance by a friend. When you met him or her backstage, you said, "I thought your interpretation"—of Hamlet, Blanche DuBois, a talking dog, whatever—"was really very interesting."

This is how I have long felt about "natural" wines. The natural wine movement believes in minimal human intervention: no chemicals of any kind, no yeasts that came out of a factory, little or no sulfur as a preservative, no oak, no filtering and the least amount of technology possible. Adherents are big on things like draft horses and amphorae; reverse osmosis machines and color-intensifying enzymes are the work of the devil.

Don't get me wrong: Philosophically and even morally it's all very appealing. I just think that the wines, more often than not, taste like hell. Yet many people I respect love these wines. I'll ask a somm pal at a downtown New York City restaurant to pour me something he or she thinks is amazing, and out will come some sort of cloudy, algae-smelling weirdness that seems like it was made by unwashed French hobbits. I'll drink my glass and then, because I have good manners, when asked about it I'll say, "You know, that is really very interesting."

In an attempt to unknot this problem, I decided to ask my friend Alice Feiring—a doyenne of natural wines who is the writer behind The Feiring Line blog and newsletter—to meet me at Wildair wine bar in Manhattan. I told her I wanted her to see if she could find a natural wine on the list that I would actually like. Her response was to laugh.

Not surprising. Alice and I go back a ways and have a long-standing joke that if she loves a wine, I will almost certainly hate it, and vice versa. It's been a remarkably reliable gauge, though we do both have a fondness for old Rioja.

The first thing Alice pointed out once we were seated was that I might not have had much experience with natural wines from the past five years or so. I admitted this was true, as I tended to avoid them. She explained that the natural wine movement wasn't all that old, when you came down to it, and many of its adherents had been learning as they went. "A lot of these guys weren't that experienced when they started," she told me.

"The earlier days were funkier and weirder," she said, referring roughly to the era before 2000. "For example, people were putting wine into bottles too soon. Plus, not everyone realized what it meant not to work with perfectly clean grapes and to be completely clean in the cellar. So there was a lot of refermentation in the bottle. But eventually that first generation got tired of shipping wines and having them explode in transit."

Fair enough; I would, too. This conversation rolled along over glasses of a lightly sparkling Loire Valley wine that she'd ordered, Agnès and René Mosse's Moussamoussettes. René, Alice said, was one of the gods of natural wine. Based in Anjou, he and his wife had originally owned a wine bar in Tours. Through it they met a lot of local vintners and eventually ended up selling the bar and a few years later, in 1999, buying a vineyard. The liquid in my glass, a blend of the obscure Loire variety Grolleau Gris with a little Gamay and Cabernet, was orange in hue and fizzy, with a lightly musky juiciness. It was weird but charming; you ended up curious about its origins, like someone you meet at a party with an unidentifiable accent. I liked the wine (and I loved its name). Would I have rather had it than a glass of Bollinger? No.

"L'Anglore has become as scarce as cult Cabernets once were. Which does make me wonder: Can a wine smell like irony?"

Our plan was to delve deeper into weirdness as the evening progressed, but the next wine, a 2014 L'Anglore Terre d'Ombre, a Grenache from Tavel, in the Rhône Valley, was hardly over-the-top strange. Spicy and bright, it was light and vivid in a way that Rhône Grenaches often aren't. L'Anglore's owner-winemaker, Eric Pfifferling, is a former beekeeper. I think that's great. We should have more beekeepers dropping everything to make a few cases of weird, geeky wine.

Although definitely offbeat—I don't usually think of radish as an aroma I get from Grenache—Pfifferling's wine was also incredibly appealing. If I'd been in a dark mood, its lively nature would have cheered me right up. "Now this," I said, "I like." Unfortunately, I learned, so does everyone else. Obsessively hunted by the somm crowd, bottles of L'Anglore are as scarce as California cult Cabernets once were. Which does make me wonder: Can a wine smell like irony?

"Let's try something more challenging," Alice suggested. After a glance at the wine list, she picked a white from Cantina Giardino in southern Italy. Tannic, dark yellow and cloudy, it smelled to me like chicken soup and Band-Aids. We had definitely achieved weirdness, and if the L'Anglore was representative of the new, less overtly funky wave of natural wines, this one recalled the bad old days of unclean cellars and sketchy winemaking. I said as much, but Alice was undaunted: "To me, it has a healthful quality. It just feels so very drinkable. Part of what spurred the whole natural wine movement was this feeling that too much was being done to wine. This wine is the antithesis of that."

Finally we ordered the 2013 Mendall Espartal CS, a Cabernet Sauvignon from Laureano Serres, a winemaker in Spain's Terre Alta region. "This is what I'd call a hard-core natural wine," Alice said. In her monthly newsletter, particularly outré bottles—"hard-core"—are designated with a yellow fist-to-your-face emoji. "Laureano is a nut, but he's a beautiful artist. Sometimes his wines are gorgeous as well as alive, but he can definitely be a little uneven. And he'd rather sell off his wife and children than add sulfur."

What can I say? Maybe pawn the family and add just a little sulfur? The wine smelled awful in a way that I, personally, just couldn't get past: burnt matches mingling with a potent aroma of sauerkraut. Even Alice admitted that she didn't love it. "But I can drink it," she said. "And he does make other wines I love. See, to me, a glass of Kistler" —one of California's most sought-after Chardonnays— "has no drinkability. It's made for a specific taste, a market. It never surprises me. I can take a few sips out of intellectual curiosity, but that's it."

Which I think is a good point, odd as it sounds. An argument I've made in the past about natural wine lovers is that for them, belief trumps taste: To them, it matters more that a wine was made without industrial yeasts and so on than that it tastes foul. But since sitting down with Alice, I've decided that may not be true. Instead, as with relationships, part of the problem simply might be that what one person loves, another may find unbearable.

Consider this: A couple of weeks after my dinner with Alice, I bought what I'd consider a "hard-core" natural wine—the 2013 d'Agalis "Yo No Puedo Màs"—and served it to my in-laws. (Whether it's fair to them or not, they're my control group for what normal humans think of a wine.) A red blend from France's Languedoc region, it smells, more or less, of both a barnyard and the animals in it. But if you could get past that, the wine does have lots of fruitiness and verve.

As it happened, every one of my in-laws loathed it—comments ranged from "Ugh!" and "What is that?" to "Jesus, give me a beer"—except for one of my wife's cousins. She said, with a shrug, "Well, I like it. I think you're all nuts."

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