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A Celebration of Natural Wine

More than 100 winegrowers showcased their wines at the Raw Wine fair in New York
In Brooklyn, the Raw Wine fair attracted winemakers and fans from far and wide.
Photo by: Hatnim Lee
In Brooklyn, the Raw Wine fair attracted winemakers and fans from far and wide.

Posted: Dec 7, 2018 10:00am ET

By Aleks Zecevic

In November, the Raw Wine fair, showcasing more than 140 producers from 15 countries, made stops in Montreal, Los Angeles and New York. I have attended the event for three consecutive years and have witnessed its growing attendance and improving quality in the selection of growers.

Raw Wine was founded in 2012 by wine consultant and writer Isabelle Legeron, France’s first female Master of Wine. The fair showcases small, independent winegrowers who farm organically and biodynamically. They cluster around the practices and philosophy of the movement that defines itself as “natural.”

About 2,000 people attended the Raw Wine fair in New York. Hosted in the hip Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, the two-day event attracted industry professionals, press, young Brooklynites and other consumers. For those in the industry, the fair is about the community as much as the wines.

“My first experience at Raw felt more like a friends’ gathering than an actual fair,” said Edouard Thorens, a wine journalist based in Switzerland. “That’s the sort of atmosphere that makes me enjoy the Raw Wine movement.”

Andrew Krell, a New Yorker and a self-described fan of natural wine, has attended the fair every year. He goes to meet the producers and hear their stories, while tasting their wines. “The event is an international gathering of like-minded people,” Krell said. “A wonderful sense of community pervades Raw, and the vibes are energetic and very upbeat.”

Raw selects wineries according to explicit rules. In order to participate, growers must be certified organic or biodynamic. All grapes must be harvested by hand. In the cellar, yeast inoculation is not permitted, nor are additives such as yeast nutrients and enzymes to control fermentation. Reverse osmosis, sterile filtration and similar techniques are forbidden.

However, the rules allow some flexibility. For sparkling wine, neutral yeast can be used to start the secondary fermentation. Chaptalization or acidification may be used, but only in extreme vintages, as determined by Legeron. The amount of sulfites in the final wine is limited to 70 parts per million. (For context, in the United States, where rules differ from those in Europe, a certified organic wine must contain no added sulfites; wines "made with organic grapes" can contain added sulfur dioxide less than 100 ppm, and conventional dry wines are allowed up to 350 ppm of sulfites.)

Hatnim Lee
Oregon's Swick winery was among the fair's stars.

Raw is transparent: Each wine presented must indicate any use of sulfur or fining agents, and if chaptalization or acidification have been performed.

Since natural wines still lack a formal definition, Raw’s parameters in a way serve as such. “It is interesting to see Isabelle defining natural wine,” said Mackenzie Hoffman, a sommelier at Scandinavian restaurant Aska, in Brooklyn.

In certain cases, this means that a producer cannot present all of their wines at the fair. “I wished Isabelle broadened the guidelines to include all the wines that a producer makes, instead of judging by cuvée,” Hoffman lamented.

Some producers, such as Gut Oggau of Austria and Frank Cornelissen of Sicily, are so popular that talking to them or even tasting their wines was almost impossible. While many wineries were relatively unknown in the U.S. market, others, such as Gravner and Radikon, have received classic scores from Wine Spectator.

Apart from the aforementioned growers, my highlights included qvevri wines from the Republic of Georgia, like Gotsa Wines and Tibaani. Domaine de l’Ecu from the Loire and Fleury from Champagne also left an impression. Displaying beautiful pure wines in a range of styles were Austrian producers Meinklang, Claus Preisinger, Alexander Koppitsch, Matthias Hager, Johannes Zillinger, Michael Gindl and Maria & Sepp Muster. Among U.S. wines, Donkey & Goat and Maître de Chai from California, Swick from Oregon and Bloomer Creek from New York excelled.

Some wines were more controversial—high in volatile acidity or brettanomyces, expressing funky notes. These are unpleasant to some people, while others embrace the unusual flavors.

These so-called natural wines won’t please everyone, and their producers don’t really care. As Raw shows, they have built a community of supporters, and it's gathering in size and strength.

Follow Aleks Zecevic on Instagram at @azecevic88.

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