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.