When it comes to natural winemaking, I’m pretty much in the dark. I think organic practices are great, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not a make-or-break selling point for me right now — I generally won’t choose a wine just because it’s organic. And the biodynamic movement (which seems to be organic plus a dash of New Age spirituality) makes me a little leery, but there must be something to it or it wouldn’t have caught on the way it has.
But natural winemaking? What does that even mean? Well, it depends on whom you ask. As Jon Bonné points out in this week’s Thirst column, many winemakers are doing it without even being aware of the term — so it’s probably safe to assume that most consumers know even less about it.
San Francisco Natural Wine Week sought to change that. I had to miss the vast majority of it due to work, but I did manage to make it to Tuesday’s tasting at Biodivino, an Italy-focused wine shop on Russian Hill that I’d never visited before. There were a couple dozen people packed into a very small space (even spilling out onto the sidewalk), so my notes aren’t as thorough as they could be, but here’s how it went down.
Tenuta delle Terre Nere Etna Bianco 2008 (Etna, Sicily): Herbaceous, vegetal nose. Dry and lean with floral and herbal notes, grapefruit, lemongrass, a touch of minerals. Made from a blend of four native grapes. $20. (For more information about Tenuta delle Terre Nere, see this post from Skurnik Wines.)
Tenuta delle Terre Nere Etna Rosato 2008 (Etna, Sicily): Floral nose with lemon custard and orange blossom aromas. Golden pink color. This is a dry rosé with citrus overtones tempered by soft melon, mandarin orange and a hint of honey. $20.
Tenuta delle Terre Nere Etna Rosso 2008 (Etna, Sicily): Nose is filled with rich red fruits, chocolate and toasted oak. A very dry red with silky tannins and herbal undertones, cocoa and red berries. $20.
Salvo Foti “Vinupetra” Etna Rosso (Etna, Sicily): Rustic, barnyard aromas with dark fruits. Lovely plush fruit flavors with herbal zest, a touch of vanilla, caramel and meat spices. $73.
Azienda Agricola COS Rami Bianco 2008 (Ragusa, Sicily): Very fruity nose with melon, lemon curd and honeysuckle. Dry and herbaceous on the palate — I got lime zest, grapefruit, dill and white pepper. Very … pure. I don’t know how else to describe it. $26.
Azienda Agricola COS Cerasuolo di Vittoria 2006 (Ragusa, Sicily): Nose of ripe dark fruits with an herbal streak and a hint of petroleum. Fruit-forward flavors spiked with black pepper and rosemary. $30.
Azienda Agricola COS “Pithos” 2006 (Ragusa, Sicily): This wine is the same as the Cerasuolo di Vittoria, but aged in clay amphorae rather than concrete. The nose is plush and full of bright red fruits — downright juicy. In the mouth, herbal flavors dominate against a background of dark berries, plum and black pepper. Almost austere. Far less fruit-forward than the Cerasuolo. $42.
Ariana Occhipinti SP68 Rosso Vittoria (Ragusa, Sicily): Fruity nose carries grape jelly and blackcurrants. Rich, full, juicy fruits wash over the tongue, followed by currants, raspberries and a slight vegetal streak. $28.
Cascina degli Ulivi “Filagnotti” Gavi 2006 (Piemonte): Nose of lemon custard, orange blossom, Red Delicious apple. Floral on the palate with lemon, rose petal, vanilla, custard. $26.
Massa Vecchia Rosso NV (Maremma, Tuscany): Very plush, ripe nose tinged with pepper and blackcurrant. Herbal flavors dominate. Dry with strong tannins, blackberries, black cherry. $41.
Omero Moretti Sagrantino 2004 (Umbria): Nose carries black cherry, oak and a touch of blackberries. Look for flavors of cedar, pepper, smoke, earth, dark fruits. Strong tannins — cries out for food. $37.
And now, on to Georgia (the country), Village Kisiskhevi:
Vinoterra Tsinandali 2007: Nose has anise, lemon, basil and pepper. Very austere in the mouth, with citrus, herbs, grass and white pepper. Racy — sort of akin to Sauvignon Blanc. A pretty good value at $15.
Vinoterra Mstvane 2005: Fascinating golden color with a touch of orange. This wine sits on the skins in amphorae for six months; then the wine spends two years in French oak. Mellow at first, then gains intensity; that said, it’s very dry and herbal, hardly a hint of fruit. $21.
Vinoterra Saperavi 2003: This wine spends 20 days in amphorae and two years in French oak. Light red color, light body. Rich, fruity nose with a bracing backbone of oak, but the flavor is very dry and oaky with firm tannins. $23.
The bottom line? Nothing knocked my socks off, but I was glad to have a chance to try wines from Georgia for the first time (and they were fairly good; I’d buy the Tsinandali again) and to check out a good sampling of amphora-aged wines. But for natural winemaking to take off, they’re going to need more cohesive standards and stronger marketing — the concept has a lot going for it, but it’s not going to reach the Yellow Tail crowd anytime soon. That said, the organic/natural movement shows no signs of slowing down, so who knows? Here’s hoping the first San Francisco Natural Wine Week isn’t the last.