Good wine begins with a risk. In the vineyard, farmers gamble on how the weather will treat them that season. In the cellar, winemakers make a thousand different decisions that will affect the quality and characteristics of the wine. Finally, the process ends with us, the ever-humble wine-drinker, standing in front of the shelf, contemplating whether to grab an old tried-and-true bottle or take a risk on something new.
While it’s easy to fall back on the familiar, we believe that there’s usually no fun in playing it safe. That’s one of the reasons we love natural wine so much – at its heart, the philosophy is underlined by a certain level of risk-taking, all in the name of better wine. Natural winemakers make the choice every day to forgo chemical pesticides, industrial yeasts, or machine harvesting, and instead choose to return to more honest, sustainable practices that often fly in the face of what is considered the standard in their region or even the larger market.
Deciding to go organic or use exclusively native yeasts can be difficult, expensive, and sometimes cause farmers to lose a significant portion of their harvest as they’re working out the kinks of their process. However, more often than not, that risk pays off, and in a big way. Their wine is better for the environment, more representative of terroir, and if you ask us, usually more fun to drink.
As winemakers decide to take calculated risks every day with the goal of improving their wine, it only seems appropriate that we also take a risk at our level by trying out a bottle from a producer that we’ve never heard of. The natural wine movement has always been about going against the status quo, so what greater way to honor the joy of risk-taking than drinking wine from small-production, underdog producers? Here, we’ve laid out six of our favorite natural winemakers at the moment that are doing anything but playing it safe.
Vincenzo “Enzo” di Meo takes his underdog status to heart: he describes his project as ‘naturalmente controcorrente’ or naturally against the current, alluding to his intentionally non-traditional approach to winemaking.
Despite his counter-culture philosophy, Enzo’s wines are easy to love, and we’re excited to share them with you. The small, five-hectare vineyard complex is located just a few miles from the ocean, giving the wines a salty, breezy, carefree flair.
Enzo tends to focus on often overlooked indigenous grapes in Abruzzo, like Passerina, in addition to the old standbys of Trebbiano and Montepulciano. Combined with a low interventionist approach in the cellar, zero sulfur, fining, or filtering, the resulting wines are a fun, unexpected tribute to both the old and the new tradition of winemaking in Abruzzo.
Haarmeyer Cellars is part of the new wave of natural wine producers in California that emphasize place over process. The family team of Craig, Alex, Kelly, and Marian started the project in 2008 with a primary focus on their Chenin Blanc plantings. This is a grape not typically seen, let alone focused on, in the Cali wine scene, but the Haarmeyers are not ones to step down from a challenge.
Chenin Blanc isn’t the only unexpected grape they plant: a juicy Nebbiolo and a skin-contact Riesling are some other bottlings they offer, along with an old-vine Zinfandel that is so bright it could almost pass for Beaujolais. Needless to say, the Haarmeyers thrive on experimentation.
Sierra Reed, Victoria
Sierra Reed is an adventurer at heart. After a career as a model and a short stint in reality TV (look out for her on season 18 of Survivor!), she found herself as the host of a food and wine series in New Zealand. Through her exposure to the industry, she discovered her love for wine and winemaking, thus launching her headfirst into the wine world.
As it had now become her habit, Sierra then traveled around the world, working with winemakers in France, Italy, the U.S.A., and Germany before finally settling down in Australia to launch her own project.
Such a whirlwind career has contributed to Reed’s worldly style of winemaking with a colorful and personal collage of influences. The project focuses on single-vineyard bottlings as a micro-négociant, in which grapes are bought from thoughtfully selected vineyards. The results are gorgeous, thoughtfully made wines that challenge existing Australian winemaking styles, like a bright, off-dry Riesling contrary to the crisp, dry style typical to the region.
Like Sierra, Stéphane Morin began his career in the fashion industry, and his background in photography has given him a unique perspective in the winemaking world. His appreciation for beauty and art completely translates to his wines.
Based in the Languedoc region of France, Stephane pushes the boundaries of traditional local winemaking by often including carbonic maceration in his wines: a process that is rarely seen outside of Beaujolais that gives the wine a bright, punchy, fruit-forward character. Used on the more robust grapes indigenous to the region, like Syrah and Grenache, carbonic maceration imparts an unexpected playfulness and pureness that Stéphane believes keeps his wines “close to the soil.”
Being close to the soil isn’t just a metaphor. Stéphane’s above-ground cellar is completely covered with a layer of soil, grass, and greenery to keep it cool, naturally. From afar, the structure blends into the landscape, mirroring the close relationship between the wines and the soil from which they originate.
Fond du Cyprès, Languedoc
Husband-wife duo Laetitia and Rodolphe of Fond du Cyprès are living the dream. Located in the sun-drenched Corbières region of the Languedoc, their vineyards are surrounded by herb gardens, olive groves, and even a small army of kittens. At Fond du Cyprès, it’s summer all year long.
Their wines reflect the effortless beauty of their surroundings and are the epitome of what the French call “glou-glou”: bright, fresh, and totally gulpable on a sunny afternoon. Laetitia and Rodolphe tend to focus on traditional local varieties like Syrah, Carignan, and Grenache, but their playful and low interventionist approach in the cellar and avoidance of sulfur additions give the grapes a whole new life in the bottle. Their wines are the perfect addition to any picnic, beach day, or just when you need to add a little sunshine to your day.
Self-described “rebellious” winery Flavia is located on the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna, just miles from the Sicilian coastline. Inspired by their iconic, fiery backdrop, Flavia and Giacomo Rallo are following in their great-grandfather’s footsteps in the vineyard while blazing their own trail in the winemaking world with their exciting natural wines.
Flavia exclusively plants native Sicilian grape varieties like Perricone and Catarratto in their historic family vineyards (planted in the 1860s!), with the intention of honoring their native land with their own twist. They use only indigenous yeasts, and add minimal sulfur in the cellar, only when necessary. They believe focusing on sustainable, natural winemaking will help them one day allow their own future generations to carry on the winemaking tradition as they have from their great-grandfather.