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Alice Feiring on Natural Wines and Strange Flavors

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We're sitting down with our favorite writers and cooks to talk about their upcoming cookbooks, their best food memories, and just about anything else.

Today: We talk to Alice Feiring, authority on all things wine and all-around cool lady, about how to shop for a wine, what we should drink with Nigella's Genius Mushroom Pasta, and whether funky smells are always a bad thing. 

Alice Feiring

Here at Food52, we're all about demystifying the delicious world of wine. Learning more about it -- and understanding what we like about a wine -- makes opening up a bottle much more enjoyable.

Luckily, we have people like Alice Feiring to help us out. An internationally recognized authority on wine, Alice shares approachable and enjoyable information in The Feiring Line, her regular newsletter that focuses on "real wines from real soils." (No chemicals, and no BS.) We recently picked her brain about how to get more comfortable shopping for wine, and whether or not the smell of cat urine is really traceable in some vintages. (Seriously.)

Plus, she's incredibly cool, and after this interview, we want to open up a bottle with her. (Alice, our door is always open!) Read on for wine-buying tips and a pairing with Nigella Lawson's Genius Mushroom Pasta.

What drew you to wine in the first place? What do you love most about it?
At first it was the smell, magic, and armchair travel. Now, what I love most about it is the way taste connects to culture, history, science, humanity and vintage. 

What do you tell people who are intimidated by wine stores? What are the most important questions to ask when shopping?
People in most good wine stores are chomping at the bit to share their passion and jump at the opportunity to widen the wine love, so get over the intimidation! Take a deep breath and admit to lack of knowledge, but wanting to learn. Then give them an idea of what you like -- wine weight, color, region, grape, farming practice. Give them helpful hints about a quality in wine you’ve had that you’ve liked before: floral, animal, light, fruity, refreshing, warming? Tell them what your budget is. Now, don’t feel foolish if it’s too low, but if you go up to $15, you have plenty to choose from.

More: Know your way around your local wine shop.

The Anatomy of a Wine Shop

What is the biggest misconception out there about "natural" wines?
That they’re more expensive than conventional and that they require more care than conventional. And that they taste weird. Many of them actually taste like regular old wines but with more personality and life. 

What's the weirdest flavor/note you've ever tasted in a wine? Is the cat piss thing that people say true?
The first time I smelled marijuana in a wine, I was like -- whoa! Blood, iron, or sometimes liver is something I love in an old-fashioned Italian wine, but I'm a vegetarian, so when I say “Bloody!”, I kind of flip some people out.

Now, about that cat piss, or as a friend of mine calls it ‘yew tree,’ it really can be a positive. Remember the anal gland of the civet cat is a fancy ingredient in many perfumes. Sometimes something gross, in the right balance, can work to create a lot of complexity. This scent is often found in Sauvignon Blanc depending on soil and weather variables, but not always. If it is there because of nature and not because of the laboratory, and the wine is in balance, it can produce something lovely. See below!

Nigella Lawson's Linguine with Lemon-Thyme Mushrooms

We're obsessed with this recipe for Lemony Mushroom Pasta. If we wanted to serve it for dinner tonight, what would you drink alongside?
It’s a very fun recipe. I love the no-cook -- or cook through citrus -- method. So, that’s why I’d go with a wine that would be equally fun, like the 2007  Cotar Vitovksa from Slovenia. It’s about $30. If you want to see a great example in the orange wine category, made with no sulfur, do look for it. It gets its beautiful bronze color from a few days of skin contact before fermentation kicks in. It is complex, juicy, melony, and kind of beeswaxy with a somewhat gravely texture. The wine could have a great time playing with that parsely and lemon juice. Serve it at just a few degrees colder than room temperature.

A more classic pairing would be the exceptional 2012 Clos Roche Blanche Sauvignon Blanc, for about $19. And yes, with just the slightest hint of cat’s pee.

Where are buyers most likely to find a bargain bottle -- and what should they look for? Any great value wines you've discovered recently?
The bargain zone for me is still France. It’s there I can get artisinal, organic, delicious and interesting wine for under $15. Languedoc is the golden zone. Domaine Deux Anes' Premier Pas, a biodynamic wine (über organic) at $12, is a wild and crazy bargain and a rich, satisfying wine.

Another wine from not too far away is Domaine Rimbert in Saint-Chinian. Look for Les Travers de Marceau or his Petite Cochon Bronze (rosé) -- the latter is about the same price, but a little more stony and filled with wild herbs.

Want more of Alice's wine knowledge and wit? Subscribe to her newsletter here.