Dolores Cabrera wines are grown on the volcanic slopes of Tenerife in the Canary Islands in vineyards over a hundred years old where the grapes are harvested by hand. The area has long been fertile, and the soil has unique properties that the gods inside these still-smoldering cones have imbued with smoke and ash that can be tasted, says Heather LaVine, in wines like the 2020 La Araucaria Rosado.
LaVine is the proprietor of Golden Hour Wine, a charming, little Baldwin Park shop. Set apart from the busier arteries of this upmarket Orlando neighborhood, it’s tucked into a lush and quiet residential corner with a small café table on the porch and a couple more two steps down on the sidewalk.
“It’s flinty,” she tells me of the Spanish rosé. “Peppery.”
At $23, it’s not the least expensive wine in her shop, but definitely entry-level for those interested in exploring natural wines, which Golden Hour sells exclusively.
I’ve had natural wines before, in places like The Strand and Papa Llama, but I’m still a noob — one who like many has been shocked to discover that much of the wine we drink (let’s call it conventional wine) is chock full of additives. More than 70 are FDA-approved — from lab-cultured yeasts to sugar to clarifying agents to food coloring.
“I thought wine was just fermented grape juice,” I say. “This makes it sound more like a Twinkie in a bottle.”
“Twinkies have to list their ingredients on the label,” a gent in the shop points out.
LaVine laughs. “It’s really more like a grape juice cocktail.”
Natural wines, sometimes called low- or minimal-intervention wines, have none of these additives (a small amount of sulfites is permissible for some makers and consumers) but also, no real definition. Ask a few folks in the know and their answers overlap in many places, but not all.
Commonly agreed-upon traits of natural wines include the use of organic fruit (no pesticides, no herbicides), no irrigation, no oak, no filtering, no coloring, hand harvesting and yeast that is native to the grapes’ environment.
All seem to agree that like chefs who understand that a gorgeous tomato needs only a whisper of salt, adept natural winemakers have a very light touch.
“For me, natural wine is wine that hasn’t been messed around with,” says Judith Smelser. “It’s wine that’s genuine.”
Smelser was recently named president and general manager of WMFE and WMFV, Central Florida’s NPR affiliates, but folks in the local wine and food community know her through her passion projects, including the Orlando Wine Blog and UnWineding podcast. She’s also a former wine columnist for Edible Orlando.
“‘Minimal-intervention’ doesn’t sound as neat,” she explains, “but I like thinking about it that way. There’s been a renaissance, a renewed interest and attention to it, which is nice, because the pendulum had swung pretty far the other way for a while with the industrialized process of making wine.”
Winemaking isn’t new. Archeologists have traced the practice back 6,000+ years. Long before the scary-sounding prospect of Mega Purple (yes, that’s a real thing) was “color-correcting” your pinot noir. The additive makes wines a deeper, darker hue that consumers find appealing.
So, much in the way that what we call organic food was just “food” 100 years ago, natural wine is just wine.
“There is a common and somewhat annoying misperception about natural wine, which is that it’s something new and hip and trendy,” says Smelser. “But what’s positive about that is that there’s renewed focus on the winemaker.”
“It’s an awakening, a questioning of how we’ve been doing things,” says Maria Ruiz, co-owner of Papa Llama, where the wine list accompanying the modern Peruvian fare has always been all-natural.
She points to the diminutive footprints of most natural vineyards; most max out around 50 hectares with some as small as 1.5 — and a handful even smaller than that.
“When you’re working with such small amounts of production, it becomes clear that these people are about quality — not volume,” says Ruiz.
Natural wines are often described with words that can set off alarm bells: unique, unexpected, funky. Even barnyard-y. Some natural wines are hazy. Others have visible sediment. They come in different colors, like the orange-tinted whites described as “skin contact” wines. There’s rosé that reads more like red. Or reds that read rosé.
“They’re interesting,” people told me. When my mom uses that word, it means she doesn’t like whatever I’ve presented.
Melissa McAvoy chuckles.
“I think people say that because it’s an organic taste that’s not uniform. They’re experiencing something they may not have had before, where the authenticity of the actual wine is able to shine through….”
McAvoy, owner of Swirlery Wine Bar in Orlando’s SoDo neighborhood is an Advanced Sommelier — no small feat. Hers is an establishment that’s part bar, part bottle shop, but with a focus on education. She hosts study groups and tasting events. And while her shop isn’t exclusively natural, it has grown from roughly 25 percent of the inventory when Swirlery opened in 2015 to 50 percent today. At home, it’s all McAvoy drinks.
“I avoid GMOs and processed foods and I want to drink the same way. I want a real experience. I want to support and drink something organic. I want to put good, healthy things in my body, and I want to support small producers.”
McAvoy likens the growing interest in natural wine to the early days of the craft beer movement. “It’s artisanal. Each bottle is like a piece of art.”
Speaking of, if natural wine doesn’t employ filtration or Mega Purple “makeup” to attract love matches, it certainly knows how to dress.
The neatly lined shelves at Golden Hour boast stock that begs to be chosen before you even discern what’s inside. Colorful art leaps from the labels — charming and whimsical, sometimes even edgy. Nary a stuffy, classically sketched chateau in sight.
“I think that a lot of what people haven’t liked about wine is the pretension, the perceived unapproachability of it,” Smelser offers. “With natural wine … there’s a genuineness that people really identify with. And the labels are cool pieces of modern art that make it really approachable. The idea that you can have a delicious wine in a fun bottle and no one’s expecting it to be more than a nice beverage for you to enjoy — that appeals to a lot of people.”
For the Ruizes, it’s appealing enough that they’ll be pivoting Papa Llama, closed for the time being, into a more natural wine-focused entity.
“We’re in the midst of transitioning, and look forward to reconnecting with the community and introducing people in the area to the natural wine concept and creating a space where they can enjoy it.” Plans have them reopening in May.
That Cabrera rosé was, in fact, peppery on the finish. On the nose: warm herbal tea and watermelon and on the palate … different.
I found new words in this wine — bracing anise, smoke and a surprising salinity – all amid bright, undeniable fruitiness.
“Yeah, the wine does have some grip. Especially for a rosé,” LaVine wrote when I texted my observations.
There’s nothing I love more than new words. And that’s one of the best things about natural wine.
“Every bottle is a conversation waiting to happen,” says LaVine.
Where can I get some?
All shops listed below carry natural wines and have staff on hand who are delighted to educate. Golden Hour Wine is the only one that carries it exclusively; at Swirlery, it’s half the inventory. Tim’s Wine Market stocks between 100-200 bottles on any given week and at Digress, 60-75 percent of the ever-rotating selection adheres to organic, low-intervention practices at any given time.
Digress Wine: 1215 Edgewater Drive in Orlando, 407-426-7510; digresswine.com
Golden Hour Wine: 1560 Lake Baldwin Lane in Orlando, 689-444-6072; goldenhour.wine
Swirlery Wine Bar: 1508 E. Michigan Street in Orlando, 407-270-6300; swirlery.com
Tim’s Wine Market: 1223 N. Orange Ave in Orlando, 407-895-9463; timswine.com/locations/orlando
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