Vins au Natural

By Kerry Newberry

Natural wine bars led by natural wine crusaders are clandestinely converting palates from the East Village in New York City to downtown San Francisco. Right now, San Francisco has one. London and New York have two. Paris, city of lights, is blessedly overflowing and has been that way for years.

It’s a bit soon to be calling it a movement anywhere but Paris; according to the website, Paris has more natural wine shops, bars and restaurants than any other city. The website even provides a map, highlighting over 30 spots to indulge au natural. One notable institution, Le Baratin, has been around since 1987. Owner Philippe Pinoteau boasts one of the city’s greenest cellars and pours over 20 natural wines by the glass.   

What is natural wine?

The definition is complex, varied and evolving. Cory Cartwright, a San Francisco-based wine blogger, who just finished his “31 Days of Natural Wine” project, said “Natural wine usually comes in four definitions: organic/biodynamic, natural yeast, zero sulfur and blends of all three.”

It is this last category that is shaking up the wine world.

A category championed by wine writer Alice Feiring for years, natural wines are made with nothing added to the grapes—except maybe a little bit of sulfur before bottling—and nothing taken out, such as alcohol and acidity.

Ten Bells Natural Wine Bar in New York City considers a wine natural when the winemakers use organic methods not only in the vineyard but in the cellar as well. Wines made with as minimal intervention as possible, indigenous wild yeast, no sugar added, very low or no sulfites and no collage.

Artisan & Vine, London’s first wine bar to specialize in local and natural wines defines natural wines as “wines made using organic or biodynamic, low yielding vineyards; minimal or no added sulphites and indigenous yeasts.” The exclusive addendum to their definition includes local bottlings, “grapes grown, fermented and bottled within a two-hour drive of Battersea.”

Then there are the existential terroir-ists. New York and San Francisco both have natural wine bars named Terroir, both led by fervent wine revolutionaries. One that leaves a lasting impression is the tall, dark and handsome Paul Grieco at Terroir in New York City.   

Taking advantage of wine video, he shares the manifesto for Terroir wearing vintage head gear that is not at all distracting. The key message he imparts: At Terroir, we only select beverages that sing their sense of place.   

A black and white slideshow further clarifies their intent, stating, “One thing we demand of our grapes is that they express clearly and profoundly a sense of place. This is what the French call terroir. It does not refer strictly to soil but to all the elements that make the place the place.”  

On Oregon’s list of natural wines—looking at the no-added sulfite definition—the names are few, but the list is bound to grow.

Amity Vineyards makes a label called ECO-WINE®. These particular wines are made with no added sulfites and organic grapes; and varieties include: Gamay Noir, Marechal Foch and a Chardonnay/Pinot Blanc blend. Cooper Mountain, largely known as a biodynamic entity here in Oregon, also makes a sulfite-free wine called Life, using organic grapes and organic winery practices.

As far as natural wine bars here in the Beaver State, there are none yet, but for Sommelier Michael Garofola of Tabla Restaurant in Northeast Portland, such a place would suit him to a tee. He is a fan of natural wine, and makes it a point to include them on his eatery’s wine list.

“As a sommelier you taste a lot of different wines over and over again and there comes a point where you are tasting the same thing, no matter where they are from,” he said. “There’s a lot of sameness in the wine world. You wonder why does this country taste just like this country.”

When he first discovered natural wines he had the same reaction that many of his guests do: these wines taste completely different. “It smells like it’s actually alive in the glass. It’s vibrant,” he said. “I was intrigued by the first few tastes and started to request more from a specific portfolio.”

All of the wines were really unique. “Sometimes I’d stick my nose in a glass, and I would think I’ve never smelled anything like this before. What is this?”

Garofola has since traveled to France, visited natural winemakers and sipped in the natural wine shrines of Paris. He now features four to six natural wines by the glass at Tabla and often highlights them in the Tabla Tuesday tastings. Natural wines are not for everyone though, he said. “Often people are taken aback when they first smell one, and send it back because they think it might be off.”

Most however, are intrigued by the wines. “I’d like to see more natural wines being brought into our market,” Garofola said. “I’m going to do my part, supporting these artisanal winemakers and continuing to spread the gospel.”

Viva la revolucion!

Kerry Newberry is a Pinot-sipping, vineyard-hopping wine and food writer. She resides in Portland.

Natural Wine Bars Around the World

The Ten Bells
247 Broome Street
New York, NY 10002
Tel: 212-228-4450

413 E. 12th Street
New York, NY 10009
Tel: 646-602-1300

Terroir Natural Wine Merchant
1116 Folsom Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
Tel: 415-558-9946

Le Baratin
3 rue Jouye Rouve, 20th Arrondissement
Paris, 75011
Tel: 33 1 43 49 39 70

Crus et Decouvertes
7, rue Paul Bert
Paris, 75011
Tel: 33 1 43 71 56 79

La Cave de I’Insolite
30, rue de la Folie-Mericourt
Paris, 75011
Tel: 33 1 53 46 08 33

Terroirs Natural Wine Bar
5 William IV Street
London, WC2N 4DW
Tel: 0207 036 0660

Artisan & Vine
126 St. John’s Hill
London, SW11 1SL
Tel: 020 72284997

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