Uncorking The Best Natural Wines
When master sommelier Dustin Wilson talks about wine, he goes way beyond region and vintage. He shares the bottle’s story: An indigenous grape variety, a winemaker’s specific fermenting method, flavors that “jump out of the bottle.” But the most important part of his story focuses on the pesticide-free wineries he’s found, ones that deliver not just high-quality flavor, but a reverence for the earth.
Wilson, who was previously the wine director at Eleven Madison Park, recently launched Verve Wine—an online wine shop (with a brick-and-mortar version in New York City’s Tribeca neighborhood) with partner Derrick Mize. “We wanted to hit this middle ground of a seamless, beautiful, fun online experience, but with really good wine at an accessible price point,” Wilson tells Clean Plates.
That means Wilson hand-selects wines he tastes from makers he trusts, all of which come from vineyards that use sustainable farming practices. Many are natural and organic, so they’re perfect for health-conscious diners who want to avoid pesticide residue and potentially harmful additives. We asked Wilson to share more about these better-for-you bottles so you can make smart selections, for you and the earth.
Decanting Natural Wine Facts
As with food, the term “natural” is not regulated: “Typically, natural wines are made using grapes coming from vineyards that are at least sustainably farmed, if not organic or biodynamic,” Wilson explains. “In the winery, the methods are typically hands-off. They let the grapes do their thing, without a lot of additions like yeast, and little to no sulfur.”
(Clean Plates‘ Tip: The state of California has led the way in creating sustainable wines. Many of your favorites, from the renowned wine giant Kendall-Jackson to the small boutique Sanford Winery and Vineyards, made the sustainable wine list. This doesn’t mean they all necessarily fall into the “natural” category described above, but does ensure they’re using many environmentally-friendly practices.)
Wines made in this way usually “express themselves” differently than conventional wines, since sulfur can dumb down aromatics and color. “There’s usually a poppy, fresh aroma and a brighter, more vibrant color. The wine kind of jumps out of the glass.”
The lack of additives does come with a caveat: Sulfur, which has both antioxidant and antimicrobial properties, stabilizes the wine. So natural varieties tend to be more volatile. That means getting a bad bottle—in which the wine has oxidized and tastes bitter—can happen on occasion.
How To Go Au Natural
Though it would be simple to avoid pesticides by just always buying organic wine, you’d miss out on really great, clean wines, Wilson notes. Getting certified organic or biodynamic is a long, costly, difficult process, so many wineries use those systems but can’t yet display it on their labels.
“Shop somewhere credible and chat with the person in the shop,” Wilson suggests, “or dig around and do some research online to get some recommendations on producers.”
Even easier? Try one of his three current favorites to impress your date on Valentine’s Night, or any night. What to pair it with? Read our article on aphrodisiac foods or try the One-Pot Pumpkin Pasta with Parmesan and Kale (recipe below).
Yummy Bottles for Valentine’s Day
Budget Pick: Elian da Ros, Arbouriou, Côtes du Marmandais, France 2014, $22
“This wine is fresh and vibrant and fun and juicy—easy to drink,” Wilson says. From a region just south of Bordeaux, this red is made with a local “malbec-ish” grape called abouriou and is balanced with cabernet franc and merlot. “Even though the winemaker is utilizing Bordeaux varieties, he appreciates finesse and food-friendliness over impact.” Serve this with warm grain salads, charcuterie plates, or slow-roasted veggie stews.
A Step Above: Vallin Syrah Santa Barbara County 2013, $29
“It’s made in a very old-world kind of style to keep all those fun savory flavors,” says Wilson. This Santa Barbara winery uses natural yeasts, very little sulfur, and no pesticides. “I like the wines because they’re very pure syrah—gamey, peppery, smokey, with great herbaceous aromas and savory flavors, but again you get that pop of the freshness and the extra berry notes since it’s natural,” says Wilson. Serve this with roast meats, creamy risottos, or hearty whole-wheat pastas.
A Splurge: Comte Abbatucci VDF ‘Il Cavaliere Diplomate d’Empire’ 2012, $120
This wine is for special occasions. Made in southern Corsica at a biodynamic vineyard, the winemaker helped to bring back a lot of ancient, indigenous Corsican grape varieties grown on the island generations ago. “Wines in this cuvee collection are essentially all of those ancient, indigenous grapes that are co-fermented and blended together,” Wilson says. “It’s natural wine at the highest level, really clean,” and this bottle, a white, is “briny, salty, savory, with great texture and richness but also acidity.” It pairs perfectly with seafood like lobster and a trunk load of sustainable caviar.
One-Pot Pumpkin Pasta with Parmesan and Kale
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 small yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
¾ teaspoon crushed red pepper
8 ounces spaghetti or linguini
4 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable stock
1 (15-ounce) can pure pumpkin purée (not pumpkin pie filling)
1 bunch kale, stems removed and leaves roughly chopped
Freshly shaved Parmesan cheese, for serving
In a large, straight-sided skillet or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and sauté until soft and translucent, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic and crushed red pepper and sauté 1 minute.
Add the pasta, chicken or vegetable stock, and pumpkin purée, season to taste with salt and pepper, and stir to combine. Raise the heat to high and bring to a boil. Continue boiling, stirring every 30 seconds or so and adjusting the heat as needed, for 7 minutes.
Add the kale, reduce the heat to medium-high, and simmer, stirring frequently, until the pasta is al dente and the sauce is thick, 3 to 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper.
Divide the pasta among bowls, sprinkle with the Parmesan, and serve.