That, in essence, is the mantra of organic wine makers – let the soil and grapes speak, don’t soak them with fertilizers and pesticides, and when you’re back in the winery, manipulate the grapes and wine as little as possible. Sounds pretty good right? If you can find great wines that have been produced in an earth-friendly way, why would you drink anything else?
The question, however, is how can you tell if something is organic? And what does biodynamic, sustainable or natural winemaking mean?
To answer these questions, I went to “Defining Organic: Green Wine Demystified” with Adam Morganstern, editor of the Organic Wine Journal, at the Astor Center. It was also a good opportunity to do some research on the competition – as you may know I teach wine classes at FCI. While I came in with a good knowledge of these concepts, the lecture and the tasting conducted by Greg Wacks was enlightening and I left knowing more than I started with. I also tasted some great wines.
Here are the Cliff Notes:
The terms organic, natural and biodynamic are confusing because they have multiple definitions and some of the practices overlap. Let’s start with organic. At its most basic level, it means wine from grapes grown without the use of herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and chemical fertilizers. 100 years ago, organic farming was the norm. Industrial farming was an outgrowth of the World Wars – primarily stemming from technologies related to chemical weapons and bomb-making. Scary right? Chemical manufacturers needed new markets in the post-war years and found that many of their products could be applied to agriculture. At first it seemed like a dream come true – in the first year or two of using pesticides the farmers saw tremendous growth. Soon after, however, their soil was dead (i.e. not even earthworms). So, the chemical companies then suggested fertilizers. New diseases began popping up and the companies could then sell their fungicides. So, a nasty and expensive cycle was born. Organic practices intend to break that cycle.
Natural wines have no official certification. The general rule for natural wine is minimal intervention, but the catch is: what is practiced in the vineyard doesn’t necessarily reflect what is being practiced in the winery. To formalize things, some winemakers have banded together and created loose standards: small quantities of wine made by independent producers, handpicked grapes, no added sugars or foreign yeasts. As a result, their wines are more sensitive to changing temperatures and must be stored with care.
Biodynamic wines are controlled by a certifying agency called Demeter. Biodynamics is the brainchild of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher, literary scholar, educator, architect, playwright, social thinker and esotericist (busy man!). The four basic principals are: a closed system of nutrients (composting, recycling), biodiversity on the property (plants, predators, prey – no monocultures), specific field sprays and composting, and the idea of creating a holisitic system where they manage the environment and let the plants take care of themselves. So, yes, they follow the moon cycle, bury cow dung in horns, which is weird, but the ideas are based on hundreds of years of traditional farming techniques.
You might see one of these strutting around on a biodynamic vineyard:
All this, and we haven’t mentioned sustainable winemaking. Again, there’s no set definition for it and it could reflect sincerity or part of a marketing plan. It could also be viewed as “organic until something goes wrong”. One person’s sustainable could include solar power and being carbon neutral while another person’s sustainable is simply changing to a more efficient lightbulb.
It’s important to keep in mind that many producers are following some/most/all of the ideas we’ve touched on here, but don’t always want to be labeled for it. They want to be known for the quality of their wines, not for the method in which they were made. Like in cooking, a chef wants you to enjoy your meal, not worry about whether it was prepared using an aluminum or cast iron pan. Some producers might also disagree with some of the government’s standards (too low, dumbed down). Plus, it can also be expensive to get certified, particularly if you’re certifying in multiple different countries.
To be fair, not all organic, natural or biodynamic wines are good. Many are the product of bad winemakers. Others suffer from quality issues that result from natural winemaking – there’s a reason most winemakers use sulfites. Consistency can also be an issue – there is often bottle variability within one case of wine. Some may enjoy not knowing what to expect when opening a bottle, but those of us in the hospitality industry serving these wines to our guests may not feel the same.
All this being said, those selected by Adam and Greg were great (all prices from Astor Wines & Spirits):
1. Domaine Carneros Brut 2005 (Carneros, California): 3 years practicing organic, now certified. toasty, biscuity nose with great acidity and a fruity palate. $19.99
2. Seresin Sauvignon Blanc 2007 (Marlborough, New Zealand): mostly biodynamic, though some grapes are sourced from non-biodynamic vineyards. classic NZ Sauvignon blanc here – cut grass, passionfruit and peaches with a zippy tartness. $21.99
3. Nikolaihof Grüner Veltliner “Hefeabzug” 2007 (Wachau, Austria): had Demeter certification on back label as well as a paper neck tag (which is interesting because this is a well-known producer who doesn’t necessarily need the additional marketing). arugula and white pepper on the nose with citrus and minerals on the palate. $26.99
4. Jelu Malbec 2007 (Mendoza, Argentina): practicing organic estate. fruit-forward with cherry coke aromas and flavors, high acidity and soft tannins. a steal at $9.99
5. Le Loup Blanc “Le Régal du Loup” 2006 (Minervois, Languedoc-Roussillon, France): natural winemaker. 50% Carignan, 30% Grenache, 20% Mourvèdre. standout of the evening for me. dark fruits, baking spices, cinnamon ribbon candy and barnyard. $18.99
6. Tablas Creek “Côtes de Tablas” 2006 (Paso Robles, California): received organic certification in 2003. this wine is a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Counoise. juicy red fruits with leather and licorice. $21.99
7. Clos des Camuzeilles Muscat de Rivesaltes 2004 (Languedoc-Roussillon, France): vins doux naturel (wines made by adding spirit before fermentation is complete – this additional alcohol kills the yeast and leaves you with a strong, sweet wine) from natural winemaker. dried apricots, orange blossom, the liquid from canned peaches. $22.99