Why Is Everyone So Obsessed with Funky Wine?

10 wines that smell like a horse and taste like heaven.

funky wine
Photo: Mouse Mouse

The wine in my glass glows softly, like a dusty ruby. Its smell reminds me of horses. I set it aside for a few minutes, and when I come back to it, the horsey smell has mellowed. Now I smell not-unpleasant aromas of nail polish and dark berries. I take a sip, and it tastes like jam, grass, and leather.

I'm sitting across from Steve Hall, who is co-owner of Spencer, a restaurant and wine shop in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Spencer specializes in natural wines and locally sourced and seasonal foods. The wine in my glass is a 2013 Dolcetto from Stefano Bellotti, a renowned Italian biodynamic grower and producer. Compared to the oceans of Sangiovese and Nebbiolo sold in most wine stores, this Dolcetto is undeniably funky. It's also undeniably delicious.

"When people come in and say they want something funky, to me that means they're adventurous and they want to explore," Hall says. "It tells me they may not have a lot of knowledge or experience with natural wines, but they have an open mind." As we're talking, two women come into the shop. One of Hall's coworkers, Nina Shahin, greets the women and suggests a wine to them. One of them asks, "Is it pretty funky? We like funky."

There was a time when few wine-drinkers—and certainly no winemakers or sellers—would have used the term "funky" as a compliment. "Traditionally, funky meant that something was off," says Linda Bisson, a professor emeritus of enology and viticulture at the University of California, Davis. "If something was funky, that's when you brought in the quality control people to see what was wrong."

But times have changed. While some still use "funky" to describe a wine that has obvious or unpleasant flaws, many now employ it as a synonym for "unconventional," or as a sort of catch-all adjective for those hard-to-pin-down qualities that make natural wines unique and appealing. For fans of these wines, the right type of funk is an indicator of authenticity and low-intervention bona fides—like the erratic bulges on an heirloom tomato, or the pits and discolorations on an organic, orchard-picked apple. "Funkiness to some is a sign of quality because it means you didn't over-process or over-manipulate the wine," Bisson says.

She explains that the sorts of horsey, barnyard-y aromas I noticed in the Bellotti wine are often an indicator of Brettanomyces, or "Brett," a type of finicky cellar-dwelling yeast that so-called "conventional" winemakers try to keep out of their end product. But when done right, Bisson says Brettanomyces can be delightful. "With Brett, you can get a smokiness, you can get a light leather, you can get some savory, umami notes like vegetable or beef broth," she says. "Whether it's nice or not is all about intensity and combination."

"In the context of the right wine, Brett can give these beautiful mossy and leafy and fresh-farm notes," adds Bradford Taylor, owner of Chicago's Diversey Wine.

Like Hall, Taylor says he's accustomed to people coming into his place and asking for funky wines. "It may be overused, but I don't discourage people from using it," he says. "I feel like most of the time, when someone asks for funky they're expressing a desire for something that's unconventional." In other words, "funky" is a wine that surprises you. Funky is a wine that defies your expectations. "It could mean barnyard, or it could mean a wine that's unfiltered or hazy, or it could mean a wine that's made without sulfites or chemicals," he says. "I think it can mean a lot of different things to different people."

For those interested in exploring these wines, your best move is to visit your favorite local wine shop—ideally one that either specializes in or carries low-intervention (a.k.a., natural) wines. Expressing an interest in funk can be a helpful starting point. "From there, it becomes the job of a good caviste or somm to read that and take you in the right direction," Taylor says.

If you don't live near a wine shop that stocks natural or low-intervention wines, it can be tough to track down bottles that pack much appealing funk. Many of these wines are either narrowly distributed or produced in small quantities—or both. But if you're looking to explore the world of funky wine, the bottles on this list offer a range of styles and are relatively easy to find in stores or online.

Le Telquel by Domaine Pierre-Olivier Bonhomme ($24)

Spencer's Hall describes this Gamay as one of the wines "that really started getting people into natural Loire Valley reds." It has a little barnyard, and plenty of fresh red fruit and acidity. It's food-friendly, and a great introduction to "funky" wine.

Ratatuja Bianco Frizzante by Carolina Gatti ($24)

This sparkling Prosecco will blow the minds of those who are used to drinking sweet, cheap Italian bubbly. "It has this really wild, earthy, sandy, beachy nose to it, and to me it's different from any other Prosecco being made," Taylor says. "If someone came in and asked for a funky sparkling wine or Pet Nat, I'd steer them toward this."

Holstein Vineyard Pinot Noir by Purple Hands ($55)

This beautiful, balanced Pinot Noir from Oregon's Willamette Valley is a deep well of dark-red fruit, minerals, and savory goodness. It's a wine to sit with and consider, and so are many other offerings from Purple Hands.

Vin Rouge VDF by Clos du Tue-Boeuf ($20)

Taylor says this producer is revered in the natural wine world for his reds and whites made in the Cheverny region of the Loire Valley. "It's light and bright and has good acidity, but it also has this mossy farm-fresh quality to it," he says. "It tastes not just like the fruit, but like the whole bush."

Riesling 'Pur' by Weingut Brand ($30)

Fresh, floral, and softly salty, this wine from Germany's Brand is a massive departure from the Rieslings most Americans are accustomed to drinking. It's a little frizzy, a little hazy, and undeniably clean and drinkable. Pour this for someone who says they don't like Riesling because it's "too sweet," and watch their eyes bulge.

Cheverny "Le Point du Jour" by Domaine Philippe Tessier ($65)

This Loire blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay smells and tastes like a handful of fresh red fruit—cherries and strawberries and raspberries. But it has a balancing undercurrent that's vegetal and savory. "This hits the sweet spot for a lot of people when you're talking about funk," Hall says.

Les Lunes Brueske Vineyard Pinot Noir ($50)

This acid-forward Pinot from Carneros is a great wine for those who don't want to stray too far from the conventional. "It comes so close to being normal, but it's not in really interesting ways," says Taylor. "It's light but it has this really exuberant nose. It's a fun expression compared to other California Pinot Noir."

Rosé by Arnot-Roberts ($28)

This medium-bodied rosé from California's Arnot-Roberts is made from a blend of Touriga Nacional and Tinta Cao—two grapes that are typically found in bold red wines from Portugal. It's a seductive, salmon-pink wine that features a blend of melons and herbal notes.

Cul du Brey by Domaine de la Tournelle ($47)

This slightly fizzy red blend comes from Arbois in the Jura region of eastern France—a spot that has become famous among fans of low-intervention wines. Made with a Syrah-anchored mix of grapes, this wine is delightfully floral and herbal and just a little spicy.

Les Alpes by Domaine Belluard ($43)

This pristine, medium-bodied white from the Savoie region of France mixes tropical fruits with stones and herbs. Hall describes this wine as "like alpine water that's dripped down from Mont Blanc."

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