At first glance, the term “natural wine” seems like a misnomer. Wine is made from grapes and yeast, so what can be more “natural” than that, right? But you’d be surprised how many additives can go into a bottle.
Chemical pesticides sprayed on vines can combat harmful bugs and bacteria, and herbicides can replace the job of hand weeding; both can remain on grapes after they are crushed and pressed. In the cellar, fermentation is often boosted with yeast, “flabby” wines glean a fresher, crisper mouthfeel with the addition of tartaric or malic acid and added sulfites can do everything from stopping fermentation to killing microbes.
In short, there’s often a lot more inside your stemless glass than you think.
On the flip side, natural wine producers and proponents promote a gentle, less-is-more approach. While there currently is no standard or certification for natural wine (unlike for organic or biodynamic wine), natural wine is generally understood to mean fewer (if any) chemicals in the vineyard and the use of already-occurring native yeast that covers cellar farms and fermentation tanks rather than added or inoculated yeast. Wines are bottled with minimal use of sulfites and without being filtered or fined. This philosophy is all about minimal intervention that lets the grapes and the wine shine.
For people who seek out organic produce, unprocessed foods, whole grains and free-range meats, natural wine is the next logical step. Here are four spots to find it in the DMV:
When Sebastian Zutant was a partner in the rustic Italian hotspot Red Hen in Bloomingdale, he peppered his list with funky orange wines and less familiar Italian producers. He brought that sensibility for off-the-beaten-path bottles to his airy 80-seat French wine bar in Brookland, which he co-owns with wife Lauren Winter. 18 wines by the glass are joined by around 75 by the bottle; most are from France with a smattering from Virginia, including those from his own winery Lightwell Survey, and the focus is on natural, minimally manipulated expressions. While Zutant submits that there is technically no “natural” certification, he predicts that one is coming. In the meantime, it’s all about the honor system. “What it does mean is that [winemakers] are as respectful as possible to the plants and wine,” he says. “You do not add acid or sugar, you do not inoculate [with yeast], you do farm sustainably, preferably organic or biodynamically.”
Try: 2016 Domaine Touraize, Chardonnay & Savagnin from France’s Jura region ($15/glass), a fresh and fruity white with a mineral-driven finish.
Located inside the Line Hotel, and housed inside the mezzanine of a former church, this Chesapeake-inspired restaurant helmed by Spike Gjerde serves up hyper-local dishes and drinks. Sommelier Felicia Colbert stocks her list only with wines that were biodynamically or organically farmed, mirroring the ingredients Gjerde cooks with. “I think that because of the lack of rules, natural wine will continue to grow as an outlet for more environment conscious and creative winemakers,” Colbert says. “For my list it means that I can work directly with farmers who just happen to also make wine, and giving back to our farmers is what we are in the business of doing.”
Try: 2012 Domaine Rolet Trousseau from Arbois, France ($60/bottle), a versatile wine which Colbert describes as tasting like “cocoa-dusted tart cherries and homemade cranberry sauce.”
This family-run winery in New Windsor, Maryland run by siblings Drew, Lisa and Ashli is committed to natural practices. Vineyard work, from pruning to harvesting, is done by hand; sustainable farming includes planting diverse cover crops to promote the proliferation of beneficial insects and strong vines; and wines are fermented with indigenous yeasts. They’ve also successfully experimented with Pét-Nat, a style of sparkling wine free from additives. “Once the fermenting juice is bottled just weeks after harvest, you don’t taste it again until it’s in your glass,” he points out. “This makes it a little unpredictable, and that spontaneity is one reason why it’s so fun.” Their Farmer Fizz, a Pét-Nat made with chardonnay, has such a cult following it’s often sold out.
Try: 2017 Old Westminster Pét-Nat Grüner Veltliner ($40), a fun bubbly bottled without blending, fining or filtering.
Not only are the 100 wines on the menu at this Atlas Wine Bar natural, but the list also points out those that are women-owned or women-made. Owner Stacey Khoury-Diaz hails from Sonoma County, studied International Studies and African Studies at Yale and worked as a USAID contractor in East Africa and D.C. But the wine roots of her Northern California upbringing ran deep, so she got an MA in Food Systems from NYU and decided to open a wine bar in D.C. Khoury-Diaz looks for wines that are farmed responsibly and use minimal if any chemicals. “Not only do consumers feel entitled to specifics about how their food and beverage is made, but their purchases are also driven by ethics, environment, and social angles,” she says. “Once I started drinking natural wine, it was hard to go back...it’s like eating a large, shiny grocery store tomato after getting used to a locally grown and fresh tomato from the farmer's market.”
Try: 2016 Natte Valleij Cinsault from Stellenbosch in South Africa ($14/glass; $56/bottle), made from bush wines planted on decomposed granite close to the sea.