Natural Wines' Gateway Drugs: 5 To Get You Hooked

If you’ve never heard of ‘natural wine’ before, you’ll be forgiven. It’s one of those oft fought over cultural components of the wine world that encourages the sort of chatter that makes casual passers-by tune out almost instantly. If you are familiar with natural wine, perhaps I owe you an apology, because I’m about to contribute to the litany of natural wine praise that so predictably encourages the arguments against it.

Frankly, I don’t care to explain the arguments for or against it, nor do I intend to parse its definition into what is, on the one hand, a descriptive term for wine made with a philosophy of minimal intervention, and, on the other hand, a cultural banner for winemakers of extremely disparate styles and quality, sometimes not even flown by those producers whose wines would be considered among natural wines’ most classic representations.

What I want to do is shine a spotlight on a handful of natural producers whose wines I truly love, the importers who provide us with them, and the shops where you can find them. Tracing them back to their importers will often provide you with a list of many other bottles to enjoy in the future. Regardless of your philosophy, these wines deserve a spot on your table.

 Image c.o.: Kermit Lynch

Image c.o.: Kermit Lynch

2016 Guy Breton Morgon Vieilles Vignes

One of the ‘gang of four’ producers of Beaujolais, so dubbed by famous wine importer Kermit Lynch to describe four vignerons whose natural methods of making wine radically changed the path of a region falling into industrialization. Beaujolais is now proud to boast some of the best natural producers in the world, with a deep history inspired by native négociant Jules Chauvet (whose impact can still be felt in the wines of the greatest producers all across France).

Potpourri, juicy red cherry and cinnamon. A simmering pot of water and lavender. Guy Breton’s wines all have a characteristically etherial stamp, as though they prefer to tip-toe everywhere they go. Find yourself a quiet room to enjoy this.

Buy at: Metrovino — Calgary
Imported by: Crimson Import
Grape: Gamay
Region: Beaujolais, France
Price: $47

 Image c.o.: Wrights Food Emporium

Image c.o.: Wrights Food Emporium

2017 Elisabetta Foradori Lezèr

This wine is a mosaic of mini-successes, born out of one enormous tragedy. in 2017, hail ravaged Elisabetta’s vineyards in Trentino, Italy, causing significant damage to her crop and placing almost 50% of her native Teroldego grapes at risk of being wasted. Instead, she harvested them, and used the opportunity to run a handful of experiments while turning them into wine. Some were aged in concrete, some in amphora; some in barriques, some in clay. In the end, the most successful trials were blended together, a mixture of unusually short macerations leading to either a lightly tannic rosé wine or a pale and juicy red wine, depending on your perspective.

What is clear is that the final product is delicious in a no-nonsense, please-dont-overthink-it sort of way. Light fragrant charcuterie wine, the sort of bottle you want to open with an audible “pop!” Elisabetta is one of Italy’s most treasured producers, and this bottle is an insight into what sort of emotional and creative flexibility it takes to earn that title.

Buy at: Sold out, for now.
Imported by: Sedimentary Wines
Grape: Teroldego
Region: Trentino, Italy
Price: $26

 Image c.o.: McCarus Beverage Company

Image c.o.: McCarus Beverage Company

2015 Pattes Loup Chablis 1er Cru Beauregard

For almost 20 years, only two names were relevant for those searching for natural wine in Chablis: Vincent Dauvissat and Francois Raveneau. With both receiving their just rewards, now priced well outside the comfort zone of many (if you are even lucky to find them), a new generation of producers is emerging, influenced by a compelling mix of Chablis tradition and naturally inspired viticulture & winemaking. I’ll leave the details of his process unexplained for now, as I’m visiting the winemaker, Thomas Pico, in two weeks, and intend to give more faithful description of his style after the fact.

But, the wine. Erring on hyperbole, I literally buy anything he makes. When his 2014’s were released last year, we bought all we could afford and glass poured them until we regretted running out. When hail wiped out all his grapes in 2016 and he was forced to buy organic grapes from an entirely new region to survive, we bought all we could afford and glass poured it until… When these wines were released this year, we bought it all, and you can find it again on our glass pour list. 

This is 100% chardonnay. This is saline sea spray and fennel. This is the Chablis you read about, and hope to eventually taste one day. I’ve yet to find anything from this region that excites me as much as this. Buy a few bottles, and drink one now to give yourself the pangs of anticipation over the next few years while you wait to open the last few.

Buy at: Color De Vino — Edmonton, Vine Arts — Calgary
Imported by: Sedimentary Wines
Grape: Chardonnay
Region: Chablis, France
Price: $79

 Image c.o.: Emma Alden

Image c.o.: Emma Alden

2017 Brutal de Jean-Marc

Wine lists can be headache inducing, not least of which because the distinction between winery, producer, and region can often be tremendously obscure. This wine won’t help with that, but the funny thing about good wine is that its taste is indifferent to how much you know about it. 

Les Vins Pirouettes is a unique cooperative of natural winemakers in Alsace, France, led by winemaker Christian Binner. Christian works with each grower directly, helping them create their wines and market them to an international audience. Now, Brutal Wine Co. is another unique cooperative of natural winemakers. It provides an umbrella for producers to create a wine under that is in some way an extreme departure from their normal methods. This provides the freedom to experiment, much like watching a one-off night of free jazz, in quantities that justify its elusiveness. Christian Binner, in collaboration with one of his growers (Jean-Marc), made this wine under the Brutal Wine Co. banner.

This wine is iconoclasm. It takes three of the defined ‘noble grapes’ of Alsace (gewurztraminer, riesling, and pinot gris), and blends them. This is while subjecting them to a light period of skin contact, rendering this wine a beautiful orangey hazy hue and imbuing it was a generous dose of savoury sweet aromas like chamomile and acacia honey. This is the natural wine your parents warned you about. 

Buy at: Bar Clementine
Imported by: Vino al Vino
Grape: Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer
Region: Alsace, France
Price: $18/glass

 Image c.o.: Juice Imports

Image c.o.: Juice Imports

2017 Pierre Olivier Bonhomme Le Telquel 

The story of Pierre Olivier’s upbringing as a winemaker is exactly what you’d expect in a natural wine industry that relies on the passing down of knowledge and tradition. He quickly transformed himself from a young high-school dropout to the partner of famed Loire winemaker Thierry Puzelat through a few quick years of elbow grease and ambition at Thierry’s winery, Clos du Tue-Boeuf. He now runs the entire operation solo. Notorious P.O.B.

Le Telquel may be my favourite wine he makes, and every year the blend slightly oscillates between different quantities of Gamay, Côt (malbec), Pineau D’Aunis and Grolleau. The sum is greater than the parts. Fresh berries and green leaves, smokey tea and dried flowers. Chill it, chill yourself. Bon appétit.

Buy at: Color de Vino — Edmonton, Vine Arts — Calgary
Imported by: Juice Imports
Grape: Gamay, Côt, Pineau D’Aunis, Grolleau (varies by year)
Region: Loire, France
Price: $30

Wine Rituals: A User Guide

dogsandcocktails-55.jpg

Humans have always maintained a natural inclination to take our most proud and beautiful creations, and then raise them to the level of the sacred. We form rituals, putting these treasured objects behind glass cases and setting boundaries for how we honour them. You wouldn’t find a Rembrandt on the floor; no mosh pits during Mozart (though, no sitting at a punk show, either), and anyone who has felt the confusing pang of empathy and anger when a strangers’ cell phone decides to break the silence of an emotional moment of theatre knows precisely what I mean.

We do this because our gratitude is simply larger than we can understand. How have we created such beauty? To save ourselves from the exhaustion of answering this question, we find mutually agreed ways of enjoying the things we love. It’s our quiet way of communicating to each other just how much they mean to us, and how worth protecting they are. 

If you’ve ever experienced anxiety at the thought of ordering wine in a restaurant, everything I’ve just mentioned is responsible for that. You find yourself with a small portion of wine in your glass. It taunts you. The gentle restaurant candles have suddenly turned into spotlights affixed to your face, burning with the heat of one thousand suns. Your server holds the bottle towards you — it wants to watch. You pick up the glass with just enough speed to hide the tremble in your hands. What the fuck do you do?

 Consulting the modern wine list.

Consulting the modern wine list.

The rituals created around wine service began as a way to express our gratitude to a process very much out of our control. Mother nature is capricious, and for thousands of years, grapes have been nurtured to maturity through a combination of true farming and crossed fingers. Will it rain and rot? Will frost wipe out my entire harvest (as, despite modern technology, it continues to do quite regularly)? When the bounty is collected and the wine is eventually bottled, it seems obvious how small we’d feel in comparison to what it took to get it there. And yet, when you buy wine, none of this is apparent. What you buy is liquid in a fairly nondescript bottle, separate from the stories of how it got to you.

In a restaurant, the way these stories are preserved is through the faithful listing of regions, original languages, and obscure terminology found in the wine list. It is also one of the primary sources of confusion for those who just want to drink it. Step one is to relax. It is not your job to be an expert, and though a cursory knowledge will help guide your first few steps, good wine is indifferent to how much you know about it. If you are dining with someone annoying like me who must read the entire list, have a cocktail on deck to save yourself from thirst. Similarly, if you are that annoying person, treat your table to an apology bottle of opening bubbles while they stare at the top of your head for the next 15 minutes (note to self.) While it can seem counterintuitive to use the restaurant setting to challenge your wine tastes, this is actually the safest environment for it. First, you are likely dining at a place because they make food that you otherwise wouldn’t be making at home. It is then fair to assume that the bottles you typically enjoy may not always be the best fit with this food. Second, frankly, restaurants are aware of your comfort bottles, and are not pricing them with a mind towards giving you a deal. Popular wines made of popular grapes please popularly, and the ease by which they sell is something restaurants have always been conscious of. Flip that around, almost every restaurant with a wine focus also has their ‘passion project’ bottles — bottles almost universally liked by the staff, and whose under-the-radar position grants them a very favourable price. 

Using the restaurant staff as a sounding board for your choices is not only warmly welcomed, but highly wise. I assure you, at some 2:00 AM point in your server’s life, when all the restaurant sounds have quieted and they are sinking as deeply into the soft leather banquette as they are into a plate of warm off-shift food, they’ve been kept company by a glass of that wine that you are considering inquiring about, and they can tell you every lucid detail. And yes, quality and price are often related, but anyone who has experienced the highs of humble street food will know that there is nuance to this. I encourage you to be upfront with your budget. A restaurant that cares about wine will be extremely excited about the freedom this gives them to find you a bottle that you feel comfortable buying. 

Where some art is consumptive, wine is performative. Imagine going to see Mozart, only to be asked what movements you’d like to hear, and in what order. A small portion is played for you to confirm that its up to standard, before you yourself begin conducting the orchestra. This is precisely what happens when you order wine. It's the reason why the process can be so imbued with worry. The bottle is brought to you and you are asked to confirm it. What you are looking for is the name and the vintage to ensure that you and the restaurant understand each other. For those who spent the last 15 minutes gushing over the wine list, this is also usually the point where tremendous FOMO begins sinking in, as you consider the 80 other bottles you also considered drinking. Next, the cork. Some places have shed this habit, but when a cork is placed on your table know that this is an old ritual of trust. The cork has the date and winery printed on it, and presenting it is a proof of what you’ve ordered. This had much more relevance historically, when bottle labels would wear and disintegrate over time. While a cork can give you certain potential clues about the way the wine has been stored, it never tells you as much as the wine itself and so you can feel generally comfortable in ignoring it.

 Patron Saint of corked wine

Patron Saint of corked wine

When that first taste finally gets poured, you can feel relieved in knowing that you still are not required to do anything. The offer of the first sip is simply another offer of trust. There is a bacteria colloquially known as TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole for those making notes) that can infect wine, most often through the cork. It can happen in any style of wine, and while not at all dangerous, can make your wine smell and taste defective (it’s what people smell when they say a wine is “corked.”) Make a cloth wet, leave it in a pile to get musty, and you’ll immediately understand this smell. Once you get a nose for it you’ll unfortunately never be able to ignore it, but if you’ve never experienced it you can simply give the taste to your server and ask them to try it for you. In truth, the worlds’ leading restaurants already do this anyway; a sommelier will open your bottle away from the table, taste it to make sure it isn’t corked, and only bring it to you when they are certain of its quality. Any restaurant with a wine focus will have staff that have smelled and begrudgingly tasted corked wines, and burned those memories just deep enough to be recalled again when needed.

With no grand conclusion, the ritual ends. You find yourself with full glasses, warm plates of food, and a table full of loving faces illuminated by the now reasonably flickering candles. That vulnerable space you’ve created can instead be filled with gratitude. How can a drink elicit so much consideration? Simply put, wine is agriculture. When you obscure that sentiment, you replace it with feelings of status, prestige, or a glass case style of preciousness that can make you feel as though you can never truly appreciate it if you don’t know enough about it. Insisting that you have to be an expert to love something is the root of elitism, and, put another way, is the pernicious suggestion that taste is something you have to earn, rather than the simple, beautiful, birthright of self expression that we are all born with. Feel ease at ordering off a wine list, if only because you’re asserting your right to claim this taste as your own. Remember this: the most genuine way to revere wine is to enjoy it freely. It is the greatest condiment ever invented for the dinner table. 

-Evan Watson

"They Don't Like Me. I'm a Winemaker."

 Serralunga d'Alba, Barolo, Italy. 

Serralunga d'Alba, Barolo, Italy. 

In wine, there is a pattern that happens with such profound regularity that it remains inconceivable that this industry, whose bread-and-butter is quantifying sensations and experience, has yet to give it a name. If you aren’t in the wine industry, no bother, you’ll recognize it.

The pattern is simple. A winery is marketing its newest release. A number of decisions were made during the growing season to the benefit of the dollar, and not to the wine. Perhaps the grapes have been grown on the flatlands to make machine work easier, though the slopes would produce more interesting wine. Maybe yields haven’t been managed, maybe pesticide is indiscriminately sprayed, maybe the work simply wasn’t put in. It now comes time to sell this wine, and the story of sex and nature gets sprayed like pesticide. “X winery is at the forefront of modern innovation, but with an eye towards tradition…” It’s often the siren song of a wine with no further story to tell.

To be clear, this isn’t an affront on modern winemaking techniques, this is an affront on those who use them at the expense of their environment; those who erase the special character of their place by manufacturing the type of wine they already assume you want to drink. The unbelievable over-planting of chardonnay, for example, in environments not suitable to the grape, and especially at the expense of the indigenous varietals that thrive there, confirm this point. I firmly believe wine can be artful, and I firmly believe that this is the point where it stops being so.

This converging globalization can be found in all cultures of taste, but I find it particularly frustrating in my industry because the offending wineries often lean on the cache of the very environments they spend all year disregarding. The average consumer simply doesn’t have the time to investigate every marketing claim a wine makes, and so these wineries can make a good living putting more effort into their words than they do to their soil.

All this to say, it’s why, when I find a producer that does the exact opposite of this, whose decision making is clearly motivated by character, and who pursues conscientious stewardship of their land and tradition at the expense of immediate financial gain, I like to share their stories.

This is the backdrop for the wines of Enrico Rivetto.


 Foreground: Enrico Rivetto amongst his wheat and vines. Background: Serralunga d'Alba. 

Foreground: Enrico Rivetto amongst his wheat and vines. Background: Serralunga d'Alba. 

"They don't like me, I'm a winemaker." This was Enrico’s response when asked about a group of butterfly enthusiasts we noticed walking in his vineyards. Of course, it was hilariously self-aware. Enrico is on track to be the first certified biodynamic wine grower in Barolo, and on the day we visited, his vineyards were swimming with life. Jeff Porter, an NYC wine professional and frequent visitor to the region remarked that he couldn’t recall ever hearing the sound of so many singing birds in a Barolo vineyard.

Above all, biodynamic wine growing involves a complex understanding of ones’ environment. It relies on natural plant/animal based treatments in the vineyard, eschewing the use of chemical products to assist in plant growth or combat disease. Working in this way requires one to be finely tuned into the lifecycle of their vines, and though anecdotal, is a particular favourite for those who actually live on the land and tend it themselves. Even more than this, Enrico maintains a true polyculture. He was most excited to show us the endless rows of sage, rosemary, nettle, thistle, lavender, and mint, not to mention large areas of woodland and fruit trees, and most impressively, entire blocks dedicated to the planting of many varieties of ancient wheat. The vines themselves were very healthy, but we could have taken this for granted. In an environment where vineyard land is sold for upwards of €1m per hectare, planting wheat to make bread instead of highly profitable grapes seems almost unthinkable. It is even more unbelievable when we are told that vineyard land was torn out to make this happen. “It is not sustainable to plant only one thing. This is not an ecosystem.”

We sit down for an outdoor lunch next to the family’s pond. This is our first introduction to the wines themselves, and it is perfectly fitting that they are tasted alongside cuisine from the family garden, tended biodynamically by Enrico’s father (and former winemaker) Sergio. Enrico is quick to remind us that ‘former’ is a loose label in Italian wine growing families, as no one really retires from their lifework. It is obvious to see how proud they both are of what their land has given them, and what they have given it, too.

We open with a fairly idiosyncratic wine, their ‘Kaskal’ Sparkling Nebbiolo. Made from the tip of the grape cluster, this is harvested early when the acidity is still very naturally high in the grapes, then aged on lees for 45 months (a marathon for sparkling wines made outside Champagne.) Admittedly, when you are poured a glass of ‘welcome’ bubbles you rarely expect to be rocked, but this was full of quinine, straw, chamomile flowers and salt. I found myself laughing as I tasted it, thinking of how these nebbiolo grapes could easily just be blended into Enrico’s barolo, without the painstaking 4 years of work tending a one-off cuvee of sparkling wine. Like the man himself, this wine was completely full of character.

I finish my glass and notice a cat swipe a fish from the pond, running proudly into the forrest with it for his own lunch.

Next was a comparison of 2007/2015 Barbera d’alba ‘Zio Nando’, with a large portion of the vines dating to almost 80 years old. The 2015 was singing with a bright cherry freshness and a great aromatic lift, owing to the sandy soils the vines are planted in. The 2007 was much more obviously round and plump, with lavender, sweet tobacco and morels. The lighter-on-its-feet 2015 was the hit for me, and it’s exciting to see the direction this will go in. 

 

Enrico’s 2011 Barolo “Leon” Riserva followed, a wine from an extremely hot vintage but that was able to sit on a knife-edge of balance and restraint. The aromatics were again beautiful (something I found across the board in his wines), tending towards a sweet core of cracker, dried cocoa, fig, and earth. The temperature outside hit 31°, the humidity was beyond obvious, and somehow this powerful wine floated in seamlessly. I still remain puzzled at that.

To compare Barolos, we were also poured the 2012 Barolo Briccolina, a wine from a single vineyard in Serralunga D’alba. While perhaps not the most friendly lunch sip, the potential of this wine was obvious. Sneaky bits of dried lavender, violet, and dried cherry poked their head through a sturdy but graceful wall of tannin. More airy and ethereal than Leon — I can only hope to run into it a few years in the future.

Our last lunch wine was a new project, the 2016 Vino Rosso, a wine that embodied everything I’d grown to appreciate about Enrico’s approach. This was a blend of Nebbiolo aged in Amphora with 8 months of maceration. Not only does Enrico sacrifice labeling these grapes as Barolo, he also sacrifices labeling them as Nebbiolo, opting to call this, essentially, “red wine” for the sake of experimentation. While very floral and fresh, this wine has serious tannin, and a totally herbal, wild edge. It evolved constantly. “It’s tannic, but not too tannic, I think” Enrico mused, “is it?” This curiosity is infectious. 

 Local biologist, Enrico Rivella, who selected Rivetto winery as a case study research project for biodiversity in the Langhe. 

Local biologist, Enrico Rivella, who selected Rivetto winery as a case study research project for biodiversity in the Langhe. 

After lunch, we were given the choice of cycling between napping in their garden in the shadow of the castle of Serralunga, eating hazelnut cake made from the trees planted amongst their vines, losing gracefully at basketball, or helping ourselves to the back-vintage staples of their Barolo. It became easy to forget how much work was put in so that we may experience the fruit of it all. It is, however, unsurprising, that a family who are such conscientious stewards to their land and lifework would similarly be such uncompromisingly hospitable hosts. The energy they put into their wines radiates through you, too. Rivetto’s way of making wine is full of toil, but the answer why is glaringly simple: why would anyone ever want to jeopardize all this life?



1997 Barolo
Ready and open, smoked rosemary, mesquite, sweet cracker, dried rose and lavender.

1990 Barolo Riserva
Still plenty of life left. Liquorice, spice, airy and light-on-its-feet. A floral bright lift. 

*1978 Barolo
Sweet buckwheat honey, lavender, cigar smoke, bitter cocoa, hazelnuts and cream with a long, dynamic finish. A total treat, like a boxer at the top of his game.

1961 Barolo Riserva
Hazelnut, sweet mesquite smoke, leather and dried figs. Soothing liquorice. An old man with a quiet story to tell.

I visited Rivetto as a part of Collisioni festival 2018, which I attended as a wine professional for Ian D’agata’s progetto vino program. All wines were tasted July, 2018, and while currently unavailable in Alberta, we’re working on that. Thank you to Collisioni, Ian, and Enrico for the opportunity.

- Evan Watson, 07.31.2018