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What are "natural" wines and where can you buy them in CT?

Aug 08, 2023Aug 08, 2023

Though still hard to find in Connecticut, "natural" wines are growing in popularity.

Natural wines taste different. While there is no official natural wine designation, wines that are called "natural" are frequently made from heirloom and/or sustainably farmed grapes and are fermented with natural yeasts. This process can give some of them the appealing sour and funky flavors that natural beer lovers, myself included, enjoy. The wines, which are often unfiltered, can also have more fruit-forward flavors and can be reminiscent of cider or kombucha. There are also natural wines that taste more like your standard wine; they’re simply made with more natural processes and from grapes that are organically or biodynamically farmed.

Andrew Hotis, co-owner of Bar August, a European-style wine bar in New Haven, says that while natural-wine flavors cross a wide spectrum, he and other connoisseurs can usually recognize them by taste alone. "When you’re tasting a natural wine, you get flavors that are a little bit more earthbound," he says. "They tend toward the funky, they tend toward the esoteric."

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That's because natural wine is generally unfiltered and without preservatives. "Conventional wines are manipulated for the purpose of creating consistent products, whereas natural wines, they embrace that strangeness," Hotis says. "I like to describe natural wines as being alive … When you taste the natural wine, you can almost get a sense that it's a living thing, that there's microbial activity going on there that's beautiful."

Jason Black, an owner of Ungrafted Selections, a Connecticut wine distributor that specializes in natural wine, is drawn to them because of their connection to farming and the environment as well as their flavor. "When you taste a lineup of wines from one region and you taste the more farmer-focused wines that are often leaning natural, they’re always more interesting, they always have more personality," he says.

Because there is no official designation in the U.S. — only France has a governed classification — there is some debate as to what constitutes a natural wine, and just how much funk is good. Fountainhead Wines in Norwalk features many natural wines, but owner Michael Pelletier prefers wines that use some sulfur dioxide to preserve the wine and make it shelf stable, as opposed to natural wines that have no added preservatives. "Some people believe you can't call it natural if you’re using any sulfur dioxide," he says. "The [winemakers] that I’m talking about use a minimum, just a dash right before bottling to preserve it."

Pelletier also steers clear of some of the more extreme-tasting vintages. "I’ve got some that are pretty funky, but not super funky, because if I taste them and they are super funky, I just don't buy them for my store, even though perhaps there's a market for them," he says. "I just don't want my wines to smell and taste spoiled, and to me some natural wines do. But if you talk to a 30-year-old sommelier at some wine bar in Brooklyn, they will tell you something different."

Since Connecticut is not Brooklyn, finding natural wine often means seeking out a wine shop that specializes in them. "If somebody is looking in various quarters of the state to find natural wines, I would say to go the route of the boutique wine store or the boutique bar or restaurant rather than the box stores," Hotis says.

A quick survey shows these wine and liquor stores carry varying selections of natural wines (there are almost certainly others): The Wine Thief in New Haven and Madison; Tilted Bottles Wine and The Wise Old Dog in West Hartford, and The Fine Wine Company and The Grapevine in Westport. Some have sections dedicated to natural wines, while others sprinkle them throughout the various wine categories.

Even though you can find natural wines in Connecticut, the scene is not as developed here as in New York or other parts of New England. This is in part because there are seemingly no Connecticut wineries producing natural wine, and in part because distributing wine in Connecticut is expensive.

"There's a $200-per-label registration fee here," Black says. That fee is good for three years and is the same whether the wine comes from a winery that produces 50 cases a year or hundreds of thousands, so it is harder for distributors to bring in as many small-batch natural wines as, for instance, New York distributors can, where label registrations are less expensive.

New York is also home to several wineries specializing in natural wine, including Wild Arc in the Hudson Valley and Channing Daughters on Long Island. Perhaps not coincidentally, I discovered natural wine at a wine shop called Dirty Bacchus in Beacon, N.Y.

But Black sees lots of opportunity for growth in Connecticut's natural wine scene and is waiting for a wine shop or bar to go all in on natural wine and feature it exclusively. "Someday it will happen. This happened in Vermont, Maine, New York and Massachusetts," he says. "We’re just waiting for it to happen in Connecticut."

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