Right now, wine culture in America is more expansive than ever before. By-the-glass options at progressive restaurants go far beyond Malbec and Pinot Grigio, and wine professionals are increasingly embracing a genre of naturally-made wines—a loose classification that refers to wine produced with little intervention and minimal technology or chemical additives in both the vineyard and cellar. Often these bottles are low-alcohol with high-acid, in the style of what the French call glouglou or vin de soif—meaning, they go down easy enough that guzzling a few bottles in the company of fellow oenophiles over a meal is not out of the question.
Along with wine buyers, many chef-driven restaurants have adopted lists that feature organic, low-sulfur, bright and easy drinking options. Below, some of the country’s best new restaurants that emphasize natural wines plus suggestions on bottles to try.
Location: 1519 E Cesar Chavez St., Austin, TX
Wine by: Owner Steven Dilley
Try: Domaine Valette Pouilly-Vinzelles, 2009, Burgundy, FR ($77)
Bufalina, Steven Dilley’s micro pizza place that stocks a massive wood-fired oven, won over locals when it debuted last year with its simple, fresh ingredient-topped pies. Dilley himself devised Bufalina's wine list and, in addition to being a fan of natural wines, he's especially keen on white Burgundy. Domaine Valette Pouilly-Vinzelles is an ideal confluence of those loves. "Made in a relatively rich, ripe style with beautiful fruit and a hint of oxidation, it's the piercing acidity that brings this wine into focus," says Dilley. "It reminds me a bit of Raveneau," the esteemed winemaker in Chablis, known for his application of oak, "in that its richness and opulent texture are reigned in by great acid."
Location: 3500 N Elston Ave., Chicago IL
Wine by: Matty Colston, Beverage Director
Try: Les Champs Libres "Lard des Choix," 2012, Ardèche, FR ($55)
Husband and wife chef team Johnny Clark and Beverly Kim started up Parachute a year ago in Chicago’s Avondale neighborhood and immediately attracted critical acclaim—including Best New Restaurant by the Chicago Tribune—for their inspired, daily-changing Korean-American menu. The spicy yet light fare practically begs for the vin de soif style popular in Parisian wine bars: wine that goes down easy and makes you salivate for more of those Chinese spice-braised, saam-style pig’s ears. Beverage director Matty Colston heads up Parachute's bottle list and impressive by-the-glass program. He's especially keen on white wine from the Rhône (partly because he believes white Rhône varietals are overlooked in terms of pairing with Asian cuisine) and recommends trying Les Champs Libres "Lard des Choix," which is "a negociant project between friends René-Jean Dard and Hervé Souhaut." He continues, "It's a magical pairing with our char siu pork with artichokes and shiitake mushroom. While this is a natural Grenache blanc (there’s a small bit of grenache gris blended in), it's hard to believe the pristine clarity it delivers along with bright lemony aromas."
Wright & Co
Location: 1500 Woodward Ave., Detroit, MI
Wine by: Christian Stachel, Sommelier
Try: Marc Plouzeau "Rive Gauche," 2013, Chinon, FR ($11/glass, $40/bottle) Wright & Co is the product of a partnership between owners Dave Kwiatkowski, the owner and creator of The Motor City’s trendiest mixology bar The Sugar House, and Marc Djozlija, who spent two decades working for the Wolfgang Puck Group. The restaurant offers seasonally-influenced small plates, and features a wide range of natural and eclectic, terroir-driven wines, including some especially interesting dessert options, selected by sommelier Christian Stachel. When Wright & Co. opened in July 2014, it was one of Detroit’s first restaurants to highlight Old World, natural wines, along with the new wave of California producers working naturally, too. Statchel is intent on introducing guests to new varieties and regions, suggesting "Priorat, Prieto Picudo, and certain styles of Cabernet Franc in lieu of Cab Sauv. " He decided to highlight Cabernet Franc in particular, and one of his favorites is Marc Plouzeau’s Chinon, which he says has notes of "wild cherries from the river's edge, with a flourish of damp earth and tomato leaf, and hints of white pepper and spice. The tangy acids bringing a bright and lingering finish."
Night + Market Song
Location: 3322 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA
Wine by: Chef Kris Yenbamroong
Try: "Le Lapin," Beaujolais-Villages Primeur, Nicolas Testard, 2014, Beaujolais, FR ($10/glass, $30/bottle)
The original Night + Market hit West Hollywood in 2010 as a pop-up serving Thai street food, but chef Kris Yenbamroong gradually morphed the space into a permanent eatery. Building on his Sunset Boulevard success, Yenbamroong launched his sophomore effort, Night + Market Song, last year in Silver Lake. (Song is the Thai word for "two.") Southern California’s warm weather and the eclectic, spiced menu at Song make drinking food-friendly, refreshing Beaujolais an obvious choice. Yenbarmroong is in love with Nicolas Testard’s Beaujolais Nouveau, which he recommends serving chilled to properly quench your thirst. The wine is "light-bodied, murky-violet, a little stinky and super fresh." The chef reports that Nicolas Testard and his wife, Carole, "farm their 11 hectares organically, vinify with native yeast, and bottle without filtration or sulphur dioxide." Their natural approach to winemaking result in a bottle that is "fresh, ebullient, bursting with energy, extremely delicious and can be chugged quickly. It is everything I love about wine."
Location: 37 Rutledge St., Nashville, TN
Wine by: Matt Tunstall, Beverage Manager
Try: "La Probilière," Puzelat-Bonhomme, 2011, Touraine, FR ($60/bottle, $13/glass)
Much of the hype over James Beard award-winning chef Sean Brock’s restaurants goes (deservedly) to his innovative, yet comforting approach to Southern cuisine, which highlights the region’s heirloom vegetables and grains and celebrates the work of small farmers. But equally important here is wine. Interestingly, Husk's Old World-focused wine list is organized by soil type such as "Primary Rock" and "Alluvial." Also notable is a healthy smattering of small producer, independently run wineries working naturally in the vineyards and cellars. Beverage manager Matt Tunstall features "La Probilière," a light red Loire Valley wine made collaboratively by two young and influential natural winemakers, Thierry Puzelat and Pierrot Bonhomme. "La Probilière" is light, refreshing, earthy, and amenable to a wide range of foods. "It's a wonderful and dense Gamay planted on clay-rich soils," says Tunstall. "A unique style of gamay and very different from its home in Beaujolais." Specifically, the La Probilière is a stand-out because of the strain of Gamay—it’s Gamay Tintirieier, which has red pulp rather than clear. It’s made in a semi-carbonic style, with whole bunches of grapes thrown into a vat to trigger native yeast fermentation; only a tiny amount of sulfur is added before bottling.
Location: 138 Orchard Street, New York, NY
Wine by: Jorge Riera, Wine Director
Try: Bodega Naranjuez, "Baco Pérez," 2012, Grenada, SP ($70)
Contra is a haven for natural wine geeks, and its food is as cerebral as its wine. Diners can elect a beverage pairing to go along with the six course progressive, seasonal menu ($67 for the menu, $55 for pairings), or simply order a la carte. Since Contra opened in fall 2013, co-chefs Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske have been named the James Beard People’s Best New Chefs for New York, and the restaurant has become something of a hub for young, innovative cooks who stop by to guest chef for a night. At Contra, wine is helmed by Jorge Riera, known as a champion of Spanish natural wine. In particular, Riera loves the "Baco Pérez," a white blend made of a few indigenous Spanish varieties Doradia, Vigiriega, Perruna and Sauvignon Blanc. The wine sees some skin contact, giving it tannins that make it exceptionally food-friendly. Per Riera, "On the nose, the wine gives off refreshing white fruits and mango. On the palate, it has good balance, brine and mineral as well as a bright freshness with just the right amount of tannins and good acidity. The finish is long, textured and complex, which continually evolves over the duration of the bottle."
Location: 160 Havemeyer St., Williamsburg, NY
Wine by: Jess Kiefer, Sommelier
Try: Jean-Yves Péron "Les Oeillets," 2012, Savoie, FR ($53)
After a successful run with their pop-up Chez Jose, chef-owners José Ramírez-Ruiz and Pam Yung debuted their 10-course, veggie-forward tasting menu eatery in the fall of 2014 to immediate rave reviews. When Semilla first launched, Ramírez-Ruiz, Yung, and partner Joe Carroll assembled a wine list heavy on artisanal, low-sulfur, mostly Old World selections. But, they've since brought on former Terroir Tribeca GM Jess Kiefer who is especially enamored by Péron’s white wine, made with 100 percent Jacquère, an indigenous grape to France’s Savoie region. "These Alpine wines have amazing aromatics, killer acidity, and are a great value as they haven't hit the mainstream market yet," explains Kiefer. "On the nose I get aromas of cider apples and white flowers, on the palate there is a lot of texture because the juice spends about seven days in contact with the skins, bright lemon acidity, and a finish of salty stones."
Location: 1221 Locust St., Philadelphia, PA
Wine by: Ross Maloof, Bar Manager and Sommelier
Try: La Clarine Farms "Ambrosia," 2013, Sierra Foothills, CA ($82)
In 2011, couple Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby built on their successful natural foods spot, Horizon Cafe, and opened a second restaurant, Vedge, which features vegan cuisine that doesn’t make anyone miss the meat. Going way, way beyond quinoa and tofu, cuisine at Vedge presents vegetables as elegant, unique treasures, in technically-advanced forms and stunning arrangements. With this venture, Jacoby and Landau stacked their wine list with natural options, hoping to turn people on to higher-acid, earthy-toned styles. Bar manager and sommelier Ross Maloof suggests trying La Clarine Farms "Ambrosia," one of the best example of a new wave of California producers that strive to make wine with as little intervention as possible. The biodynamic Clarine Farms is 2700 feet up in the Sierra Foothills. Maloof describes the wine, of which only 52 cases were made, as: " ... a deep ruby red color [showing] all the hallmarks of mourvedre, with a nice, herbaceous nose, and cherries and plum notes on the palate. Nice minerality makes it an excellent food wine." The wine ages in large, old French oak barrels. It is unfined and unfiltered, with just a minimal amount of sulfite added at screw-top bottling.
Location: 3377 SE Division St., Portland, OR
Wine by: Wine and Service Director, Dana Frank
Try: San Fereolo Dogliani, 2005, Piemonte, IT ($50)
Opened in 2012, Ava Gene’s has a devoted following in Portland and beyond for its "Roman-inspired menu" of simple, rustic plates that emphasizing the best local Pacific Northwest produce and proteins. Matching food, the restaurant’s extensive wine list is entirely Italian, with a solid selection of amari and grappa to round out a meal. In addition to her day job, wine and service director Dana Frank makes wine with her husband under the "Bow & Arrow" label, which is vinified garagiste-style in a Portland warehouse. Frank has been nationally recognized for crafting a wine list focused almost entirely on organic and biodynamic selections. At Ava Gene's she suggests trying a ten-year-old Dolcetto from Piemonte: "This is a very expressive bottling of dolcetto by female winemaker Nicoletta Bocca, from Dogliani, a sub-appellation in the south of Piedmont, near the Barolo region. Biodynamically farmed, it's a more rustic, earthy style of dolcetto that shows dark fruit, anise, and wet soil, with really nice acidity."
Location: 140 New Montgomery St., San Francisco, CA
Wine by: Jai Wilson, Wine Director
Try: Le Cinciole, Chianti Classico, 2011, Tuscany, IT ($62)
Last year, Thad Vogler of Bar Agricole fame opened Trou Normand in SoMA featuring a stellar program of whole animal butchery and housemade charcuterie, as well as composed, vegetable-focused small plates. Both establishments present an impressive selection of grower Champagnes, and fresh, light, low-sulfur and sulfur-free wines from worlds Old and New. Trou's wine director Jai Wilson recommends something fairly unusual: a naturally-made Chianti. The "Le Cincole" is produced with certified organic Sangiovese grapes from the family estate in Panzano, a core Chianti Classico village. "Le Cinciole is cool because it is a mom and pop operation, working within the guidelines of natural winemaking, but not sacrificing the quality of the final product," said Wilson. The tannic structure and dark fruited notes in Chianti makes this wine entirely suitable for any of the fatty meats offered at Trou Normand, as well as any hard, aged cheeses.
The Red Hen
Location: 1822 First St. NM, Washington, DC
Wine by: Sebastian Zutant, Owner
Try: Barranco Oscuro "Tres Uves," 2012, Grenada, SP ($60)
Opened in DC’s historic Bloomingdale district in April 2010, the small and cozy Red Hen features Italian-influenced American cuisine cooked in a stone hearth using regional ingredients. Wine, beer and cocktails are all value-driven and eclectic in nature, with a focus on Italian-made bottles. Owner and wine director Sebastian Zutant highlights a skin-fermented (orange), low-sulfur blend of Vermentino, Viognier and Vigiriega from Barranco Oscuro, whose vineyards are the highest in all of Europe, in an almost acid climate with no irrigation. "These guys make incredible wine," he says. "This one is lush and soft and has this nervous minerality. Loads of fresh peach and citrus, it’s hard not to love. I find orange-style wines to be a nice bridge between red and white—you get the salty sweet element from the tannins, and it’s the tannins that make it a bridge. The structure is more like that of a fuller-bodied red wine."