The sommelier from Giant in Chicago shares five pointers on finding the best natural options within any wine list.
Some people love natural wine. Some people hate it. And then there are those of us who aren’t quite sure where we stand on bottles made with as little technology as possible—meaning little to no chemicals, preservatives, factory-produced yeasts, and filtering.
At in Chicago, sommelier Josh Perlman has crafted a wine list that’s largely made up of minimal intervention wines, where some are a bit more “natural” than others. But how do you go about parsing through dozens of options to settle on a natural wine—and one that you’ll definitely enjoy? Perlman has five tips for you:
Perlman’s number one piece of advice for ordering natural wine? Have a conversation with your server or the sommelier. Ask to be directed toward a wine that’s made naturally or simply zero in on flavor profiles of certain bottles. If you’re also interested in the technical aspect of natural wine, Perlman suggests asking the following: “Which wines are fermented with indigenous native yeast? Of those, are any fined or filtered? Are the grapes grown on sustainable vineyards? Are they harvested by hand? Is there any machinery involved?”
Don’t overthink food pairings
When it comes to pairing wine with food, Perlman doesn’t see much of a difference between natural wine and conventionally-made wine. “At the end of the day, it still comes down to how wine works with certain dishes,” Perlman says. “I find that natural wine can have a lot more texture. so you can get a little bit more on the fringes.” In Perlman’s opinion, the beauty of natural wine is its tolerance for exploration. “Push the boundaries a little bit and try something that may be totally off the beaten path.” Perlman’s pick? Pairing green vegetables like asparagus with a natural wine that has high acidity.
Keep an open mind
Before Perlman opens a bottle of natural wine for a table, he likes to make sure that all of the guests know what they’re getting themselves into. “What I find is that someone will order a bottle of wine thinking that they recognize the varietal or the country or even the region, and not understand the producer.” While Perlman works to educate diners, asking about familiarity with natural wines, he has to determine whether someone is open to something unconventional or looking for a more traditional choice. If you’re willing to go the natural route, make that clear.
This fourth tip is less about the process of ordering wine and more about preparing yourself to go into any restaurant armed with two essentials: basic knowledge of natural wines and an understanding of what you like. According to Perlman, one form of educating yourself is seeking out certain producers that make natural wine. Another method is learning about specific regions that are currently seeing a surge of natural wine. “There’s a huge push into Georgian wines, and those are being made in a natural way because that’s just how they’ve always made wine,” Perlman says. “So looking for certain countries that aren’t necessarily associated with conventional winemaking could be a way to approach it.”
Try as many new wines as you can
The wine list at Giant changes constantly, and Perlman is always trying something new. While tasting wines is just part of the job for a somm like Perlman, it’s also a great way to continue developing your preferences and deepening your knowledge. So next time you have friends over, crack open a few bottles of natural wine. Taste them. Talk about which ones you like and what you don't like about others. Perlman recommends Beaujolais for when the weather gets colder, and if you’re in the market for some specific suggestions, check out our list of essential natural wines for fall.