Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Back to the Earth -- organic wines

Happy New Year, everyone!

Vine reader rthomas asked for recommendations on organic wines. Honestly, I didn't know much about them, so to the research we go…

We humans are not the only creatures out there who enjoy the bounty of the vine. Plenty of critters like to eat the fruit, various pests and bugs damage grapes and vines in many ways, and weeds can choke out the vines as they grow. The manmade solution in recent years has been various chemicals: pesticides, herbicides, fungicides -- you get the idea. These chemicals can find their way into the wines and, thus, into us. Some wines are genetically altered to better handle climate conditions. There are various chemical fertilizers, and preservatives (usually sulfites) are added to the wine at bottling. To clear wines, "finings" are added to the wine to pull out the sediment. Some of these finings are chemical in nature (although they're usually egg whites or a type of clay called bentonite).

Very few wines are "straight from the vine" anymore. However, over the last few years, "organic wine" has become both an attempt to raise non-chemical laden wine as well as a marketing ploy

What is an organic food? The USDA definition for organic food is: "Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; petroleum-based fertilizers or sewage sludge-based fertilizers; bio-engineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled 'organic,' a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards."

A number of wineries started selling "organic wine" -- organic wines are, simply put, wines made from organic grapes. There are three categories of organic wine:

  • 100% Organic: These wines use only grapes certified as 100% organically grown with no preservatives.
  • Organic: Refers to wines that have at least 95% of grapes from certified sources and may have some small amount of sulfites added.
  • Made with Organic Grapes: These wines are at least 70% organically grown grapes and may have a "standard" amount of sulfites added.

Some wineries are using "biodynamic" techniques to grow grapes. These techniques are above and beyond "organic" -- as they use only the resources found in the vineyard to produce the grapes.

Most "certified USDA organic" wines you're going to find will be American. Only a very small number of Euro-wineries have been certified here. Now, that doesn't mean that there aren't organic wines in Europe. Between 2-3% of all vineyards in Europe would be considered organic, and many countries (including France, Spain, and Italy) pay subsidies to farmers who agree to follow organic standards.

So, what does this all mean to most wine drinkers? Some folks swear by organic wines -- say they taste better. If a wine doesn't have sulfites, it probably will also give you less of a headache if you overconsume a bit. Myself, I can't tell much of a difference. One place where you CAN generally tell the difference is on the pricetag. Not surprisingly, organic wines are going to set you back a bit of cash compared to "standard" wines. There are some in our range, though:

Bonterra 2004 Chardonnay -- A solid, decent Chardonnay from Mendocino County in California. Bonterra is one of the wines in the forefront of pushing the "organic" angle in its mainline advertising to raise its profile. This was a little more citrus-scented than I expected from a NoCal chardonnay, and Bonterra thankfully stayed away from the California tendency to oak a chardonnay into submission. This one has a nicer balance than many California wines -- a little tart, a little honey, and it finishes with a buttery flavor that’s pretty pleasant. I found this one on sale for $10 (they're about to release the '05), but you're probably going to shell out $13-14 normally.

Finca Luzon Verde 2004 Jumilla -- Another Spanish wine. Remember, like French wines, Spanish wines are classified by region. Jumilla is the region. The wine is made from 100% Monastrell grapes. Monastrell is typically a blending grape, but -- much like Malbec, is starting to stand on its own. (Monastrell is more commonly known as mourvedre.) I have no idea why the wine is called "verde" -- Spanish for "green." The Finca Luzon a very nice, easy drinking red wine. "Not too strong on the nose -- smelled like blackberry jam and mint. Rather soft and fruity to drink with some mild dark berry flavors. The finish was a little dry with a soft spice and lasted awhile. It's pretty food-friendly, as well -- pairing with anything from paella to peppery red meats. A solid budget wine if you're looking for something organic. You'll find this from $7-9.

Mas de Gourgonnier 2003 Les Baux de Provence-- From Provence in France -- this wine is a big French entry into the organic category. One sniff informs you immediately that this is an "Old World" wine. That deep earthy, Old World scent rolls out after a swirl, which covers up some black cherry. While this is a typically muscular French wine, it's not as heavy as several I've tried. There's a nice fresh fruitiness to go along with the earthy backbone of this wine. The finish is long and tannic. Like most French wines, it's wonderful with food, especially a big roasted meat dish or something earthy -- root vegetables and the like. Sharp cheeses would also be quite nice. $12-15.

Also, if you're looking for an excellent splurge wine that's organic, try Frog's Leap or Preston.

Until next time, keep it earthy.


Miss_K said...

I can heartily recommend the Four Chimney's Organic wines. Their Eye of the Bee is simply divine, and at $10.49 a bottle it is well within your criteria.


Anonymous said...

Our Daily Red Organic is quite tasty, sampled at Natasha's Cafe in Lexington. I have found this online at $7.99/bottle.

Saucy The Red

The Naked Vine said...

Thanks much for the recommendations. You'll probably land in the mailbag down the line... :)

Jim said...

Is there a permalink to your columns at Dayton yet?

The Naked Vine said...

Alas, no there isn't. They've been doing a lot of revamping of their website over the last couple of weeks, but I don't know if they're going to start linking me there. I do have visual confirmation from folks in Dayton that it did run, but I still haven't seen it with my own eyes.

Jennifer Ouellette said...

Congrats on becoming a weekly feature. Should you ever have a slow news week, perhaps you can write something about this odd new trend in wines: the twist-off cap rather than the traditional cork. I always associate twist-off caps with the tiny bottles of cheap Chablis served on airlines -- i.e., wines on a par with battery acid. Apparently this is no longer the case?

The Naked Vine said...

Ah, yes...that's definitely been on the list for awhile. The heady joys of the "Stelvin Closure." Basically -- they built a better screwtop, and I think it's a fantastic thing. It does, however, lack the romance of "popping a cork."

But yes, we'll be talking about that. Thanks!

Unknown said...

A belated comment, but might this article might be of interest.


Tablas Creek Vineyards (Paso Robles, CA) is one of my favorite wineries. They following organic farming practices, but do not advertise "organic" anywhere on their label. The reason - they add sulfites.

This article explains their thoughts on farming and on organic certification.

My personal (limited) experience w/ organic wines has been that they don't age as well, and can be a bit rough on the palette. I'll have to try some of the suggestions to see what I've been missing.

Anonymous said...

A very important taste factor about the Luzon Verde is that is not aged in barrel ... 100% bottle aged, which contributes greatly to it's profile. (also a good point for those looking for red wines without big tannins but with plenty of flavor)