Eating + Drinking

The Wild, Wild World of Natural Wine

Forget rosé! Fresh and funky natural wine is what we’re sipping this summer.

Photo by Henry Fournier

Untamed. Unfiltered. Unusual. These aren’t words you’d usually use to describe wine. Then again, funky natural wine isn’t one to conform.

So-called “funky” or “weird” wines fall into a number of categories—organic, biodynamic, unfiltered, vegan, raw—but all of them embrace the natural components of the grapes they’re produced from. Thanks to minimum intervention and a lack of additives and sulfates, the fermentation process takes these natural wines in wild directions, making for some complex, earthy, and delicious pours.

We’ve been swirling weird vino (and ciders and meads!) for a year or two now, so we were glad to see the natural wine movement get some recent mainstream love in New York magazine. If you were intrigued to try some funk for yourself, we consulted with some of the city’s edgiest sommeliers and beverage directors to compile this must-sip list.

Mike Fadem
Owner of the Bushwick natural wine–serving restaurant Ops

What Should We Do?!: What was the first funky wine you tried that left a lasting impression?
Mike Fadem: 
 I’ll never forget tasting Christian Ducroux’s Prologue when I first started working at Marlow & Sons many years ago. It really blew me away. At that point I’d only had conventional wine, and this wine was so alive and dynamic, unlike anything I’d ever tasted. He’s still on the forefront of natural winemaking today.

WSWD: Which weird wine on your bottle list would you recommend to a first-time natural wine drinker?
Nathalie Gaubicher’s Enjoy! Nathalie makes a handful of fun wines in a light style. When first opened, the Cinsault is a little bubbly and has a bright cherry character. The flavor is not so far from something more straightforward—definitely a great gateway wine.

WSWD: Which would you recommend for more adventurous palates?
Fadem: Le Coste’s Litrozzo Rosso. You’ll notice a theme of lighter reds at Ops, and this one is a little more on the wild side. Very dynamic but so easy to drink. You need a bottle to start an adventure. 

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Photo courtesy of Ops

Will Emery and Sarah Goler
Owners of Inwood’s Tannat Wine & Cheese

WSWD: What drew you to natural wines?
Will Emery: We became interested in funky wines because the wine world is huge! Small-production wines are more often made by people who care about their land and community, and we are drawn to the stories those people have to tell. It drew us to parts of the world where people still make wine with traditional methods, as well as those people who take risks to produce a truly great wine. 

WSWD: What’s a common misconception people have about weird wines?
Sarah Goler: To put it simply, weird doesn’t always mean weird. It’s more like weird became standard—doing things such as adding color, flavor, and biocides to wine—and now we have to readjust. 

WSWD: What was the first funky wine you tried that left a lasting impression?
Goler: La Stoppa. I had never had a wine where the grapes were left on the skins for an extended amount of time [often called “orange” wine], and Will had not given me any notice to the wine he brought home. I tasted it, and all these lights and pathways started connecting in my head, and I was so surprised and taken aback. It gave me a whole new dimension to play with!
Emery: Clos Saron. There is a wine shop with a small bar in Berkeley, California, called Solano Cellars. In the early 2000s, I had tired of the boozy over-oaked jam bombs that passed for good drinking, and Solano introduced me to these strange, beautiful wines from the Sierra Nevada foothills. I had no language for natural wines then, nor did most people. But the flavor, the vibrancy, and the honesty of Clos Saron’s wine opened, as Sarah says, a new dimension.

WSWD: Which weird wine on your bottle list would you recommend to a first-time natural wine drinker?
Goler: Bodegas Cauzon 2017 Cabronicus Tempranillo is perfect for casual drinkers. Made by carbonic maceration and light in body and color, it almost appears as if it is a very dark rosé—not what you expect when you order a Tempranillo.

WSWD: How about for more adventurous palates?
Emery: Smiley by Silwervis, a South African estate with a great young winemaker named Ryan Mostert. He takes Chenin Blanc grapes, ferments them on the skins for about two weeks, and then puts them in a solera-like system in the same way you do with sherry. It is sort of a cross between a Basque cider and a sherry—so cool!

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Photo courtesy of Tannat Wine & Cheese

Alexis Percival and Patrick Cournot
Beverage directors at the East Village wine bar and restaurant Ruffian Wine & Food

WSWD: What drew you to natural wines? 
Patrick Cournot: Supporting a small producer who is reviving a nearly extinct grape like Giró Blanc in Majorca is exciting and gives [our guests] a memorable experience. Introducing our guests to, say, an unfiltered pét-nat [short for pétillant naturel, a light and fizzy natural wine] like Morphos from Oyster River Winegrowers in Maine adds a fun element to an otherwise humdrum night out for wine. 

WSWD: Which weird wine on your bottle list would you recommend to a casual wine drinker? An adventurous one?
Alexis Percival: Is the wine delicious? That is what really matters. In terms of a flavor profile that would be a departure for the average wine drinker, it’s hard to say no to Day Wines’s Tears of Vulcan from Oregon. On the perhaps more unexpected side, the wines from the Shavnabada Monastery in the country of Georgia are made by monks in the centuries-old Georgian tradition. But wine choices are not something to stress over. You don’t have to be an adventurous drinker to take a leap of faith and taste something new.

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Photo courtesy of Ruffian Wine & Food

Amanda Smeltz
Wine director at SoHo’s Estela and Café Altro Paradiso

WSWD: What do you love about funky wines?
Amanda Smeltz: I remember tasting Frank Cornelissen‘s first vintages from Sicily and Tony Coturri wines from California back in 2008. They were two of the more challenging early encounters [with natural wine] for me. The wines seemed messed up at the time, but I was really drawn to their power. Their wines were particular, unique, and didn’t smell or taste like anything else I knew. They seemed alive—and they were.

WSWD: What natural wine do you consistently recommend to your guests?
Smeltz: Both Noel Diaz’s label, Purity Wine, and Evan Lewandowski’s label, Ruth Lewandowski, provide delicious, off-the-beaten-path California wines made from lots of different grape varieties. They are fresh, clean, and eminently drinkable wines.

If they’ve tried those, I’ll recommend wines from Italy, Slovenia, or farther afield, like those from Franco Terpin in Friuli or Batič in Slovenia. They make elegant and powerful macerated white wines that will bend your notions of what “white” and “red” wines are supposed to be.

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Photo by Daniel Krieger

Prefer to drink hyper-local? We’ll save you a bottle at one of our favorite urban wineries.