Exploring the World of Natural Wine with Sommelier Jorge Riera

Megan Krigbaum

Practically every day there’s another story written about the natural wine movement, but sommelier Jorge Riera, a New York City native, has been living in the natural wine world for over twenty years. His interest in natural wine began back when the movement was made up of just a small number of farmers and winemakers who were committed to working in ways that honored the earth, the plants and the wine by, essentially, not mucking around with them too much.

Riera’s wine list at Frenchette is a compilation of the natural wines that he’s worked with all along. He first learned about this winemaking approach while working at New York’s Balthazar under sommelier Jonathan Nossiter in the late ’90s. “I immediately gravitated toward the taste of the wines, and when I went to France in the early 2000s, I got to see what they were doing first hand; they farmed in a way that respected the land, and some producers were trying to bring back ancient grapes varieties. I liked that anarchist fight against the big regime and what they were standing for,” says Riera. “It's funny because I’m not from a farm. I'm from New York City, born and raised, but I really appreciated and respected what they were doing.”

Riera has been building on this foundation over the years, finally creating all-natural lists for Contra and Wildair just before leaving to open Frenchette. His list there is comprised of wines made from grapes that are farmed largely by hand, without herbicides and pesticides. In the cellar, these wines are fermented with yeasts that are indigenous to the grapes themselves. The wines are left unfiltered and have minimal or no sulfites added, and nothing else beyond that.

While the natural movement continues to pick up steam with winemakers—“there’s someone new popping up every day,” says Riera—and to grow in popularity with wine drinkers, there’s still a group of winemakers, particularly in France, that Riera considers the driving force behind the whole sensibility. So, for anyone who wants to get to know natural wine from the ground up, being well-versed in this handful of iconic producers is crucial.

Riera points to France’s Beaujolais region as a good place to start. “You can’t talk about this movement and not talk about Beaujolais,” he says. It was there that Jules Chauvet, who Riera considers the grandfather of natural wine, trained a number of up-and-coming producers in the 1980s. Chauvet’s disciples included winemakers Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, Yvon Métras, Joseph Chamonard and Jean-Paul Thévenet, among others.

“Then it went into the Loire,” says Riera “where the benchmark is Clos du Tue-Boeuf from Jean-Marie and Thierry Puzelat. They started the movement there. These guys got thrown out of oenology school for teaching organics. We’re talking about people who really went against the machine and said ‘no, this is how you’re supposed to do it.’” To the Loire list, also add Claude Courtois, who Riera calls a pioneer.

From here, Riera’s list broadens to southern France with Alain Castex of Le Casot De Mailloles and Tom Lubbe of Domaine Matassa, who both work in the mountainous Roussillon region, and then north again to the Arbois/Jura region, where Pierre Overnoy has been making exceptional wines since the late ’60s.

“These guys are instrumental,” says Riera. “They’ve opened the doors for this younger generation to come about.”

Here are five wines that Riera recommends to get you started on your natural wine journey:

2016 Noëlla Morantin LBL Vieille Vignes ($35)

In Riera’s opinion, winemaker Noëlla Morantin is one of the best producers in the Loire. She produces this Sauvignon Blanc from 100-year-old vines. “This wine has great freshness, acidity and minerality. It’s just easy drinking,” says Riera.

2018 Joan Ramon Escoda-Sanahuja Els Bassotets ($29)

This super refreshing Spanish white is made from a blend of Macabeu and a little bit of Chenin. Riera describes it as tasting like beautiful white fruits, with nice acidity and a long finish. Plus, Riera feels that it can be paired with almost anything.

2018 Jean Maupertuis Puy Long ($23)

Winemaker Jean Maupertuis makes this round, mineral Chardonnay in the Auvergne region of France. “He's the godfather of the Auvergne and is responsible for training all the great winemakers coming out of that region,” says Riera.

2015 Altura Isola del Giglio 'Ansonaco Carfagna' ($45)

This wine is made on the island of Giglio, just off the coast of Tuscany. “It’s a beautiful expression of Ansonaco [a grape native to the island]. It has great purity of fruit and the lingering minerality stands up to any meat or fish,” say Riera.

2018 Laurent Saillard Scarlette ($30)

Laurent Saillard, a young gun from the Loire Valley, makes some of Riera’s favorite wines. “His Pineau d'Aunis [a rare red grape varietal grown in the Loire] is one of my favorite expressions of this old forgotten cépage,” says Riera. This wine is ruby in color with bright acidity and a peppery, red-fruited nose. “You won't want to stop drinking this!”

See the full list of 2019 Sommeliers of the Year.