My own discovery of natural wine was by accident. Well over a decade ago, I stumbled onto a natural wine bar in New York and got a taste of a funky red so rich in terroir — the unique flavor and sense of place imparted to wine by the environment in which it’s grown — that I got hooked. (In French, terroir literally means “earth.”) Not every bottle I’ve tried since then has been a winner, but enough have been memorable, at times even extraordinary, that I have tried to learn more, as well as to drink more.
As someone who loves to chat with the vendors at farmers markets, I’m just as interested in winemakers’ approach to winemaking as I am in how my tomato or my squash was grown. I like the fact that most natural winemakers try to be conscientious stewards of the land. More than anything, I fell in love with the taste of the product, which felt — there’s no other word for it — alive.
Certainly, I’ve had a bad bottle now and again, but that’s to be expected, natural or not. “There’s a lot of bad wine out there, period,” says Jorge Riera, the wine director at the New York restaurant Frenchette, a James Beard Award-winner that champions natural wine. His point? Just because you slap a trendy label on a bottle — organic, biodynamic or natural — that doesn’t automatically make it good.
Personally, I gravitate toward wines made with as few additives as possible, not because of chemical sensitivities but because I get the best sense of terroir that way, without having to buy a plane ticket to France, or wherever, and stick my nose in the soil. In modern winemaking, scores of additives are in common use. Riera considers the practice a form of manipulation, used to ensure that bottles will taste consistent from batch to batch, and from vintage to vintage. “With natural wines,” Riera says, “different vintages will taste very different from year to year.”
Over time, I’ve seen a couple of myths about natural wine debunked: First, that they’re lower in alcohol than regular wines (often true, but not always). Second, that they must be drunk young, because they typically contain no added sulfites (a preservative that kills microbes and bacteria that can adversely affect how a wine ages). Stacey Khoury-Diaz, the owner of Dio, a natural-wine bar on H Street NE, pushes back on that last claim. “Natural wine can be aged,” she insists, describing the process as “fairly unpredictable, trial and error.” Nevertheless, she says, it’s not impossible. “I’ve drunk — and I know people that have had — great aged natural wines.”
Here are the best places to look for natural wine, whether aged or almost just off the vine.
With only 24 seats, this jewel box of a Filipino restaurant in Columbia Heights takes some planning to get a table, but it’s well worth the trouble. The drinks menu — recently revamped to feature only natural wines — includes Domaine Ligas’s assyrtiko, a white wine with notes of green grass and a slight chalkiness — but in a good way. All the wines here, chosen by beverage director Amanda Carpenter, pair beautifully with newly minted James Beard Award-winning chef Tom Cunanan’s bold and adventurous spin on Filipino fare, which goes well beyond adobo and other traditional dishes. 3226 11th St. NW.
The wine list at this Michelin-starred restaurant and its cozy downstairs wine bar isn’t limited to natural options, but beverage director Alex Zink says that he seeks out growers who take care of their soil and avoids ones who mass produce. Zink’s thoughtfully assembled selections offer plenty of biodynamic choices, from both the Old World and the New, including two compelling whites: Bow & Arrow’s Melon, a citrusy wine from Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and Envinate’s Benje, made with low-acid, low-sugar listán blanco grapes — the same grapes used in sherry — from the Canary Islands. The Dabney: 122 Blagden Alley NW. Dabney Cellar: 1222 Ninth St. NW.
Nestled on a bustling stretch of H Street NE, this women-owned-and-operated wine bar specializes in natural wines made by female vintners. Owner Khoury-Diaz, who grew up in Sonoma County, where her family still makes wine, looks beyond the expected Old World regions, which typically dominate natural wine lists. Dio features bottles from plenty of New World wine regions as well: California, for example, as well as Oregon, Chile and even Mexico. Chilean labels include Cacique Maravilla’s Vino Naranja, a robust, unfiltered orange wine made from muscatel grapes. (“Orange” refers to the light amber color of certain white wines, not to the citrus fruit, although the taste can be sour and slightly nutty.) Mexican wines include those made from red Mission grapes, said to be the first wine grape planted in North America. There’s also local representation by Old Westminster Winery’s Pét-Nat — or pétillant naturel, a trendy naturally sparkling wine — made in Carroll County, Md. Of course, there’s also a selection from countries such as France, Austria, Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal and Georgia. 904 H St. NE.
While this unpretentious Shaw wine bar isn’t all-natural, founder and sommelier Brent Kroll’s 500-bottle wine list offers something for every taste. If you’re ready to explore natural wines, just ask for guidance. This month, the bar’s tasting theme is the “Mean Green Jardin,” a.k.a. the Loire Valley. Often called the garden (or jardin) of France, the valley is home to many grape varietals, such as cabernet franc, sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, Muscadet and others. Come in for one — or more — 2½ -ounce pour (slightly more than a quarter cup), to get a good introduction to the list. But don’t stop there: if you’re looking for a menu with less rotation, the meticulously assembled one-page core list has you covered. Wines include a ruby-hued hondarrabi beltza, a dark-skinned grape believed to be descended from cabernet franc and grown only in the Basque region of Spain. 1336 Ninth St. NW.
The Brookland bistro offers a compact selection of natural wines from France, as well as Maryland and Virginia, where co-owner Sebastian Zutant makes his own wines under the Lightwell Survey label. Zutant describes Primrose’s stance on wine not as 100 percent natural, but “natural-adjacent,” explaining that climate conditions in Maryland and Virginia necessitate the use of some fertilizer (making the wine less than wholly natural, according to purists). With the restaurant’s French focus, you can expect to find bottles from that country’s best-known wine regions — the Loire and Rhône valleys, for example — as well as more obscure areas, such as Côtes Catalanes and Ardèche. Don’t overlook the food, as the wines Zutant selects marry well with the menu’s offerings, from steak tartare to a roasted chicken that’s gaining its own cult following. 3000 12th St. NE.
On its tight yet eclectic — and natural-leaning — drinks menu, sprinkled with such cheeky names as “Stop Trying to Make Champagne Happen,” the Michelin-starred Tail Up Goat strives to spotlight smaller winemakers, according to co-owner and beverage director Bill Jensen. Focusing on three distinct wine regions — Mediterranean islands, Old World river valleys and the Eastern Seaboard — the playful list actually has a great selection of natural wines, although it may not specifically call them such. It also spotlights wines made with minimal intervention, from grapes that are, according to Jensen, consciously and sustainably produced. At my last dinner there, I was lucky enough to enjoy a trio of orange wines: one from Georgia, one from France and one from Greece. 1827 Adams Mill Rd. NW.
A favorite with chefs, the pizza place 2 Amys is famous for its Neapolitan pie, as well as things that go with it. That would be an impressive (and sassy) wine list that skews toward minimal-intervention and/or natural offerings — although the latter category isn’t always labeled as such. Owner Peter Pastan says he seeks out wineries that care about their land and their grapes — as well as wine that “tastes good and is not ridiculously overpriced.” Pastan pours delicious selections from small family producers, mostly from Italy and ranging from Tyrol to Sicily. There’s also a little champagne, along with lesser-known varietals: Tiberio’s trebbiano d’Abruzzo, for example, offers a crisp assertion of the grapes’ terroir. Another selection, Foradori’s fontanasanta manzoni bianco, is a “skin-contact” wine, referring to a process that leaves grapes in contact with their skins and seeds for anywhere from a few days to over a year. (The technique is said to improve color, flavor and dryness.) Both of these wines are a great way to branch out beyond the chiantis, barolos, and amarones that Italy is known for. Pastan also carries wine he has had a hand in making, such as Dohmeyer’s VYD, a robust white, or carbonic sangiovese, an effervescent red. That last one, according to Pastan, might be the most perfect pairing with pizza. For Pastan, the appeal of natural wine is its purity. “The older I get,” he says, “The simpler it gets.” 3715 Macomb St. NW.
This all-natural wine store, which opened late last year in Truxton Circle, is the newest kid on the D.C. wine scene, but it has already made a name for itself, offering 400 different labels, the vast majority of which are French, and with the Loire Valley and Jura regions prominently featured. Look for such uncommon varietals as gringet and mornen noir from France, and teroldego from northern Italy. (Germany, Hungary, Slovakia, Canada and the United States are among the dozen or so other countries whose wines are stocked.) For newbies — or those just looking for a bargain — check out the rack of wines under $20 by the front door. Domestique holds weekly tastings for $10 per person on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 3 p.m. (the fee is waived if you make a purchase over $50). In addition to tasting classes, there’s also a wine club for $75 a month, which gets you three to four especially exciting bottles, handpicked by the knowledgeable staff. 10 Florida Ave. NW.
Specializing in products from Latin America, this friendly shop is located in the first floor of the Jefferson Marketplace apartments in Shaw. In addition to gourmet foods, beer and liquor, the store has a thoughtfully assembled selection of sustainable natural wines that also include bottles from Spain, Portugal, Italy and the United States. The natural options are scattered around the shelves but are easy to spot; look for the handwritten “natural” tag, tied with a piece of twine around the neck. Grand Cata offers a wine club, with two wines per month for a $40, month-to-month subscription (discounts are available for extended subscriptions). Membership also gets you a regular store discount (including wine purchases, special tastings and classes), invitations to monthly release parties and a gift. 1550 Seventh St. NW.
While Weygandt Wines’ focus isn’t strictly on natural wines, most of the bottles stocked by this beloved Cleveland Park store, open since 2009, come from small vintners who tend to practice an organic, biodynamic — or some kind of sustainable — approach to farming, with minimal intervention. The bulk of the offerings come from France, Austria, Italy, Spain and Portugal. Weygandt holds biweekly classes ($35-$50 per person) and monthly first-Friday tasting events, where you’ll find closeout prices on select wines going out of stock. (The store sometimes branches out to include the occasional class on spirits as well.) There’s also a wine club, with several different tiers and price points, from a basic $30 monthly membership, focusing on best values, to a “collector’s” level, which, for $100 a month, will introduce you to hard-to-find wines and ones worth aging, both made by top producers. 3519 Connecticut Ave. NW.
Summer Solstice natural wine festival
While many of the natural wine bars in Washington pour bottles from nations such as Spain, Georgia and Australia, there’s a growing segment of natural wine producers in our own backyard, including Maryland’s Old Westminster, which has been winning plaudits for its approach to growing wines with wild yeast and “minimal intervention.” To celebrate the summer solstice, Old Westminster is hosting a natural wine festival at its Burnt Hill Farm vineyard with two dozen U.S. makers of natural wine and 10 more from around the world pouring at least 100 different wines in a giant circus tent. Beyond sipping, the day includes a DJ, live painting, and food from regional restaurants, including D.C.’s Primrose and Baltimore’s Clavel. And for city-dwellers who might be wondering how they’re going to persuade a friend to be the designated driver, the festival has an intriguing option: Round-trip bus transportation leaving directly from natural wine bars, including Primrose, Dio and Domestique.
June 22 from noon to 6 p.m. Burnt Hill Farm, 25001 Burnt Hill Rd., Clarksburg. $45-$160.