Where Are Natural Wine’s Next Frontiers?

Two regions—one old world, one new—are staking a claim within the ever-evolving movement.

While people continue to engage in endless arguments about the merits (or not) of natural wine, there is no denying that the category has accomplished what others couldn’t: It drew new boundaries for wine, often to the dismay of oeno-xenophobes who would have liked to keep things simple. The movement has, in no time, established or resurrected regions and countries that had lost, endangered or nonexistent reputations. Would we have embraced wines from Moravia and Czech Republic without it? Would wines from Tbilisi, in the Republic of Georgia, have become fixtures of progressive wine lists? Today, you can drink skin-contact wines from Vermont in Parma, Italy, or pipeños from Chile in Napa. Even in Burgundy-or-bust towns like Beaune, France, you can find Slovakian wines. Natural wine has embraced frontiers that might otherwise be dismissed, and we’re all drinking better, and more broadly, because of it.

That’s perhaps why the question I get most often is, What’s next? That’s easy: Andalucía, Spain, the birthplace of sherry; and Japan, whose early embrace of natural wine, via its bars and restaurants, has led to a homegrown natural movement in Hokkaido and beyond. Here’s why.

Andalucía, Spain

Who doesn’t love a good death and resurrection story? The seaside town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda was once filled with all of the riches sherry could give it, but it’s since become a Detroit of southern Spain. The northern point of the sherry triangle has a drug problem, 70 percent unemployment and splintered, ghost-filled sherry houses degrading in the salt air. But it also has the kind of terroir that could make even the most hardened conventional winemaker genuflect: magical, alabaster-looking soils, called albariza, made up of layers of hollow shells of sea creatures that have deposited a rare, water-holding chalk, and their native grape, palomino fino. This grape suits the soils and weather like hand to glove.

A door opened for regional evolution last year with the passage of a wine law that will allow producers to express this terroir in new ways. Now, natural or not, sherry no longer needs to be fortified. Ramiro Ibáñez, of Cota 45, and Willy Pérez, of De La Riva, have worked hard to push this through, creating the opportunity for new legal variants of sherry. Cota and others are already working natural, using only native yeast, and low to no sulfur. Their plan is to revive the glory of the historic pagos, or vineyards with the best soils and positions, and show how they differ in the bottle without the impact of added alcohol and without sherry’s traditional aging and blending process. As a result of these experiments, new winemakers have begun to poke around.

One of them is Champagne’s David Léclapart, a committed biodynamist whose Champagnes have become natural-wine darlings. When approached for partnership by a past intern, Léclapart was intrigued by the similarities of the region’s chalky soils to those in his own region. He is now one half of Muchada-Léclapart (with Alejandro Muchada), which is bottling mostly still wines from plot-specific palomino. Meanwhile, Fernando Angulo, who represents the more extreme side of natural (zero chemicals in the vineyard and zero sulfur in the winery), has also emerged as a thought leader in the region. Formerly the force behind Alba Viticultores’ single-pago pét-nats, he’s since gone solo, and will debut one of his many projects, Mañana wines, with the 2019 vintage. Until then, he’s busy nurturing about a dozen vineyard-owning neighbors, who are starting out with their own small, as yet uncommercial, projects. This is the way natural winemaking spread in Georgia; it should follow here, too.

Some drinkers will certainly come to Andalucía for the newer expressions and will fall for the manzanillas instead. But there’s no reason why this can’t succeed in the way that France’s Jura has, where sherry-like wines sit side-by-side with beautiful crémants, pét-nats and still expressions. The only threat to this vision is land cost, which is expensive, starting at around $30,000 an acre; many vignerons will be forced to go further afield, like Cadiz or out toward Sevilla. Will the area ever be a true hot spot at the level of Catalunya? Not sure, but the south will rise again. All it needs is a rollicking natural wine festival to plant its flag, and I know a couple of deserted buildings that are ripe for the taking.

Producers to Watch:

Bodega Marenas (Montilla, Córdoba)
José Miguel Márquez works inland, in the often-forgotten Montilla, out of the sherry triangle. Look for his bottling of Pedro Ximénez or the rare, white montepilas grape.

Bodegas Garay (Huelva)
Ana González and Mario Garay work with one grape, the local and rarely seen zalema. Look for the Garay Bleu bottling, which is unfortified and aged under flor.

Fernando Angulo (Sanlúcar de Barrameda)
While Angulo is no longer at Alba Viticultores, you can find his (mostly) single-pago wines under the names of Bicicleta, Campeonísimo, Charanga and Parral. The Mañana wines will likely land stateside later in 2020.

Cota 45 (Sanlúcar de Barrameda)
Look for Ramiro Ibáñez’s remarkable unfortified wines and celebration of the pagos. All are worthy, but the 2016 Las Vegas El Carrascal is psychedelic.

Japan

For a country that has been crazy for natural wine for over two decades, making it on their own very fertile turf was the obvious next step. While it’s Old World for everything else, Japan is New World winemaking territory. Its story began in the 1870s, but wouldn’t turn into a viable industry for another 100 years. Now, out of the 300 or so wineries that stretch from Japan’s northernmost island to the southernmost, 5 percent or so are natural, or trying. This is an impressive percentage for a winemaking category that is said to have about 2 percent market share. In other words, Japan is all in.

Their home grape is the hybrid koshu, a real looker, with luminescent lavender-colored skin. But there are a lot of other hybrid grapes being grown here, like the more neutral Delaware and pungent Niagara, for a good reason: They are easier to grow in that difficult wet and humid climate. When you ask serious people about natural wine in Japan, they will all tell you, there’s very little natural because there’s very little true organic. But if natural is a philosophy and an aspiration, there are quite a few aspiring in the right direction. Give them time and they will get there.

It’s too early to say which region is going to be the hot spot within the hot spot. The Jura’s Jean-Marc Brignot left France in 2012, following his wife back to her home country. They ended up on the isle of Sado, about 20 miles off the west coast of Japan’s main island. Hirotake Ooka arrived back home from the northern Rhône to set up his La Grande Colline in Okayama, halfway between Osaka and Hiroshima. But right now, the most concentrated action is in Hokkaido, the northernmost island. According to Bruce Gutlove, a New Yorker who settled there in the 1980s to take a job with Coco Farm, one of the country’s natural wine pioneers, “Hokkaido doesn’t usually have tsuyu (plum blossom rainy season), sees few typhoons and has good diurnal shifts, throughout most of the summer and fall. There’s far lesser fungal pressures in this environment.” Translation: Working organically there is just easier. With a quartet of natural-minded winemakers (including Étienne de Montille of Côte de Beaune, who works traditional but not necessarily natural, just bought 30 hectares there), and a good mix of hybrids and vinifera, it just might be the zone.

No matter what or where, Japan’s level of seriousness in the vineyard is going to make it a winery destination. And surely anyone who has seen any of the prominent ex-pat Japanese work in France is going to want an orchestra seat for the show in the Pacific. But there are questions to be answered. Will that winemaking voice and point of view that’s so strong in France hold true on their own soil? And will that self-determination create something uniquely Japanese? Pull up a chair. This is going to be fun.

Producers to Watch:

Coco Farm (Tochigi)
Gutlove calls Coco Farm a kind of creative think tank for wine, with a complete lineup of styles, from méthode champenoise to vin de paille. While they are not solely using native yeast, they’re such a reference in the country that they can’t be overlooked.

10R (Hokkaido)
Gutlove’s personal project, 10R, is focused on still wines made from Hokkaido-grown pinot noir and zweigelt.

Domaine Takahiko (Hokkaido)
Takahiko Soga spent 10 years at Coco Farm before he set up his own vineyards focusing on pinot noir, which he tends to through no-till viticulture. 

Jean-Marc Brignot (Sado Island, Niigata)
While Brignot’s Sado Island vines mature, he’s sourcing hybrid fruit for a variety of pét-nats.

Beau Paysage (Yamanashi)
Eishi Okamoto farms his vines within view of Mount Fuji. It was his merlot I first tasted blind late at night outside of the Clown Bar in Paris, and was completely impressed by its sensitivity.

La Grande Colline (Okayama)
It must be quite a stretch to go from farming Cornas to Okayama, from making syrah to working with hybrids, but Hirotake Ooka has never been afraid of exploration. Similar to Brignot, he’s currently sourcing fruit and making pét-nat.

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Alice Feiring produces The Feiring Line Newsletter, a natural wine publication. Her book on Georgia's wine renaissance will be published by University of Nebraska Press in early 2016. She is also the author of The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization (2008), and Naked Wine (2011). When she's not in the vines or writing for publications such as the New York Times or Omnivore, she can be caught playing button accordion and fiddle poorly and, in the spring, dancing Morris. She lives in New York.