Around this time of year the cyber-airwaves are filled with Champagne. That is, they are brimming with recommendations for the one alcoholic beverage most Americans save for special occasions, such as New Year’s Eve: sparkling wine. But in many cultures, sparkling wine is just a variation on the theme of fermented grape juice, designed to be enjoyed year-round with food or as an apéritif. While you can easily find decent, run-of-the-mill Prosecco, Cremant de Bourgogne and Cava on supermarket shelves, this year brings an abundance of more obscure choices in local wine shops. They are mostly natural wines, which are wines that have been manipulated as little as possible in order to retain the unique qualities specific to each grape varietal that produced them, as well as their terroir.
Natural wines have been trending in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco slowly over the last few years, but the Bay Area has recently seen a marked increase in the variety of natural wines available locally. While there aren’t any legal parameters that formally guide what constitutes “natural” wine, a bottling can typically claim that distinction with authority if it is made using native yeasts, with the addition of minimal sulfur dioxide in the process. Many are organic or biodynamic (two legal certifications) as well, and a large percentage are unfined and unfiltered, resulting in wines that have diverse aroma and flavor profiles that the average wine drinker might find unusual, from a tart or sour finish to a bonafide funkiness. Others are classically elegant and more recognizable to most palates.
These ten wines range in price from $16-$34, and all have something to offer that is a bit different this season from the usual effervescent suspects. Prices are from the three shops where I discovered these bottles — Biondivino in San Francisco, Ordinaire in Oakland, and Vintage Wine in Berkeley — but might be available at different retail prices in other local or online wine stores.
The 2013 Vigneto Orsi San Vito Sui Liveiti ($18 at Biondivino), from Emilia Romagna in Italy, is made from the Pignoletto grape (97%) with a tiny bit of Riesling for acidity and aged on the lees (“sui lieviti”), meaning that the wine is left to age with the natural sediment in the bottle, which is typically removed through a filtering process. It’s also a pétillant naturel, or “pét-nat,” as the hipsters call it, which indicates that it’s been bottled before the primary fermentation is complete. In terms of flavor, this wine is more akin to a dry cider than what most of us associate with wine. It’s crisp, with notes of grapefruit, Asian pear and lychee and would pair well with young goat cheese, ceviche or vegetarian pasta or risotto dish.
Pere Mata Cupado Rosé Non-Vintage ($24 at Vintage Berkeley) is made up of three little-known grapes: Macabeau (35%), Xarello (20%) and Parellada (20%), along with the more famous Monastrell (25%). The whole package is a twist on Spanish Cava and leads with musky apple notes on the nose that shift to a deep yeastiness on the palate. This organic, small-production wine, named after the winemaker, is first fermented in stainless steel for up to three weeks, then transferred to bottle, where it undergoes secondary fermentation for another month or more. It’s a lovely apéritif wine with salty nuts or olives or slices of Serrano ham.
Having never been a big fan of sparkling red wines, I was delighted when Ceri Smith, owner of Biondivino, recommended the 2011 Croci Gutturnio Frizzante ($20.70), a berry-laden, tannic mouthful of delight that would be delicious with pizza, all manner of salumi, and pastas with cream- and butter-based sauces. Another wine from Emilia Romagna, which Smith maintains is the hottest region in Italy right now, the Gutturnio is made from Barbera and Bonarda, biodynamically grown and aged sur lie. Think Lambrusco with a large brain and a more serious expression on its face, but lush with brambly forest fruits. And even though it’s a red, it’s designed to be served chilled.
Also from Biondivino, the Folicello Emilia Bianco Frizzante ($16.20) is a white Lambrusco that is bone dry, very fizzy, and redolent of baked green apple (a nice balance of sweet and tart). Made of 90% Pignoletto and 10% Montuni, it’s both organic and biodynamic, with no added sulfites. Good pairings include lightly smoked fish, dishes that feature olives, and young cheeses.
California makes the cut with a rambunctious 2014 J. Brix Cobolorum Riesling ($24 at Ordinaire), a Santa Barbara production that is the most péttilant of the pét-nats on this list — so fizzy that you’ll need to wait for it to calm down before you pour it. Aside from faint petrol notes associated with fine Riesling, you’d be hard-pressed to guess the grape here because we hardly ever taste it unfiltered. This one is also undisgorged, with no added sulfites. You’ve heard of beer for wine-lovers? This is a wine for beer-lovers, and would work well with sushi, spicy gazpacho, or ceviche.
A lovely version of the well-known Crémant du Jura is the Champ Divin Zero Dosage ($25 at Vintage Berkeley) wine, made from 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir. Even though these are familiar grapes to Champagne drinkers, the no-dosage method gives the wine an elegant restraint not to be confused with austerity, as it is also fruit-driven. Of all the wines mentioned here, this one goes best with raw oysters or other raw or lightly cooked shellfish because of its inherent minerality. This is one of the most manipulated wines on the list, but it is made with indigenous yeasts and only lightly filtered.
The one terrific natural wine I found from Spain is the Viña Enebro Rosé ($18 at Biondivino), another pét-nat made from Tempranillo grapes, which give the wine a saturated tawny-pink hue. From a farm that grows olive and almond trees, as well as grapes, this production is certified organic. Because the red grapes impart more tannins than white grapes, this bubbly is suitable for meat dishes and will stand up even to heavy stews and aged cheeses. It’s also great as a pre-dinner wine with salumi.
Famed natural winemaker Jean-Pierre Robinot has made a compelling L’Opera Des Vins Les Années Folles ($30 at Ordinaire) from 80% Pineau d'Aunis and 20% Chenin Blanc grapes in his vineyards in the tiny village of Chahaignes, near Angers (in the Jasnières AOC). This area is known well for Chenin Blanc, but the driving force of this wine is the Pineau d'Aunis, a red grape variety that lends an appealing funkiness to the nose and tannic structure to the mouthfeel, with a decidedly peppery-strawberry flavor taking the lead on the palate. Serve it with aged goat cheese, sweeter dishes in the Thai, Chinese or Vietnamese repertoire, or cured meats of any kind.
Another lush and delicious sur lie wine is the 2014 Menti Roncaie ($18.50 at Vintage Berkeley) from Italy’s Veneto region, made from 100% Garganega. The secondary fermentation in the bottle is precipitated by the addition of Albina juice (resonated Garganega), with only natural yeasts and no added sulfites. Because of its citrus and nut aromas and flavors, I especially like this wine with simple crostini before dinner or a first course of vegetarian pasta or risotto.
The one Austrian contender here is the Strohmeier Schilcher Frizzante ($35 at Ordinaire), a rosé made from 100% Blauer Wildbacher, a little-planted grape with crisp acidity, white pepper notes, and grassy undertones. The farmer-winemakers Christine and Franz Strohmeier use natural methods in the vineyards as much as possible, including the use of whey instead of copper sulfite to ward off downy mildew. This sparkler is excellent alongside triple-cream cheeses, wild boar salumi, and other foods high in fat.