It is a testament to the natural wine movement that there is any sort of event in Denver dedicated to exhibiting its wines, let alone a full week jam-packed with tastings, dinners, and fundraisers. This beer-soaked town's wine resume is growing and I couldn't be happier. I was able to attend several of the events but wanted to highlight the grand tasting, a showcase of hundreds of natural wines, from small boutique vignerons in Sonoma like Martha Stoumen to centuries-old Alsace producers Marcel Deiss.
Before I get to the main event, I want to include a short note about how little patience I have for critics of natural wines and the movement behind them. There seem to be a lot of them coming out of the woodwork these days, as if the corporate wine overlords started dispatching them once they realized these wines might affect their market share. The vast majority of these writers are ill-advised blowhards who have either 1) been paid by others to inaccurately depict one of the most exciting developments in wine in the last 100 years or 2) their anecdotal experience with one or two "extreme" natural wines has led them to believe that all natural wines are oxidized, sulfite-free, funktastic, orange wines made by a hermit who lives in a cave on a side of a hill in southeast France.
Attending a single event like the grand tasting in Denver will show any sentient being that the average level of quality in this diverse group of wines is incredibly high. Are there bad natural wines? Damn straight. But there are far more bad conventional wines in the world. Bad conventional wines commit a far more egregious crime. They are most commonly fit the trend of homogenous, manipulated juice that all tastes the same. It'll get you drunk but that's about it. A writer who ignores this fact is trying to hide some pre-conceived belief or intention and I think they should be scratched from the record entirely. Not only are most natural wines incredibly good, they are painstakingly more interesting and this benefits seasoned wine snobs and new wine consumers alike. The idea that natural wine can't and doesn't cater to new wine drinkers is a pile of shit. And natural wines aren't simply about going "back to the roots" to farm and make wine like they did hundreds of years ago. Many of the producers I tasted, some of which for the first time, are making wines that no one has ever made before. They are discovering new terroir, revitalizing long-forgotten and obscure varietals, and doing so without Mega Purple, oak chips, or stabilizers.
Now that I have that off my chest, let's start off with what I thought were the most exciting wines at the tasting: Ovum Wines. I can't remember the last time I tasted 6 wines from the same producer and was blown away by all of them. Let me just say, OVUM WINES IS A TOP 5 PRODUCER OF WHITE WINES IN THE US. John House, the owner and winemaker, earned his chops at Chehalem Winery in Oregon's Willamette Valley and his wines reminded me of the first time I tasted the riesling portfolio of Trisaetum Winery, another phenomenal riesling-focused winery in the area. Ovum's focus is also riesling, with a dash of other varietals like Gewurztraminer, and a laser focus on specific soil types/terroirs in the Willamette Valley and southern Oregon. These wines are absolutely dripping with terroir: incredible minerality, a unique saltiness on some of them, a flinty/smokiness akin to some of Europe's best riesling, generous acidity, and some insane flavor characteristics that I haven't tasted in any other domestic rieslings. Best of all, these could age for decades, my guess is easily 20+ years. One of my favorites was the "Off the Grid" riesling, a gem from the Rogue Valley in Oregon. The wines range in price from $25-35, so not your everyday picnic wine but a great value for a wine you can store away for decades. If you come across these wines, buy them, you will not be disappointed.
My next stop was Marcel Deiss, who had 10+ wines on offer. The winemaker, Marie-Hélène Cristofaro, flew all the way across the pond just to spend the week in Denver. Despite the event being busy, she took me patiently threw a number of the wines, noting differences in soil and terroir. She also spent a good amount of time elaborating on their commitment to biodynamics. While most of their wines are far out of my price range, her Premier Cru and Grand Cru bottles were unsurprisingly some of the best, if not the best, wines at the event. I don't drink Alsace too often and as a result, I forgot how lush and rich these wines can be. The 1998 Premier Cru Englegarten and the 2005 Premier Cru Gruenspiel were top notch but the 2000 Schoenenbourg Grand Cru was my favorite of the bunch and, again, out of my price range at $100. That being said, if good values exist for $100 bottles of wine, this is it!
Next up was a somewhat surprising flight of 3 Aussie wines. I don't drink a ton of Aussie wines. I'm simply uninformed about the high quality natural producers that make it to the states. Also, I'm very aware that the Aussie's are smart enough to drink all of their best wines themselves, leaving little for us. That being said, I've had 3 or 4 in the last year that were phenomenal, one of them being from Ochota Barrels. I was introduced to them through a mystery case from Garagiste and every time I've drank them since, I've been blown away. Their wines are immensely drinkable yet thoroughly intriguing, a tough balancing act, especially in the natural wine world. Most of their red wines also have a unique medicinal component that I really enjoy. The "Green Room" Grenache/Syrah blend comes from the McLaren Vale and clocks in at under 14% alcohol. Very silky and juicy on the palate with an incredible perfume of roses, bright red fruits, and pepper that carries through to the palate. A great wine for both high-volume summer drinking or slow contemplation.
The other two wines were equally interesting. The BK Wines Syrah from Adelaide Hills was phenomenal, nearly a carbon copy of some northern Rhone syrahs I've had recently. Equal parts barnyard funk and purple fruit, I could drink this all day with a cassoulet in the winter. In a blind tasting, I would have been completely fooled and thought it to be authentically French. The Jamsheed Harem La Syrah was not my favorite, as it seemed overpowered by green/herbal components without much fruit. I'd have no problem drinking it but I wasn't sure what to think of it. All in all though, some great Aussie wines.
The next wines I came across were made by the one-and-only Martha Stoumen. I think it's important to highlight her wines because her focus is almost entirely unique in the US, "to work with sun-loving grapes: either those historic to California Viticulture, or those that flourish and maintain elegance in California's warmth, such as Carignane and Nero d'Avola." She has previously worked at Broc in Berkeley and COS in Italy so she couldn't be more prepared to make natural wines from these grapes. The three wines she was pouring-Carignan, Carignan/Zinfandel blend, and Zinfandel/Nero d'Avola blend-were not only incredibly pure and utterly drinkable, I've had few like them from the US. Certainly some similarities to the minimalist winemaking of Broc and to the style of the Italian varietals I tasted at Idlewild's tasting room in Healdsburg but I kept coming back to the incredible nose on all of the wines. So vibrant, so alive, so much to ponder. She has a few other wines she makes, including two rosés and a 100% varietal Nero d'Avola. She's got some solid talent crafting her label art too so be on the lookout for her wines!
I was so glad to see Oregon well-represented by Johan Vineyards at the tasting. Johan has always been a favorite of mine, going all the way back to my time living in Oregon. From my experience and unscientific guess, Oregon has some of the highest concentration of "natural" winemakers in the world. While some large of Oregon's original wineries have grown to become quite large, I still see a big commitment to natural viticulture and winemaking. Johan's vineyards at 100% certified biodynamic and they make some great pinot noir. They had several great wines on offer: Farmlands pinot noir, Estate Pinot Noir, and Nils pinot noir. Farmlands is one of the better "entry-level" Oregon pinot noir available today under $25 and the Estate and Nils bottles were classic Oregon pinot noir. Earth, berries, a nice little funk, everything I look for in Oregon pinot noir. Best of all, Johan is now making a pet nat (!!) from pinot noir. It was real good.
Other notable wines:
Jack Rabbit Hill Riesling
I live in Colorado so I'm well aware that there are actually some great wines made in the state but I was still surprised by this riesling. This comes from a working farm and is farmed 100% biodynamic. One of the highest commercial vineyards in the world at 5,000+ ft.
This was one of the few white Italian white wines at the tasting and boy was it a stunner. Tons of minerality and richness while only at 12% alcohol. This hails from Trentin-Alto-Adige in northeastern Italy. If you think that Pinot Grigio is all that Italy has to offer for white wines, give this a try. AWESOME.
COS Nero di Lupo
COS is a widely recognized natural wine producer in southern Italy and this bottle is probably the most enjoyable Nero d'Avola I've ever had. Decidedly smooth tannins with generous notes of black and red cherry and a type of southern Italian garrigue of leather, licorice, and spices. Very, very well-balanced and dangerously gulpable. Wow.
This winery was entirely new to me and I'm mad that I didn't know they existed when I was in Santa Barbara at the end of last year. They make a variety of wines but only had a pinot noir and syrah available for tasting. These wines were two of the most restrained and elegant California wines I've had in awhile. Very low alcohol in the 13-14% range but health acidity and great complexity.
A few of my other favorites from the USA: Omero Cellars and Minimus Wines, Broc Cellars, Idlewild Wines, and Scribe. You can scroll through the photo carousel below to see photos of most of the wines I discuss in the article.