Over the past couple of years, no term has been trendier in the world of grapes than “natural wine.” Often described as “minimal intervention,” these wines boast a diverse array of flavor profiles that range from intense minerality to downright funky.
Once a relatively obscure import mostly from western European countries like France and Spain, natural wine has surged in popularity across the globe, and Houston’s wine drinkers are decidedly interested in exploring the wild and wonderful world of natural wines. It’s now commonplace for restaurants, bars, and wine retailers in the Bayou City to carry natural wines from all over the world and in a myriad of traditional and unorthodox styles.
Use this guide as an introduction, both to the concept of natural wine and Houston’s unique array of restaurants and wine shops that boast a solid selection of endlessly compelling bottles.
What even is “natural” wine?
What actually counts as natural wine remains a contentious topic among experts, since there is no official classification for it. Generally, the term refers to wines that see minimal to no intervention during the winemaking processes. Steve Buechner, co-owner and operator of Light Years Natural Wine Shop and Bar in Montrose, says that despite their nuances, attempts to define which wines count as natural are focused on taking a minimalist approach to the winemaking process. “All of those definitions are rooted in the purist adherence to a ‘zero-zero philosophy,’ meaning zero pesticides or fertilizers in the vineyard,” said Buechner. “Those grapes are harvested by hand, so without machines. They’re fermented entirely with wild yeasts and no additions, subtractions, fining, or filtration along the way.”
The restaurants and wine retailers that spoke with Eater Houston tended to arrive at two principles that generally define what “natural wine” actually means: The first is that the grapes used to make the wines must be sourced from organic farms. In an ideal world, the grapes would come from farms that implement growing practices that are both environmentally sustainable and biodynamic, or a type of farming that considers the holistic ecology of a vineyard’s surrounding environment.
The second prevailing belief is that the grape juice absolutely must be fermented exclusively with naturally occurring native yeasts that live in the air and on the surfaces of the fermentation equipment, similar to other naturally fermented foods like sourdough bread. This is a significant departure from conventional wines, which are often made with commercial yeasts that produce consistency across a vintage. Natural wines are also generally not “fined,” or chemically clarified to remove sediment leftover from the winemaking process.
Natural wine lingo to know
- Minimal intervention — A pretty self-explanatory approach to winemaking in which producers allow wines to ferment naturally without additives like commercial yeasts.
- Wild yeasts — This term refers to yeasts that occur naturally in pretty much every environment. They’re in the air, on winemaking equipment, and on the grapes.
- Pét-nat — Shorthand for “pétillant naturel,” a French term that means “naturally sparkling.” This term refers to fizzy, bubbly natural wines that are still being fermented as they’re bottled. In conventional sparkling wines like Champagne and cava, the fermentation process is complete before the wine is bottled.
- Skin-contact wine — As resident Eater wine expert Patty Diez describes it, skin contact wines are “white wines made like red wines.” The grape skins stay in contact with the juice for days, even months. In white wines, this process often produces an orange-y hue, hence the term “orange wine.”
Okay, so where can I find natural wine?
Light Years is unique in that it’s both a full-service wine bar with a well-curated selection of meats, cheeses, and snacks that pair beautifully with the grapes, and a full-fledged retail wine shop. The business license that Light Years operates under allows it to import and distribute wines they love, meaning that the bar’s owners have been able to cultivate relationships with wine producers all over the world.
Here, the wines offered by the glass at the bar can also be found on the shelf in a bottle, so drinkers are able to try all sorts of different wines, then take their favorites home. Light Years’ large, ever-changing stock focuses on selling high-quality natural wines from classic exporters like France and Spain, as well as nontraditional natural wine regions like Oregon and Slovenia. If you’re looking for an off-the-wall wine with a great story behind it, this is the essential spot in Houston.
1304 West Alabama Street, Montrose
The Heights Grocer
Located in a cute corner unit on Main Street in the Heights, the Heights Grocer manages to pack a large selection of natural wines into its cozy space. One wall boasts a selection of “bargain” wines, each priced at $25 or less. The selection here tends to be more imported, as more established natural wine producers tend to be in Europe, though there are some great finds like Hiyu, produced in Oregon’s Hood River Valley. Many of the natural options here tend to be easy-drinking blends that are perfect for beginners just getting into natural wine.
4525 North Main Street, Heights
Montrose Cheese & Wine
The natural wines at Westheimer’s most compelling wine retailer reach across the spectrum of natural wines, from whites to reds to funky oranges. The selection here rotates frequently, and wine director Lauren Hunter Lee is an endless font of knowledge on all things wine, from the specific blend of grapes in a bottle to the type of soil the grapes were grown in to what patrons could cook at home to pair well with a particular wine.
1618 Westheimer Road, Montrose
This neighborhood favorite boasts a seriously impressive natural wine list curated by buyer Justin Vann. In addition to the traditional reds, whites, and blends, Vann also likes to select interesting bottles and large-format wines perfect for sharing with a group of friends. Here, it’s definitely worth digging deep into the wine list — there’s a perfect pairing for every dish on the menu.
2704 Polk Street, Suite A, East Downtown
Located in the Southampton neighborhood near the Museum District, Vinology offers a more traditional wine retail experience with a large selection of wines, both imported and domestic. Wine buyer Riccardo Guerrieri has a penchant for picking unique natural wines that are very approachable for newcomers, though there are some exceptions like white wines packed with barnyard funk from Oregon that even the snobbiest natural wine enthusiasts can appreciate. This shop also boasts a particular focus on bubbly wines perfect for Houston’s summer heat.
2314 Bissonnet Street, Southampton
A classic Bayou City wine bar, 13 Celsius is in the process of centering its menu around the wines of France’s Loire Valley. There’s a well-balanced mix of natural reds and whites on the menu here, plus plenty of crisp, clean sparkling wines, a few funky pét-nats, and orange wines.
3000 Caroline Street, Midtown
The wine list at this chic Montrose restaurant pays close attention to Houston’s weather, meaning that there are also plenty of light, easily drinkable natural reds and whites to pair with Vibrant’s veggie-packed dishes. The menu here also boasts a few fun oddball bottles, including chillable reds and barely bubbly whites that could almost be considered spritzers.
1931 Fairview Street, Montrose