I am sure the word “Natural Wine” might frighten a lot of people.  Probably because who knows what that term really means.  It can mean organic, bio dynamic, low intervention, no intervention, no sulphur, or maybe a combination of any of these things plus God know what else.

There were 15 producers in all pouring at the Astor Wines Natural Wine Fest, thrown by premier natural wine importers, Jenny & Francois.  I cannot possibly recap them all so I will cover my personal highlights from the tasting.  Probably the greatest thing that all the wines had in common was their reasonable price points.  With the exception of one wine, all the wines came in at under $35!  There were 30 wines in all, the lone expensive (and amazing) bottle came in at ~$70, but there were 12 in the $20-$35 range, and 17 under $20.  I think that such great wines can be produced and sold at such moderate and affordable prices should be an incentive for anyone and everyone to try at least one of these wines.

After the first few tables offered decent but not particularly exciting wines, we hit pay dirt.  The wines of Cousin-Leduc are leading the way of natural wines in the Loire.  The 2008 Gamay ($20.99) offers earthy tones mixed with spice and was my favorite out of the bunch, but really they all sang.  Can’t wait to try the 2009.  The 2006 Anjou “Pur Breton” ($18.99) made from Cabernet Franc had great earthy animal and wild fruit tones, the finish is still a bit dry, give it some air or more time in bottle.  And the most interesting was the NV (non vintage) Grolleau ” Le Cousin” ($19.99).  Grolleau is a more obscure grape and there are earth elements present here and a sweet cherry fruit character.  Probably the most approachable, delicious.  All are very interesting and very handsomely priced.

Domaine des 2 Anes was one of the reasons I was at the Natural Wine Fest.  Since trying their Corbieres Fontanilles and deeming it the best $15 wine of the year, I have not been able to get this producer out of my mind.  From the Languedoc-Roussillon, Domaine des Deux Anes seems to be leading the charge in that region.  Their wines express great terroir and remain amazing value.  We tried the 2008 Corbieres “Premier Pas” ($13.99) and the 2007 Corbieres “L’Enclos” ($18.99).  The “Premier Pas” is a no brainer for $13.99 and if you feel like splashing out the “L’Enclos” is off the hook.  Lots of earthy minerality and dark fruits here.

I almost declined tasting this sparkling Rosé from Domaine La Grange Tiphaine.  From the Loire, this producer was pouring a white 2009 Montlouis Sec “Clef de Sol” ($23.99) and red 2009 “Ad Libitum” Touraine-Amboise ($12.99).  I tried both, and both were solid.  The red “Ad Libitum” representing great value.  But as I was about to walk away from the table without tasting the sparkling Rosé I thought why not, thinking this would not be my kind of wine.  Well, I was wrong.  Dead wrong.  The NV “Rosa, Rosé, Rosam” ($19.99) is wonderful.  It’s like a strawberry sunday in a bottle.  All sweet red refreshing fruit.  Probably equally at home on a hot summer’s afternoon or paired with a favorite dessert.  I love that it is in a clear bottle with a pop top, it just makes it even more approachable.  This one wins least likely to succeed in my book.  I guess I never pictured myself as a “sparkling rosé” guy, but there you go…

And then we hit the big gun.  2005 Els Jelipins ($72.97).  This was the most expensive wine at the tasting.  But don’t let that throw you.  There is a bunch of talk about this wine in the wine (geek) community.  It was the wine that I was most anxious to taste.  And it did not disappoint.  Probably the “best” wine of the night, refined, unique and age worthy.  Expensive because it is produced only in very limited quantities.  Only 15oo bottles per vintage!  And it is produced by one small family.  A husband and wife team, along with their daughter (all of whom were at the tasting and pouring the wine).  Each bottle is decorated by hand.  The wine could not be more hand made.

Tuscany’s Colombaia was Italy’s only showing at the tasting.  I was really impressed with their 2007 Colombaia Rosso Toscano IGT ($22.99).  A blend of 95% Sangiovese, 3% Colorino, and 2% Cabernet Sauvignon.  Harvested by hand, natural fermentation with native yeasts, and 12 months in Sloavonian barrels.  The most impressive thing is this is the first vintage produced and bottled from the four year old vines, and it already has surprising depth and character.  Sweet and tart berry fruit mixing with mild earthy tones.

It was nice to see the good old USA represented at the Natural Wine Fest.  I was not familiar with Hardesty Cellars, but was very impressed with the wines.  They hail from Humboldt County, typically more noted for things other than wine.  The 2009 Chardonnay Willow Creek ($23.99) had a fantastic note of anise and liqourish that was a great fresh surprise.  The 2008 Hardesty Trinity, Willow Creek ($21.99) red blend composed of 25% Cabernet Sauvignon and 75% Merlot, had a distinctly smokey note which winemaker Chard Hardesty said was imparted by the wild fires of California.  Reminded me of many a wine I have had from South Africa.  One to watch in Cali…

The other American winery in the Jenny & Francois portfolio is Coturri.  Run by legendary natural California pioneer Tony Coturri.  Pictured below, he looks more like winemaker you would encounter in a rural corner of the Loire Valley, rather than in Sonoma.  None the less, the Coturri wines are very much the real deal.  The 2002 Lost Creek Pinot Noir ($21.99) was the wine of the event for many folks, and it sold out almost immediately.  It is loaded with notes of cocoa powder, dark cherry fruit, with hints of smoke and earth.  This wine throws a lot of sediment and is perhaps the most distinctive Pinot Noir I have ever tasted from California.  A crowd favorite and an absolute steal at ~22.00!  The 2009 Coturri Chardonnay ($34.99) and the 2005 “Testa Vineyards” Cabernet Sauvignon ($32.99) were both very pure and classic versions.  Both showing excellent balance and restraint and both certainly very age worthy.

I believe all the wines from the event are available at Astor Wines.  Don’t let natural wines pass you by, they are good for you and most seem to come in at prices very competitive to conventional wines.  The diversity of wines at the event was fantastic, natural wines are available from all corners these days and Jenny & Francois are amongst a small but distinguished group who continue to shine light on the way some of the best wines in the world can and should be made.