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Always go with a pro when walking a tightrope.
I know a bunch of you are nervous about natural wine. Hell, half the time I don’t what to think when I see some up-and-comer mixing Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling. Or that always classic mix of Riesling, Gewurtztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. It sometimes seems that you’re at the oenological equivalent of a high school house party where whatever is on hand gets mixed together.
But those house parties were sorta awesome with an element of freedom and passion that seems trickier to capture in the mature elegant dinner party (that’s the more classical winemakers, in this metaphor). So as someone of dinner party age, but the occasional house party passion let me say this: if you’re not getting acquainted with the natural wine movement, you’re missing out on a huge element of what’s exciting in wine. So I offer you this gateway wine. A wine that has all the hallmarks of natural wine, but that happens to be made by one of the most respected winemakers in Canada—Ann Sperling.
Sperling Vineyards traces its beginnings back to 1925, which is downright Pleistocene by Okanagan standards. They make Riesling that’s the envy of the entire valley for its elegance and ageability. They make aged sparkling that will knock you socks off. They make serious rosé with Pinot Noir (and serious Pinot Noir, also with Pinot Noir). They are bedrock in terms of winemaking reputation.
But they clearly also like to hit the occasional house party, because several years back under their Vision Series they started to experiment with some low-intervention practices. There are super cool Pet-Nats (both red and white) and there’s this bottle: a natural, organic Pinot Gris that’s a serious contender for the most exciting Pinot Gris in B.C. I’ve been following this wine since it’s introduction, and it feels like with each vintage, they push the envelope. So the 2020 is… out there. My bottle had so much sediment in it that it looked more like bubble tea than wine—a situation that might cause me some trepidation were I in less able hands. (I’ve kept the below pic in high res so you can see what sort of opaqueness we’re dealing with here.)
And on the palette—whomp. Juicy doesn’t even come close to the kick this baby gives to your taste buds. It’s whole cluster fermented, giving it a distinct colour, but please don’t mistake this for one of those skin-contact Pinot Gris’ that have that lovely salmon colour and channel rose vibes. This wine channels Road Warrior vibes. The Pinot Gris’ lush fruit is muted, replaced by orange peel and even more orange pith with savoury herbaceous notes that are wholly unexpected and infinitely fascinating. Several times after a sip I audibly said “wow.” The acidity is aggressive, but never mean, and most importantly this wine is well-made—I have no doubt we’re tasting what we taste here thanks to a focussed, if hands-off approach.
It’s not for everyone, but it is an excellent bellwether to determine if the natural game if for you. If you’re intrigued there’s a crazy world of exploration out there for you; if you’re less than thrilled that’s ok too—there’s an even bigger world of bottles out there for you that colour within the lines. I should add that this wine is sold out at the winery—it sells out every year quite early, but you can find it at private stores and on many cool kids’ wine lists.