by Judith Smelser
If you want to get people in the wine world riled up, just mention the phrase “natural wine.”
The growing popularity of this mysterious category is one of the most disruptive, divisive, and in some ways defining wine trends of the 21st century.
Why mysterious? Because “natural wine” is a squishy category. It can be hard to identify a natural wine from its label.
Why divisive? Because natural wine devotees can be almost religious in their zeal, while detractors consider the wines to be flawed and often undrinkable.
What is “natural wine”?
The term “natural wine” has no legal definition, but simply put, it’s wine that hasn’t been messed around with. The grapes are grown organically or biodynamically, with no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, and the wine is made with as few additives and as little manipulation in the winery as possible.
“Sadly, the wine industry has been dominated by garbage wines loaded with chemicals and added ingredients,” said Orlando natural wine enthusiast Matt Uva.
He’s the sales manager at Quantum Leap Winery and a managing partner with Curate wine bar and pop-up restaurant, which plans to sell almost exclusivelynatural wines when it opens in the Milk District later this year.
Most wine drinkers might be surprised to know that the U.S. government allows more than sixty additives in wine. Common ones include egg whites and fish bladders, used to filter and clarify, sulfites, used as preservatives, and a color enhancer called “Mega Purple.”
Natural winemakers generally use little to no sulfites in their wines, no filtering or coloring agents, and no new oak.
Some say natural wines are healthier than other wines, though there’s no hard scientific evidence for that. Either way, proponents like Uva argue these are sustainable wines of true character that provide an unadulterated reflection of their places of origin.
Central Florida’s emerging natural wine scene
Cities like London and New York have embraced natural wine with gusto over the past decade. Central Florida is coming later to the party, but these wines are starting to gain ground here.
Starting in 2016, a natural wine-focused distributor called City Beautiful Beverage Company opened its doors in Orlando, The Wine Barn in Winter Park held a well-attended natural wine tasting, and The Parkview on Park Avenue added a natural wine flight that stayed on its menu for about a year. The wine list at The Strandin Mills-50 now consists almost entirely of natural wines, and Swirlery Wine Bar in Conway features a wide array of natural selections.
Wines for the adventurous palate
Natural wines are fun to explore, but they do require a sense of adventure. Some are almost indistinguishable from conventional wines, but others look cloudy and taste a little (or a lot) funky. They’re often delicious but occasionally disgusting!
You need a knowledgeable guide, and the owners of these local establishments are great places to start.
You’ll find another, more begrudging natural wine sherpa in Tim Varan, founder and owner of the Tim’s Wine Marketgroup, with four locations around Central Florida. Over the years, Varan has been a guide for thousands of local wine consumers. He’s also been a self-described cynic when it comes to natural wines.
“There’s a reason people don’t drive horse and buggies anymore,” he said recently, in a reference to the movement’s rejection of most modern winemaking techniques.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I visited his Orlando store across from Lake Ivanhoe last Fall and found a table full of natural wines on display.
“Our customer base is skewing a little younger,” he told me. “I think we need to experiment.”
Varan doesn’t do anything halfway. He tasted 200 natural wines to select just thirty to put on his shelves. He calls them “low intervention” wines, and in a move that may surprise marketing students, he tells customers there’s a good chance they’ll be flawed.
“If you’re excited about the category,” he said, “you have to recognize the challenges.”
Without things like stabilizers and filtering agents, natural wines are unpredictable. In three weeks, Varan says three of his “low intervention” bottles were returned. That’s enough to make him question how long he’ll keep the table around.
“It’s gonna be challenging,” he said. “The core of my customer base has no interest in this category whatsoever.”
But he does get asked about natural wines once or twice a week, he says, and “I always want to be on the front edge.”