Rod Byers: A brief guide to organic wine
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series by Rod Byers on organic wines.
Organic wine can be confusing. Here is a quick guide to a few of the important categories.
First of all, the grapes must be organically grown. Everything else is a non-starter. Organically grown means no synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or fertilizers, verified with third party certification.
Then the grapes go to the winery. For the wine to be organic, the facility must first be certified as organic as well. Now comes the curve ball. In America, to get the United States Department of Agriculture’s organic sticker the wine must have zero added sulfites and no more than 10 parts per million naturally occurring sulfites.
If you think sulfites are your issue, then look for wines that carry the department’s organic sticker. It looks the same as the food sticker.
If you care about organic but don’t have specific sulfite concerns, then look for wines with a California Certified Organic Farmers sticker, which have mostly the same requirements as Department of Agriculture but allows sulfites up to 100 parts per million.
Finally, if you believe your favorite artisan winery is acting responsibly with as minimal processing as possible but you still want grapes without synthetic pesticides, look for an organic vineyard designation somewhere on the bottle.
Here are a couple of take-aways.
First, from the winemaker’s perspective, making wine from organically grown grapes is no different than from conventional grapes. Think of fruit in the store. Without a sign could you tell the organic from the non-organic?
While it does cost more to farm organically, it does not cost more to buy wine with organically grown grapes. You can find wines with organically grown grapes at every price point.
If you are concerned about quality, consider this: Romanée Conti, perhaps the most famous vineyard and wine in the world, is organic and biodynamically farmed.
Making wine without sulfites is a whole different story. Sulfur has been used in winemaking since at least the ancient Greeks because it is effective as a preservative. Sulfites protect wine, first from marauding bacteria, and later as it slumbers in the bottle.
A lot of winemakers would reluctantly agree, if the quality and condition of the grapes was really good, then making a low or no sulfite wine was within the realm of possibilities. But they wouldn’t like it.
That is the point. In a low-no sulfite world, if you don’t start with excellent grapes you’re soon living in a bacterial dumpster fire with no way to put it out.
For their very survival, organic and biodynamic farmers have to deliver the goods.
The proof is always in the pudding, or in this case wine. Can you really make a good no sulfite added wine? I rounded up a dozen no sulfite wines from four different countries, including a half dozen different varietals, and put them all in brown paper bags. Then I invited Sierra Starr winemaker Jackson Starr and my television partner Bob Stewart to a blind tasting.
I lined up the glasses and asked everyone to find their favorites. We were surprisingly uniform in our selections. These are all United States Department of Agriculture certified organic.
Frey, Nevada. Natural Red, California. Carignane, Zin and Syrah blend that’s a good introduction to no sulfite added wines. Fresh, fruity, balanced.
Beaver Creek Vineyards, California. 2016 Merlot. This is a fruit-forward, bold and robust style of California Merlot. Nothing wimpy here.
Spartico, Spain. A Tempranillo and Cabernet blend that is medium-full bodied, aromatic, and fruity.
Tarantas, Spain. 2016 Tempranillo from the same Spanish producer, medium-bodied and fruity with a soft finish.
Paolo Marcarino, Italy. 2017 Barbera. Big aromas and flavors layered over a traditionally crisp Barbera finish.
Badger Mountain, Washington. 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon. Nice Cab aromas, balanced with good mid-palate and big finish.
At another tasting featuring wines with organically grown grapes but with added sulfites, we had more favorites including Ruminat 2017 Primitivo from Italy, Koyle 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile and Eco Terrano 2013 Three Vine Red from Alexander Valley in Sonoma County.
We are fortunate in western Nevada County to have a variety of stores, restaurants, and wine bars that support organic wine. Start by checking where you buy wine.
Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. He is the host of the local television show Wine Talk. You can reach him at email@example.com and he can be reached at 530-802-7172.
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