The organic debate goes on daily. Is the wine quality better? Is it worth the extra cost? And, most importantly, is organic really environmentally friendly?
There are some who would argue that organic viticulture takes twice as much manpower in the vineyard and, if they all drive cars to work, then how sustainable is that? Certification is equally contentious, as questions abound regarding who is qualified to certify, using what standards, and how farms are being inspected and by whom. No matter how you view the subject, there is something about organics that brings out the best and worst in people, especially those who see the world in black and white.
The online Organic Wine Journal offers a definition of organic wine by writers Adam Morganstern and Evan Spingarn that covers most of the bases, yet illustrates the problem of trying to pigeonhole a definition. They write that in the vineyard, “organic wine is made from grapes that have been grown without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides.” Inside the winery, production should be guided by “little or no manipulation of wines by reverse osmosis, excessive filtration, or flavour additives (such as oak chips).” Add to that the raging debate on sulphites and how much should or should not be used in organic wine production (standards vary across the world), and you have quite a mess.
Similar issues surround biodynamic winemaking standards based on the teachings of Austrian anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), that bring homeopathic and astrological considerations into the organic process. Many question the sanity of this school of thought, which involves such practices as burying manure stuffed in cow horns in the vineyard, later to be dug up on the equinox, mixed with water stirred against the forces of the Earth, and then sprayed back on the vines.
But many aspects of organic and biodynamic winemaking stand up to scrutiny.
It is clear to me, after 25 years of tasting, visiting vineyards and interviewing winemakers and grape growers, that there is a growing awareness among everyone involved in winegrowing and winemaking that the Earth is a precious, finite resource. What they do every day has an effect on their health, the health of their employees and families, and the health of their customers. If organics and biodynamics can help enhance those goals, so be it. In fact, more and more producers rightly see themselves as stewards of the land, and they conduct themselves and their businesses accordingly.
Are some cheaters? Yes. Do some use the term “organics” to pass off poor wine to unsuspecting consumers? You bet. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t applaud and support the efforts of those whose commitment is genuine — terms like natural wines, green wines, Earth-friendly wines, fish-friendly wines, organic wines and biodynamic wines look good on labels but require action to back them up.
The bigger picture is that the wine business, at the grassroots level, is taking the lead in instituting measures of environmentally responsible agriculture and wine production. When you see winery personnel shutting off leaking water taps in Chile, recycling water in Sonoma, pulling out non-indigenous plants in South Africa or using solar energy in Australia, you get the sense they believe change is not only possible, but they will be part of it. You can’t certify caring, but slowly and surely, as consumers become familiar with wines that are either certified or recommended by those of us in the business (such as those in these pages), the culture will change.
Not every initiative needs to be certified by a government agency, but like many of Europe’s producers who work organically and do not seek certification, they are directed at caring for their special piece of dirt to the best of their ability, and that may be the most important result of all.
This month, we look at some of the labels leading the organic charge. Noticeably, there are more today than last year, and there will be many more in the coming years. Now, if only retailers would make them easier to find in the store we, too, could do our part to help improve the environment.
The Cono Sur Organic Chardonnay 2009 ($14.49) comes out of the Valle de San Antonio in Chile’s Region de Aconcagua. It is a new, organic unoaked chardonnay under screwcap that is ridiculously tasty for the price. The entry is fresh, crisp and just off-dry, with nettle, lemon, grapefruit, gooseberry, passion fruit flavours and a touch of grass. It has a juicy mineral, green guava finish. Try this with a whole roasted chicken stuffed with lemons and rosemary.
Organic sparkling wine is less abundant, but a favourite is the Villa Teresa Rosé Veneto Vino Frizzante ($14.50). This non-vintage bubbly hails from Veneto, Italy. It has an attractive pale salmon colour and a fresh, open, red fruit nose. On the palate, you taste soft, candied cherry fruit flavours, bolstered by the frizzante or spritz that keeps it light and fresh. Simple, playful pink for tapas-style appetizers or for light evening meals.
One of the best organic pinot noirs in the market is the Felton Road Pinot Noir 2008 ($60) from Central Otago, New Zealand. Typically expressive celery salt, earthy, rooty, rhubarb, strawberry, orange peel flavours with a savoury thyme, herbal undercurrent, all in a dry, elegant, supple palate. Duck pâté, anyone?
From the Rhône Valley, any Chapoutier estate wine is natural, eschewing chemicals, fertilizers and sprays, harvesting grapes by hand and using only natural yeasts to produce unfiltered wines. The M. Chapoutier La Ciboise Rouge 2008 ($17) is a grenache and syrah blend with rich black cherry jam flavours flecked with orange, chocolate, chalky, peppery, spicy meat flavours. An excellent-value everyday red you can serve with grilled meats.
Emiliana Gé 2006 ($72) is certified biodynamic. The best lots, best barrel red blend is a mix of syrah, carmenère, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Ripe, supple, warm red fruit washes across your palate with a mix of eucalyptus, curry, blackberry, black cherry and smoky, meaty sage flavours, with a good measure of finesse. Try this with Alberta’s best beef.
The cold weather should have you reaching for Fonseca Terra Prima Reserve Port N/V ($33). Terra Prima is the only “Reserve” port we know of on the market that’s made from organically grown grapes and organic grape spirits. Expect a drier style and a rich palate of coffee, tobacco, cedar, menthol, dried fig, black tea and smoky, raisin flavours. Serve this one fireside after dinner and let the organic debate begin.
Anthony Gismondi is a the globetrotting editor-in-chief of Calgary-based Wine Access magazine.