As more new excellent live-fire restaurants open their doors each month, a similar wave of bars and restaurants flaunting natural wine programs is spreading across the country. And while seemingly unrelated at first glance, the rapidly rising popularity of these two trends points to our increased yearning for transparency, simplicity and rusticity in what we consume.

Live-fire cooking and natural wines also share a common stereotype that they are one note: that is, wood-fired foods are smoky; natural wines are funky. This closed-minded assessment is unfair, as each offers up a much broader flavor spectrum and, when enjoyed in combination, offer many great food and wine pairing options.

Speaking of pairings: we put together a complete guide to pairing beer and wine with live-fire food. See the complete guide here.

What makes wine "natural?"

Defining “natural wine” is a somewhat tricky, and definitely a bit geeky. But speaking in the broadest of strokes (something natural wine enthusiasts tend to avoid), natural wines are made from grapes that are farmed organically without any chemical herbicides or pesticides; the wines are fermented with yeast that’s native to the skins of the grapes (rather than adding commercial yeast), and the winemakers intervene as little as possible in the cellar, allowing the wines more control over their own destinies and eschewing any additives or preservatives (most notably sulfur). In short, natural wines are meant to be pure, unadulterated expressions of the grapes and the place where they’re grown.

A much-discussed subset of natural wines—biodynamic wines—are made from grapes grown using a farming protocol developed by Austrian philosopher, Rudolf Steiner, in the 1920s that correlates with the phases of the moon, but not all natural wines are biodynamic. Natural wine is, an anti-manipulation movement, with the focus on the vineyards and the health of the grapes far above any fancy techniques in the cellar.

Live-fire cooking shares a similar anti-manipulation ideology. There’s beauty in the subtle complexity that fire gives to food. Cooking in this way will, at the very least, concentrate flavors and change textures, but in its best moments, fire also adds something new and unique to the foods it touches: a layer of minerality to vegetables, wonderful charred bitterness to breads and crispy pizza crusts, gentle smoke to large-format proteins, sweet and savory caramelization to grilled meats. When choosing wines to pair with these dynamic flavors, you want something that won’t overpower the food, and the complex-yet-unobtrusive style that dominates the natural wine category is up for the task.

Unobtrusive? Yes, there’s also a common misconception that all natural wine has to taste funky or weird in some way. But not all natural wine is orange; it’s not all made in clay amphora; it’s not all cloudy; it doesn’t all smell like a cow barn. In fact, many natural wines—the best, some would argue—are clean and precise, showcasing the grape in all of its fresh, juicy, earthy ways.

But not all natural wine is orange; it’s not all made in clay amphora; it’s not all cloudy; it doesn’t all smell like a cow barn.

How to pair natural wines with live-fire foods

The wide range of natural wines styles can be enjoyed with a wide range of foods, of course, but there are some that will go particularly well with live-fire cooking. First, there’s an entire category of natural sparkling wines called pétillant naturel (“pét-nat” to the initiated), which allow the wine to finish fermenting after it’s bottled (compared to the more controlled, two-stage fermentation technique used to produce Champagne and other sparkling wines). The French popularized this style of winemaking, but pét-nats are now produced around the world, from Chile to California to Portugal. The lion’s share of pét-nats are highly juicy and drinkable, a no-brainer pairing for anything wood-fired because their flavors don’t overwhelm more delicate dishes and bubbles can cut through richer foods—even lamb or beef.

In France, the Loire Valley (long considered ground zero for the natural wine movement) offers a good look at the full potential of natural wines, ranging from the super light and acidic Muscadet-based wines made along the coast, to the full-bodied, honeyed Chenin Blancs from regions like Saumur and Vouvray. Light, zippy, salty natural wines pair well with lighter fish dishes and grilled vegetables, whereas heavier whites, like Chardonnays from California or whites from warm-climate southern Italy, are great matches for roasted and grilled chicken.

While orange wines have become the poster child for natural wines, there’s a lot of misunderstanding surrounding them. These wines are made from white grapes that are left with their skins for an extended period of wine (a style perfected in the country of Georgia, Slovenia and northern Italy), giving the wine more tannin and structure. In essence, they’re white wines made like red wines. Ask your favorite wine retailer or sommeliers for high-acid orange (or “skin-contact”) wines to pair with lighter grilled fare, including pork and poultry.

The usual inclination to pair red meats with powerful red wines is a disservice to the nuanced flavors added by a wood-fired oven or grill. This is where natural red wines can really come in handy. While there are exceptions to this rule, the majority of fuller-bodied natural reds tend to have greater acidity and freshness than their conventional counterparts. When pairing with these wines, we're more often working with lighter red fruit flavors of cranberries (think Beaujolais or Nerello Mascalese from Sicily’s Mount Etna), to ripe cherries (California Pinot Noir, Spanish Garnacha) and brambly berries (Chinon), as opposed to high-alcohol, dark-fruited, oaky red. In some ways, pairing natural reds is more akin to pairing white wines: it’s more about the acidity and bright fruit flavors than tannins and alcohol. Any substantial meat dish will benefit from a vivid natural red, be it one with generous fruit or one that’s more restrained.

No matter your preference in natural wine styles, the best rule of thumb to follow is that wood-fired dishes will always be supersonic versions of themselves and should be matched with wines that will keep up—but now overwhelm—these delicious flame-kissed foods.

Tips for Buying Natural Wines

Read the Label
We are in the golden era of natural wine. In addition to a growing number of winemakers in United States making natural wines, there are more and more importers and distributors around the country who are committed to making this more widely available. Here are a handful of importer names to look for on the back of wine labels:

Jenny & François Selections
Zev Rovine/Sylvestre Rovine
Amy Atwood
Avant Garde Selections
Selection Massale

Top Natural Wine Shops
Any wine shop that’s worth a darn is coming around to the idea that natural wines are important to their customers and are giving them more shelf space. Now that we’re all seeking out organic vegetables, it only makes sense that we’d want to drink the same way. It’s worth chatting with your friendly shop staff to see what they have available, because it’s not often apparent from the bottle which wines are natural. Here’s a short list of retailers around America that have hung their hats on the category:

Vine Wine, Brooklyn
Thirst Merchants, Brooklyn
Chambers Street Wines, Manhattan
Wine Therapy, Manhattan
Discovery Wines, Manhattan
Kingston Wine Co., Kingston, NY
22 2nd St., Troy, NY
Red and White, Chicago
The Wine Bottega, Boston
Henry & Son, Minneapolis
Woodland Wine Merchant, New Orleans
Bacchanal, New Orleans
Maine & Loire, Portland, ME
Ardor, Portland, OR
Flora/Fauna, Salt Lake City
Terroir, San Francisco
Ruby Wine, San Francisco
Ordinaire, Oakland
Domaine LA, Los Angeles
Lou Wine Shop, Los Angeles
Psychic Wines, Los Angeles
Vif, Seattle

Megan Krigbaum is a New York City-based wine and spirits writer and editor. She’s the former deputy wine editor of Food & Wine magazine, a contributing editor for PUNCH, and a regular contributor to other publications.

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