So called “natural wines” are not new. There have always been winemakers who believe that great wines are made in the vineyard and too much creative intervention in the winery will cover up the distinctive flavors of the soil and climate in which the grapes are grown. But the technological advances in winemaking over the past 30 years have given winemakers extraordinary control over the winemaking process and the tendency today is to use technology to eliminate flaws, reduce vintage variation, and shape wines to conform to the preferences of consumers for smooth, easy drinking, consistent juice. The result is remarkably dependable wines, sometimes great, but often mediocre and homogeneous.
Enter the contemporary “natural wine” movement that would like to see us return to the days when all the vagaries, risks and rewards of nature are writ in the flavors and textures of the wine. Their approach is to resist as much as possible manipulating the wine, refusing to use the apparatus of modern industrial methods and chemical additives to adjust flavors and textures or correct flaws. This is a dicey proposition since bad weather or a misstep in the vineyard or winery can result in disaster, and one never knows from one vintage to the next what the final product will taste like. All the risk and uncertainty is part of the fun.
Not every natural wine is worth drinking; the risks are real. But when it works the result can be extraordinary—unique wines with fresh, vibrant, complex flavors, and all the excitement that comes with having won the lottery.
If you haven’t tried them you should. And if you happen to live in the San Diego area, the best opportunity to taste a line-up of natural wines is Vinavanti, an urban winery in Mira Mesa. Their line-up of Rhone varietals is nothing short of extraordinary. Winemaker Eric Van Drunen is the King of No—no oak, no added acidity, no added sulfites, no commercial yeast, no added tannins, no added enzymes, no fining, and no filtering. Much of this is heresy in the winemaking business, but it takes a good heretic once in a while to keep the world afloat.
My favorite was the Mourvèdre.
On the nose, dark plum but some strawberry jam as well, with a bouquet of flowers nestled within thick fumes of tarragon and smoke. Bold, fresh, mouth-coating, ripe fruit on the palate, almost caramel-like but with considerable finesse, light on the tongue despite its size. A slight effervescence contributes to this feeling of buoyancy. Tannins are apparent but elegant and flavorful, supporting charred meat flavors on the finish.
Mourvèdre is typically not shy; it is in-your-face and often unusual and distinctive. This wine immediately gives the impression of originality and will strike you as odd at first. It is the most thrilling wine I have had all year.