Arthur Hon, wine director at Sepia in Chicago, is in charge of pairing sweet potato tortoloni and Berkshire pork collar with small production wines and lesser known varietals off his roughly 300-bottle list. He's been part of the Sepia team since day one, and just last Friday Hon was recognized as Best Sommelier of 2014 from Chicago restaurant awards organization, the Jean Banchet Awards. Below, Hon demystifies natural wine.
Q: It seems there's a newfound interest in natural wines. What exactly is a "natural" wine as opposed to a wine that, say, is grown biodynamically? And could you suggest some good entirely-level natural wines that won't break the bank?
Hon: Natural wine refers to wines that have been made with the least amount of manipulations/modern viticulture and wine-making technology. In a way, "natural" is a very "low tech" kind of way. Natural wine producers generally practice biodynamic farming both in the vineyards and in the winery. Their hands-off approach to winemaking, in some ways, is a tribute to how much they trust their land/vineyard and what it can bring to the final products. Personally, I like to think they are bunch of fundamentalists for the concept of "terroirs," that they produce very site specific wines with minimum human-hand prints.
Personally, I am not a fan of the term "natural" because it somehow refers to wines made in other fashions (that are conscious to the environment, but do not follow exactly word-for-word the biodynamic dogma) as "unnatural." I have tasted good and bad examples of wines from both ends of the spectrum and neither do I consider one side better than the other. In my views, they are just different approaches to winemaking (it can be a really personal and controversial subject, if you don't know already). Just because you frequent your local farmers' markets, it does not automatically make you a candidate for Green Peace. There are major gradations of environmentally conscious approaches to a mono-cultural agriculture, such as viticulture and winemaking. And wine consumers should favor wines on their own that they consider more akin to their own beliefs. In short, natural wines are produced bio-dynamically. Some of my favorite natural wines that do not break the bank:
Try: 1) Foradori Teroldego ($15/375ml) is from Trentino-Alto Adige in northeastern Itay. This is a very approachable wine that will make any lover of Malbec, Zinfandel and Syrah very happy. The dark inky nature of the Teroldego complements black fruits and spices. It is delicious, above being natural! 2) Domaine Turner Pageaot Les Choix ($46) is a 100% skin-fermented Marsanne from the Languedoc region of France. This is a good example for people who are interested in the "orange" wine trend. It's very versatile when it comes to food pairings, especially when it comes to dishes that can work with either white or red. 3) Maxime Magnon Corbières Rozeta ($23), is a Burgundian approach to Cinsaut that will definitely blow your mind. The purity of the red fruits are just so fresh and juicy with zesty acidity that totally leaves the funk out of some of the extreme natural wine. 4) Domaine de l'Ecu Muscadet Sevre-et-Maine "Granite" ($18) is one of the most well know cult producers that crosses winemakers and geologists together. Muscadet has long been considered the classic wine pairing to oysters and seafood; it works well with something briny because it's lemony and easy to drink. But, this is probably one of the most serious and good value Muscadet you can find in the market.