If you’re a Chardonnay-lover, try the organically-farmed bottling from Bonterra Vineyards.
R. VERONIQUE FITZGERALD is wine consultant and writer in New York City.
Product Reviews / Main Nibbles / Wine
Organic & Biodynamic Wines Made With Love Through Alternative Viticulture
CAPSULE REPORT: Today, we are more savvy about what we consume. Vineyard managers must put more care into their farming practices to produce intriguing, unique and responsible wines for today’s buyer’s market. Companies must adopt policies that follow this line of ethics. Many are stepping up to the plate, embracing organic, Biodynamic® and sustainable practices worldwide. Still, the contingent of wineries that practice alternative viticulture accounts for less than 2% of the world’s vineyards. Fear not: If you want to support the movement, there are plenty of good wines that fall under this umbrella, and they’re not hard to find.
There’s a difference between “organic wine” and “wine made from organically grown grapes.” The latter is more readily available. The rules governing organic farming in the vineyard do not cover winemaking practices, so winemakers may use any conventional methods and materials they see fit. But most often, they keep intervention to a minimum to maintain the integrity of organic grapes.
The term “organic wine” is legally defined in the U.S. as a wine made from organically grown grapes to which no sulfur dioxide (S02) has been added. Since S02 has many important functions in the winery that involve keeping the wine clean and maintaining its condition through an unknown length of time in warehouses and on restaurant and retail racks, making wine without it can be a gamble. In Biodynamics®*, SO2 is considered organic and its use is fully acceptable.
In this article, we’ll look at some wines made with both techniques. Read a full discussion of organic versus Biodynamic agriculture by my NIBBLE colleague Stephanie Zonis.
Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc From the
*Demeter Association is the registered owner of the Biodynamic® trademark in the U.S.
Organic Wine Producers
Here’s a selection of organic and organically-made wines that I have particularly enjoyed. My top pick:
- Bonterra Vineyards
Bonterra manages organic vineyards, producing a range of varietal wines from well-cared-for vines. The wines, unlike $5.99/lb. organic tomatoes, can be had at smart prices for their quality. Here’s the icing on the cake: Bonterra’s sense of responsibility reaches beyond its property lines. They sponsor Stop Global Warming, so enjoying a glass of their Mendocino Zinfandel on a cold winter eve definitely counts as activism!
- Citrus Roasted Cornish Game Hen on a bed of Vegetable Couscous
- Bonterra Chardonnay Mendocino 2004 (2005 is also currently available), $9.00-13.00
This was a nice winter meal my husband, Chef Shehu Fitzgerald, and I enjoyed at home. The hens were basted with soy butter to add flavor and crisp the skin, and stuffed with orange wedges before baking. We cooked the couscous with just salt and pepper, and added a brunoise* of tomatoes and celery when it was nearly done. With beautifully integrated oak, the wine’s clean fruit and bracing acidity freshened the palate after each bite of the juicy hen with its crisp, salty skin. The tomatoes and crisp celery in the couscous added nice texture to the dish and also complemented the wine with fruity, vegetal and buttery flavors.
*A method of food preparation in which the food, often vegetables including leeks and carrots, is first julienned and then turned 90 degrees and diced again, producing cubes of a side length of about 2mm on each side or less.
Other nicely-made organic wines include:
- Larmandier Bernier, Côtes des Blancs
This Champagne grower makes a Non Vintage Brut Tradition Premier Cru and a Blanc de Blanc for $37.00 to $45.00 a bottle, around the same price as the major (not usually organic) brands.
- Domaine Spiropoulos
This certified organic winery offers a range of varietal wines and blends. Estate-named dry white and the Ode Panos sparkler from the Moschofilero grape rock, both floral and dry with lively acidity. The Red Stag is made from the Agiorgitiko grape, grown in Nemea, in the northeast of the Peloponnese peninsula, near Corinth. The vineyard also makes Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Prices are around $12.00 a bottle, even for the bubbly!
- Patianna Organic Vineyards
Kudos to Patti Fetzer, of the famous Fetzer wine family, for creating this exciting brand in Mendocino, California. I’ve not yet tried her Syrah, but the quality of two consecutive vintages of her Sauvignon Blanc (2004 and 2005, $15.00 to $17.00, grown in a Biodynamic vineyard) makes me want to see more. The Syrah is around $30.00. Fetzer Vineyards is also systematically converting to organics.
Domaine Spiropoulos, in the town of Nemea in the south of Greece, is a certified organic winery.
Biodynamics: The Living Vineyard
In Biodynamics, the vineyard is a whole organism, alive and able to sustain itself. The Earth is also a living organism, and Biodynamic principles align the care in the vineyard to cosmic cycles that affect the energy and moods on the planet. In general, Biodynamics encompasses organic principles, taking them to another, more esoteric level.
There are those who are skeptical about the real benefits of planting and pruning by the phases of the moon or “dynamizing” a natural spray by first stirring it in one direction then in the opposite direction before applying. Nonetheless, the Biodynamic wines I’ve tasted have all been entirely unique, soulful wines of great balance and aging potential, starting at $25.00 to well over $100.00 a bottle. At the lower price range of $10.00 to $20.00, the wines at least show enough complexity and depth to distinguish themselves from the pack.
The Loire is a hotbed for Biodynamic viticulture. It helps that its cool, dry climate discourages the proliferation of molds, so spraying fungicides—prohibited in Biodynamic farming—can easily be avoided. Says Nicolas Joly, steward of the ancient Savenières Chenin Blanc vineyards of Coulée de la Serrant and La-Roche-aux-Moines, and vocal proponent for the practice, “Biodynamic wine is more about creating a feeling than a concrete flavor.” It’s no surprise that our top Biodynamic picks are:
- Nicolas Joly Coulée de la Serrant
Loire Valley, France
Drinking a Joly Savenières rates as the most unique wine experience I’ve had to date. They are very pure, focused and intensely mineral. The color may make you nervous at first (often a rusty copper hue), but you’ll certainly come to understand it on your palate. They can usually be had for $25.00 to $40.00 a bottle for recent vintages 2000 through 2003, although bottles that have had extra care, especially 2002s, will be more expensive and are expected to enjoy lengthy aging. Foods for these wines must also be pure: minimal seasoning, light cooking.
Other noteworthy Biodynamic producers and their wines include:
- Jo Pithon
Loire Valley, France
From Anjou, Jo Pithon makes Chenin in a different style from Joly’s. Hers have a delicate, floral character in both dry and off-dry bottlings. Most are single vineyard wines starting at around $16.00.
- Felton Road
Bannockburn, Central Otago, New Zealand
There’s New Zealand Pinot Noir and then there’s New Zealand Pinot Noir. Felton Road, grown in one of the world’s most southerly vineyards (at 45 degrees south latitude), is all that with a complex, elegant entry level wine at around $35.00 and two elusive, age-worthy single vineyards (Block 3 and Block 5) that will run you upwards of $60.00 a bottle. They also make noteworthy Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Gris.
I learned about sustainable agriculture at a tasting of the wines of Grove Mill Winery in New Zealand. After lunch and a talk given by Kiwi winemaker Dave Pearce, guests tasted, made notes, chatted and cornered Dave for further questioning.
Organic and Biodynamic farming principles don’t address all of the ecological concerns of operating a farm and creating an agricultural product in harmony with the surrounding ecosystem. For instance, Grove Mill consciously conserves resources like water and energy. Their waste management system recycles “water clean enough to be returned to the winery for wash-down, or discharged into Grove Mill’s neighboring wetland.” During a recent visit to Grove Mill, Dave showed me his water recycling system: a strip of land on which grow two tall rows of trees. He waters these with filtered wastewater from the winery. The idea is that the trees absorb the water, eventually releasing it back into the air to come down again as rain.
In that adjacent wetland, Grove Mill heads an ongoing rehabilitation program, proliferating over 4,000 native grasses, shrubs and trees that maintain a habitat for local bird species. The winery’s mascot, the Southern Bell frog, is a neighbor and beneficiary of their efforts. In the vineyard, pomace (skins, pips and pulp from the winepress) is returned to the soil. Grove Mill is the first winery in the world to be certified by CarboNZero, a certification program for minimizing climate change impacts by controlling C02 emissions.
- Grove Mill Winery
Marlborough, New Zealand
Grove Mill Sauvignon Blanc 17 Valley Reserve 2005 (2006 is currently available at around $18.00) was a good match for raw oysters. Characteristic gooseberry, passion fruit and citrus flavors with a crisp acidity supplanted a squeeze of lemon. The regular Sauvignon Blanc is also delicious at a more modest $13.00. Grove Mill Pinot Noir Wairau Valley Reserve 2004 is magic with a New Zealand Lamb Mechouï: Cumin and spice flavors in the dish complemented those in the wine. Grove Mill Pinot Gris 2005 (2006 is currently available), an off-dry white, is not a dessert wine but worked beautifully with a Honey and Pinot Gris Poached Pear served with Crème Catalane. The crisp acidity in the wine cleaned the palate nicely after every bite.
- Sokol Blosser
Dundee Hills, Oregon
Not only are their vineyards organic, but these vintners built their underground barrel cellar to U.S. Green Building Council standards—which means water and energy conservancy and other concerns such as building materials were monitored during construction. They use 20% biodiesel (a cleaner burning fuel) in their tractors and unbleached paper products for labels, boxes, and gift bags. Sokol Blosser Evolution, a white non-vintage blend of 9 different grape varieties that are not disclosed, makes it fun trying to guess the contents while sipping this intriguing wine (about $12.00). The company also makes Pinot Gris, various bottlings of Pinot Noir and Meditrina, a blend of Pinot Noir, Syrah and Zinfandel (around $16.00).
What To Look For
Very few wines use the USDA Organic label, which would be found on their back label. Those that bear the seal must be 100% organic wine. Much more often, a wine made with organically grown grapes will say so on the front label.
There are other organizations that certify organic wineries, and wines may bear their seals on back labels, such as the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). The law prohibits wineries from making untrue claims of organic farming.
The California-based Demeter Association, a non-profit, independent organization, certifies the world’s Biodynamic vineyards. Demeter has a logo for certified Biodynamic growers, which is usually displayed on the back label.
Although there are several self-regulating trade organizations that certify sustainable wineries, rules differ widely from country to country. There are more alternative wineries than we know of, but they keep it on the Q.T.: no indication on labels whatsoever, no concern with certification. They do it in the spirit of environmentalism, to make better wine today and to preserve the land for future generations.
Surely alternative viticulture brings grape growers closer to the land, the soil, the microclimate and the organisms with which they share that piece of Earth. These growers make an extra effort to be at peace with the environment, and more often that not, you can taste the love.
Above, the USDA Certified
The logo of the Demeter
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