Why Fruit Wines Are the Next Big Thing in Natural Winemaking

Apple and pear wines are providing possibilities in an industry grappling with climate change.

Jason Charles had been making wine professionally in northern California for over a decade. In the summer of 2020, he was on the ninth harvest for his brand, Vinca Minor, when devastating wildfires struck the region. Charles realized early on that he wouldn’t be able to make any red wine, due to the high potential for smoke taint. So he turned to other, less delicate crops.

“Everything had been right in front of me for a long time—I just didn’t realize it,” Charles explains. “I worked with farmers up in Redwood Valley, purchasing a lot of historic carignan from vineyards that were 100 years old. But looking around, I also saw these apple and pear orchards, most of which were planted in the mid-1800s, predating even the vineyards.”

Apples and pears are hardier fruits, meaning they won’t take on smoke taint. And unlike grapes, which are so sensitive that they need to be processed within hours of harvesting, apples and pears can be placed into cold storage and used for up to 12 to 14 months post-picking. And apples in particular, with their multitude of varieties, can have seasons that last well into the year.

That September, Charles sourced a couple-hundred gallons of pear juice from Anderson Valley, barreled it, and kicked off its natural fermentation. “On the fly, I just started adding some sauvignon blanc juice that was also happening,” he says. “It felt like a natural fit. Pears are really lush, while sauv blanc has tons of acid and lots of citrus.”

He started giving bottles away to friends and colleagues, who were shocked to discover that a sauv blanc-pear juice concoction could taste so good. So he put a label on it, creating a fruit wine offshoot at Vinca Minor. While the first batch ended up becoming Moonland’s best-seller, Charles eventually expanded to apples, blending in a still wine while they were in the process of fermenting and creating an even richer flavor.

In the United States, beyond-grape wines haven’t always had the greatest rap among wine connoisseurs, thumbed down for the excess sugar that often gets added in the production process. But other countries celebrate a long history of fruit wines. You can find plum wine in Japan and Korea, pomegranate wine in Israel, and banana wine in East Africa.

There are, however, a handful of fruit vintners in the U.S. who have been making waves in recent years, like Maine’s Bluet, a producer of wild blueberry sparkling wine, or the Hammondsport-based Chateau Renaissance Wine Cellars, which sells the TikTok-famous heart-shaped strawberry wine at New York City’s Greenmarket.

Fruit wine is an ever-growing category, and many have a hard time distinguishing it from cider. “Fruit wine will always be a combination of apples, pears, some other fruits, and maybe even grapes, but cider is only apples,” Charles explains. Even the government seems to be figuring it out in real time. Under submission for approval, Moonland’s classification has changed from “apple-grape wine” to “fruit wine.”

The brand sets itself apart with its approach to natural winemaking. “Essentially, organic fruit, native fermentations, and no additions,” Charles says, admitting to adding just a bit of sulfur at bottling. “Sometimes, by not adding sulfur, you lose terroir, and maybe focus, in the wine. It’s hard to pinpoint where it came from. It starts blending into just a wild wine, in a sense.”

Fruit wines are opening up a dialogue about what winemaking could look like under climate change.

We don’t always associate fruit wines, especially those that tend to be overly manufactured, with a sense of place. But Charles is hoping to change that. “We’re working with these orchards that have this really beautiful history,” he explains. “With a little aging, these fruits start taking on elevated qualities. You’ll be able to say, ‘This tastes like it has the coastal influence,’ or ‘This is definitely West County Sonoma. I’ve tasted pinot noirs that have similar notes.’”

While it’s clear that apples and pears are incredibly versatile, allowing winemakers like Charles to continue making products in the midst of fire season, these orchards—like vineyards—still need water. Going into March, California hasn’t seen much rain, which means it’s heading into another extended drought year. “Apples and pears won’t necessarily save us from that,” he adds.

But at the very least, fruit wines are opening up a dialogue about what winemaking could look like under climate change, inching up to be the next big thing in the natural wine movement. Charles is excited to find himself among a growing network of winemakers who are dipping into fruits, like Art + Science in northern Oregon and Zafa Wines in Vermont.

“Just here in Northern California, we’ve got this cool little community, and I feel like over the next few years, there’s going to be more and more fruit wines on the market,” Charles says. Fellow NorCal brands include Emme, a label founded by Rosalind Reynolds, as well as Buddy Buddy, created by Charles’ assistant winemaker, Cassidy Miller.

With the 2021 Pear-Sauvignon Blanc currently sold out, Moonland is working hard to keep up with demand. And Charles believes this interest stems from an ever-expanding palette.

“Our taste is getting so much more complex, exceeding what we grew up with, or what our parents are drinking,” he explains. “In the winery, we’re seeing the stranger, weirder, more obscure the flavor, the better. That consumer demand just pushes winemakers to start experimenting even more creatively—to go out into left field.”

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Jessica Sulima is a staff writer on the Food & Drink team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram