Even though natural wines are not so well-known far from the connoisseurs’ circuits, they are gaining more space in the gastronomy scene: in the wineries, in the wine-cellar shelves and, more recently, in the lists of restaurants and bars. If previously more restricted to modern and alternative wine bars frequented by millennials eyeing fashionable bottles, now the natural wines movement took by storm high-end venues around the world, even in very select lists with rare bottles from acclaimed wineries.
Natural wines are a genre in which the grapes are farmed following organic or biodynamic precepts, and the wine is produced with minimal artifice or manipulation, avoiding chemical compounds throughout the process, keeping to the maximum natural characteristics of the grape. There is no consensus on a single definition about it, but many sommeliers and wine directors agree that they can offer something new to their guests – that's why an increasing number of them are seeking to work with natural options in their lists.
In big cities like New York, for example, there are already many restaurants that opted to embrace the “natural wave” in the bottles. Frenchette, a restaurant whose chefs and owners have, among their credentials, made Minetta Tavern a massive success in town, was one of the pioneers in this path. Wine director Jorge Riera has selected a list entirely focused on naturals, rather than going for the safer options commonly served at high-end French restaurants, that pour vintage Champagne and expensive bottles from the best producers in France.
Rieva says he wants to offer wonderful discoveries for his guests, eager for new flavors. “I believe the diner's attention is drawn to these wines because of their interest in flavor and taste. It is just like in gastronomy: what attracts you is not only the ingredients but how they are used in the kitchen by the chef", he explains.
For him, natural wines are alive and fresh and, gastronomically speaking, they have bright acidity to cut through fat (especially if we talk about French cuisine), they can bring out and enhance flavors in many recipes. “The more conventional wines are muted, mainly heavy and tend to collide with food as opposed to lift its flavors”, Riera says.
He says he is thrilled with the fact that many acclaimed restaurants around the world (like El Celler de Can Roca, Mugaritz, Ralæ, and Noma, “just to name a few”) have given these wines the proper exposure alongside foods whose ingredients have the same philosophy and history behind them and are able to show the perfect marriage between food and wine.
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In Mugaritz, the restaurant run by the trailblazer chef Andoni Luis Aduriz, in Spain's Basque Country, wine has an essential role for the guest experience. The list gathers many organic and biodynamic options - the latter represents around 30% of the wines served during the meal, which can last more than three hours.
“We work close to producers from France, Italy, Slovenia, Greece, Spain... We like wines with stories, so that in each sip you can also ‘drink’ the story of a small producer, a country and its culture. We believe in the power of the stories behind each bottle because with them we can show values and realities that, in their own way, are intimately linked to Mugaritz and its philosophy”, says Eduardo Camiña, one of the restaurant’s head sommelier.
Naturals wines allow Mugaritz to embrace these stories. “The concept of natural wines is vast and encompasses many types of wines, but we feel closer to the idea of biodynamics, in which working to find a balance between the vineyard, the ecosystem, and the human being is crucial, taking into account the natural cycles and phases of the moon”, he explains.
As society is moving towards a more sustainable scenario and people are more aware that they have to take care of and respect nature, its natural cycles, and the soil, he believes the natural wine movement seems to be more aligned with these new times: less perfect wines, controlled by technology to achieve the right balance between the “exact aromas and the round nuances”, in his words.
According to Camiña, natural wines are "imperfect" wines, so they have more, different nuances, colors and aromas that make them special. “They have a great ability to excite the person who is drinking. When dealing with natural wines, you do not have 100% control of it; there is a small margin of uncertainty in the final result that makes them unique”, he explains.
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For a restaurant which has gone off the rails, charting a one and only route by bringing Indian cuisine to the Thailand capital, it would be curious if Gaggan did not follow a exclusive wine list to pair well with its progressive menu. “We introduced low-intervention wines in our list as a natural pairing to the food we serve. If the food at a restaurant like Gaggan is ‘artisanal’, made from organic ingredients that expressed terroir best, we thought that our wines should follow”, says Vladimir Kojic, restaurant’s head sommelier.
Also, he explains, the freshness, the acidity and the “liveliness” of these wines pair really well with chef Gaggan Anand’s spicy and dynamic cuisine, with many flavors that are very much alive and bursting. Kojic and his team started to work with winegrowers that produce in an equally artisanal and organic way. The main focus is on wines that are produced by winegrowers who intervene minimally in the vineyard or the cellar.
The relationship with these small winemakers came to be so close that Kojic got to know a multitude of great wines from all over the world that could no longer be absorbed only by the restaurant wine list. So, he and Gaggan (with a group of partners) decided to go further and open a wine bar focused on natural bottles.
Located next door to Gaggan, the main idea of Wet, how the recently-opened bar is called, is to allow people to get introduced to these wines in a more accessible manner, to give them the opportunity of drinking in an environment in which one can spend evening after evening, without even going to the restaurant for that.
“One can come in, have a bite of our food [a relaxed bistro menu is conceived specifically for Wet by Gaggan’s team] and get a glass or a bottle of wine. And then come back the next day, either alone or in a bigger group”, Kojic says.
He explains Wet is basically a natural progression of the concept they created, one that came about as a consequence of the success of the low-intervention wines they have been serving at Gaggan – and which was really successful among diners. For him, more and more fine dining restaurants might also embrace natural wines. “If the objective of a restaurant is to express best flavor out of ingredients and build a great dish out of this, why not apply the same philosophy when building a wine list?”, he asks.
Even though the natural wine market is in full development he warns: “Let’s not fool ourselves — not all low-intervention wines are perfect. Some of them need time to settle down, to age”, Kojic explains. So this is a challenge for many sommeliers and restaurants which want to hitch a ride on this trend. “And this is why a restaurant needs a person that is dedicated to low-intervention wine to be able to run a successful low-intervention wine program. Thankfully, the community of such people seems to be expanding as we speak”, he concludes.
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