Deep in the Vinho Verde region of Portugal, west of Porto, retired history teacher Fernando Paiva began making wines back in 2002. The country’s first certified biodynamic producer, Paiva was constantly researching ways to eliminate inputs from his work. He’d heard of a family in the northern part of the Trás-os-Montes who had made goat cheese for generations without the use of any synthetic preservatives and sought out their wisdom. It turned out that every August, when the region’s chestnut trees (called castanheiro) shed their fuzzy, caterpillar-like, sepia flowers, the farmers would gather them, grind them and coat the finished cheeses with a layer of the fine powder, which kept the cheese fresh for months.
Paiva took this knowledge home with him, and began adding ground chestnut flowers to his wines just after de-stemming the grapes and just before fermentation, when the skins sit on the juice in large stainless steel containers known as lagares. Despite the chestnut flowers’ tannins and mouth-tingling astringency, they added no flavor to the wines, yet stabilized them to the point that Paiva hasn’t used sulfur since 2017.
Today, he works with importer Savio Soares and another producer, Antonio Sousa, on Bojo do Luar (roughly, “a jar or amphora in moonlight”), a line of wines made with indigenous grapes and stabilized with chestnut flowers. “A lot of winemakers have started to use this technique,” says the Brazilian-born Soares, who visited Portugal in January 2020 and decided to remain when the pandemic began. “It’s becoming a big thing here in Portugal.” The Universidade de Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro has begun studying the technique to better understand how and why it works.
Since the beginning of time, wines have been mixed with herbs and plants not only for preservation, but for use as medicine, which is how we ended up with things like vermouth, quinquina and amaro. Some Roman monasteries—which still exist across Europe—remain gatekeepers of the ancient alchemy of blending alcohol with herbs (see: Chartreuse). But as time and technology progressed, winemakers found more consistent and sometimes synthetic means of making wine without altering flavor, such as adding sulfur and other chemicals, not unlike those found in preserved foods.
Today, a nod to herb-infused and plant-based everything can be observed in the beverages-focused offshoot of wellness, things like Dry Farm Wines’ bolixer label and former Miss USA Nana Meriwether’s Navina line, both of which are low-alcohol, herb- and botanical-infused wines. But a handful of agriculturally focused, low-intervention winemakers across the globe are exploring a parallel path closer to the historical precedent—one that is reconnecting with the vineyard as an ecosystem beyond vines and grapes.
In Beaujolais, Romain des Grottes of Domaine des Grottes works in a way that is more evocative of a monkish farmer than his tradition-tethered peers. For the last 20 years, he’s been making wines that include not only apples, but herbal teas and extracts as a means of balancing the juice. When he took over Domaine des Grottes from his grandfather, des Grottes planted medicinal plants and cereal grains and began sharing the estate with a market gardener. The result is wines that he calls “out of frame.”
“I discovered that sometimes nature doesn’t want to produce something normal,” says des Grottes, citing the volatility of indigenous wine yeasts. His process has become more about adjusting to that volatility with an alchemy not unlike that used in monasterial practice, pulling from his garden and the surrounding ecosystem. His L’Antidote is a nonalcoholic elixir of gamay, apples, 15 herbs and lemon tea. His Chard-honey is a portmanteau of its ingredients, while his Lilipulumulus is blend of chardonnay, apples and hops, the last of which provides equalizing bitterness. “When you see the kinds of herbs they were adding to the wines in the Middle Ages, I think it was to stabilize the wine or hide acidic taste,” des Grottes says. “Rosemary, thyme—[they’re] antiseptic and stabilize.”
Meanwhile, in Vermont, brothers Jon and Christopher Piana of Fable Farm Fermentory, “a farm-based winery,” came to winemaking from an herbalist perspective, examining the connection between humans and plants with alcohol as an effective means of extracting and preserving plants’ power. “When we look to history, one of the original medicines is wine,” says Jon. The Piana brothers make wine mostly from apples foraged from abandoned orchards across central Vermont, and consider their ciders to be part of a winemaking tradition, in the sense of wine’s original definition as the fermentation of fruit. They blend juice just before fermentation with a profusion of ingredients, such as dandelion greens and flowers, black currants, three kinds of basil, yarrow and mugwort. Each spring, Fable Farm taps birch trees for their sap, mixing it with honey and leaving it to ferment with clusters of sumac berries. The berries, Jon notes, contain naturally occurring citric and tannic acids, which act to preserve and balance alcohol. Two years ago, Fable Farm started a 2-acre vineyard and will eventually begin blending grape wines with plant infusions when volume allows.
About 15 minutes west of Fable Farm, Deirdre Heekin at La Garagista has also been infusing ciders with botanicals. In 2010, she started a line with Eden Ciders called Orleans, citing Vermont’s centuries-long tradition of the practice: “We know in some instances it was to make things taste better, not just for preserving medicinals, but now it’s about expanding taste and experience.” Heekin, who was a sommelier before making wines, says she made infusions before anything else as an exploration of history and place. “It’s simply another expression of our landscape.”
This idea has manifested in a handful of genre-bending wines, from Vermont to Western Australia. In the Adelaide Hills, the late Taras Ochota and his wife, Amber, created their culty Botanicals release by gathering herbs from across their land. In Austria, Meinklang, a biodynamic, biodiverse farm, has created a label for Patagonia infusing pinot blanc with thyme. And in the Loire, Sylvain Dittière macerates a blend of grapes with six varieties of rose petals from his family’s own gardens. Each approach is indicative of a loosening of dogma, a progression of investigations into co-fermentation, and the rebirth of aromatized wines—all, in their own way, a return to the methods that are as ancient as the impulse to see what happens when fruit sits for a spell.
Jon Piana sees this reconnection as an inevitability. “We went so deep into the laboratory for a while, experimenting with fermentation, blending and infusions, now we’re coming back around to the farm, deepening our commitment to regenerative agriculture by growing a diversity of herbs and fruit trees.”
Five Herbal Wines to Try
Between the fires that ravaged Southern and Northern California in 2020, newcomers Chenoa Ashton-Lewis and Will Basanta harvested the elderberries and colombard that create the base of this sparkling co-ferment. An ode to the magic of the San Gabriel Mountains where they harvested the berries, the couple time-stamped the blend as part of the open-source Brutal label.
- Price: $40
- Vintage: 2020
Bojo do Luar Tez
A blend of avesso and azal branco, two grapes with bright acidity, Bojo do Luar’s Tez is macerated for five months on the skins in stainless steel, then pressed with a half-kilo of chestnut flowers. Bojo do Luar (which translates to “a jar or amphora in moonlight”) is a Vinho Verde–based collaboration between importer Savio Soares, biodynamic producer Fernando Paiva and viticulturist Antonio Sousa.
- Price: $26
- Vintage: 2020
Domaine des Grottes L’Antidote
Beaujolais winemaker Romain des Grottes focuses on listening to what his wines need for equilibrium. Sometimes this means kick-starting fermentation with apple juice; sometimes it means adding hops to balance tannin. In his nonalcoholic L’Antidote, des Grottes blends together gamay grapes and carbonated apple juice with lemon tea and 15 herbs from his land.
- Price: $18
- Vintage: NV
La Porte Saint Jean Six Roses
In Saumur-Champigny, Sylvain Dittière grew up the child of avid rose gardeners, absorbing knowledge he’s infused into his low-yield, organically farmed vineyards. In his sparkling Six Roses cuvée, he blends sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc and cabernet franc, which is then macerated with six kinds of rose petals, selected for their perfume and tannins, before fermentation. The result is a spicy, dry pét-nat, which, of late, Dittière has experimented with aging in bottle.
- Price: $30
Ochota Barrels Botanicals
A blend of pinot noir and pinot meunier, Ochota Barrels’ genre-defying Botanicals is a collaboration between the late Taras Ochota and his wife, Amber. Herbs gathered from their land in Australia’s Adelaide Hills are fermented with the juice, rendering a zippy, herbal wine that fits the definition of “aromatized,” but also eludes straightforward categorization.
- Price: $56
- Vintage: 2020