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Adventures in the land of natural wine

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At Russian Hill's Biondivino wine store, natural pours are prime.
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY CAITLIN DONOHUE

The answer is: varying. Eschewing artificial chemicals and fermentation agents often means giving up standardized product. Natural wine can oxidize more easily than wine treated with sulfites. Reliance on natural yeast means that whatever Mother Earth brings to your grapes is what you end up tasting in the glass.

But for natural wine proponents, this kind of variation can be thrilling.

After my chat with Feiring, we hopped over to Biondivino, a fetchingly designed Russian Hill wine shop that specializes in Italian pours. Owner Ceri Smith stocks many natural wines, which she arranges like books in a library — a visual connection that's strengthened by the rolling ladder Smith uses to access the top racks.

The tasting featured natural selections from the Spanish wine catalog of importer José Pastor. The man pouring us our sips seemed to be a bit cautious of the wines' effect on newbies.

"Now this one is really, really unusual," he told me, doling out a finger of Vinos Ambiz Airén from Madrid vigneron Fabio Bartolomei. He wasn't kidding — it was probably the most distinctive wine I've ever tasted.

Although Airén is the most-harvested white wine grape in Spain, it's usually made into nondescript wine sold in bulk. Not so with Bartolomei's version. The winemaker eschews all additives besides some sulfur spray in his vineyard, and bottles the wine unfiltered. The result was a mouth-encompassing herbal wash, almost Fernet-like in its grassy, spicy taste. I was still wide-eyed when the next wine that found it's way into my glass: Catalonia producer Laureano Serres' "5 Anys i un Dia" ("Five Years and One Day" in Catalan).

"Is that... gasoline?" I asked Feiring, who was standing at my side. "You're tasting sherry," she smiled. Wild. But even more wild? All the bottles featured in the tasting were $25 and under.

Will Feiring become the wine world's Michael Pollan, launching a thousand natural vignerons? Only time will tell — but regardless of the movement's future, natural winemakers certainly pour a glass worth writing home about.

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