The offer came by email. Chambers Street Wines, one of New York City’s foremost purveyors of European Rieslings and grower Champagnes, and now apparently all-in on natural wines, was offering what it claimed to be “a sensational no- and low-sulphur mixed case of Spanish wines.”
As Wine Enthusiast’s editor for Spain, and in the name of research, I decided to take the plunge. I ordered the case, which was reasonably priced at $215, or about $18 per bottle.
Full disclosure: Prior to ordering these wines, I was no fan of natural wines, which by malleable definition are made from organically grown grapes, quite possibly biodynamic grapes, with very minimal additives (sulfur chief among them) and barely any human or technological intervention. I’d been to Contra and Wildair, sister spots in downtown Manhattan where natural wines dominate. There, I drank a cloudy Loire Valley Chenin Blanc that tasted like cider and a murky rosé from southern Italy. I had also spent a week last year in Copenhagen and in Malmö, Sweden, food-forward cities where natural wines are ubiquitous. At places like Manfreds, Bror and B.A.R., whose chefs previously cooked at lauded Noma, I drank my fair share of raunchy smelling rosés, muddled whites and volatile reds.
Based on these experiences, I began my April of Drinking Naturally with trepidation. Nothing heretofore had convinced me that the “natural” wine movement was anything more than rage against the machine. As for conventional filtered wines made with commercial yeasts, sulfur to keep them from spoiling and aged in new barrels? Anathema, according to natural-wine proponents.
And now to the meat of this essay: that alleged “sensational” case of natural Spanish wines. As I would have bet, the contents were sketchy. While tasting these wines, I found myself trying harder than I would have liked to identify virtues. Mostly it was an exercise in wading through funk and flaws.
A prime example was La Peguera 2014, made in Castilla y León by RuBor Viticultores from the rarely seen white Albillo grape. Doubtless this was unlike a commercially made Garnacha Blanca, which Albillo might be compared to, but also it was dirty, with solids floating about like chunks of fruit in sangria. And it tasted like applesauce. Was it terrible? No. Would I buy it again? No.
Another weird wine, certainly not something I’d recommend as a springtime refresher, was an overweight (15.5% abv) 2012 rosé called Κπ made by Daniel Ramos in the hot Sierra de Gredos region in west-central Spain. This ochre-colored, Garnacha-based wine was muddy to the eye, nutty smelling and tasted like mealy citrus rind. Sensational it wasn’t.
Marenas Cerro Encinas 2014 by José Miguel Márquez is a Monastrell from Córdoba. It smelled reduced and like prune juice. His white wine, Mediacapa, resembled a turbid oloroso Sherry and smelled like butterscotch. And guess what it tasted like? Compromised cider, which is what most of the natural white wines I’ve tried have tasted like.
Honesty, I didn’t get through the whole case. After trying eight of the 12 selections, the best of which were Ramón Saavedra’s 2013 Cauzón Iradei, a blend of Merlot, Tempranillo, Cabernet and Syrah from Granada, and Alfredo Maestro’s 2014 Viña Almate, a Garnacha made within the confines of Ribera del Duero, I waved the white flag of surrender.
Call me mainstream, or call me closed-minded. But I’ve made my decision regarding natural wines. They are for winemakers, sommeliers, retailers and consumers seeking something different from the tried and true. Drink these wines if you want to be “antiestablishment.” Meanwhile, I’ll stick to what I believe is good.