Once a funky duckling, “organic” is suddenly the prize golden goose of food and beverage marketing, so it comes as no surprise to find environment-conscious labels in every aisle of the supermarket. In the wine section, the new designations range from “sustainably farmed,” “biodynamic” and “responsibly grown” to “environmentally friendly.” What’s a “green” enophile to do?
Certainly, some of these terms are bottle-dressing only, but it is clear that there is a groundswell of change in the world of winemaking, with what many feel are positive adjustments in viticulture practices.
The informed consumer should know, however, that there is only one term that guarantees that some sort of standards—federally mandated ones—have been applied: “Organic.”
Behind the Label
“Organic” means that a product has been certified by a licensed third-party organization and has been grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, then harvested, processed and packaged according to rigorous standards. The other “green” labels, nice as they sound, are not regulated.
Organic viticulturists focus on improving the health of their soil so that the entire vineyard ecosystem benefits and vines are less likely to fall victim to diseases or pests. Farmers plant cover crops to fix nitrogen, increase beneficial bacteria and aerate the soil. “Good” bugs like ladybugs and spiders boom as soil health improves. Bird boxes placed around vineyards foster hawk and owl populations, which help keep gophers to a minimum. Compost, often made of grape skins, is added to increase nutrients.
Interestingly, some wineries that employ organic practices are opting to forgo organic labeling entirely. For example, all the vineyards of Rubicon Estate (formerly Niebaum-Coppola) are certified organic, but you won’t find that anywhere on its bottles. Rubicon says the vineyard uses “organic” not as a marketing tool, but to promote “good stewardship” of the land. Fetzer, Frog’s Leap, Kenwood and all the Foster Wine Estates, including the giant Beringer, are among the growing number of California wineries that have committed to sustainable farming techniques, but are not moving toward full “organic” certification.
To understand why, it helps to know that growing grapes organically is just one piece of the puzzle; wine also has to be produced and bottled to organic standards. This leads directly to the question of sulfites, the traditional preservatives used to prolong the life and taste of wines (and of many dried fruits).
Sulfites, in fact, occur naturally in wine (they are a by-product of fermentation). Conventional winemakers also add small amounts to prevent oxidation and thus preserve the wine. More specifically, sulfites bind natural chemical components that could otherwise produce unappealing aromas. By law, any wine sold as “certified organic” cannot contain added sulfites.
Many environmentally aware vintners still feel strongly that they need to add a controlled amount of sulfites to produce a consistent, shelf-stable product, so they are opting for this designation: “Made with organically grown grapes.”
The Taste Test
The EatingWell wine panel waded into this fray with a tasting of wines labeled “organic” as well as “made with organically grown grapes.” We were pleasantly surprised to find organic wines widely available, at big supermarket chains as well as local natural-foods stores. But we approached our task with some skepticism; not only is the category small, it has been plagued with a reputation for wines of questionable quality. Our skepticism was justified; there were fewer wines that wowed us than is usual at our tastings. As it turned out, all our picks were “made with organically grown grapes.”
Our conclusion? This category may need a few more years to mature and consistently produce high-quality wines. For now, however, here are some ready for prime time, especially if you want to cast a pro-environment vote when you raise a glass of wine.
Susan’s Picks ($8 & under)
WHITE: Vida Organica, Torrontes (Argentina) 2005 $8
Often compared to Muscat, Torrontés is a boldly aromatic grape, widely planted in Argentina. This wine exhibits peaches and sweet flowers—and a mouthful of fruit—balanced by crisp sharpness and a tight finish.
RED: Vinas de Alto Salvador, Sangiovese (Argentina) 2003 $8
Sangiovese is so Italian that it is surprising that anyone, in any other part of the world, would even attempt to produce it, much less do well with the grape. This is a rich version that looks and smells like jam, black cherries, soft woods and mellow herbs. A dry red, worthy of braised meats or hearty pasta.
Jessie’s Picks ($12 & under)
WHITE: Cooper Mountain Vineyards, Estate Pinot Gris (Oregon) 2003 $11
This straightforward pale white is lively and crisp with hints of green apple, citrus and nutmeg. A refreshing accompaniment to simply prepared seafood or a pureed vegetable soup.
RED: Arcano Cecchi, Chianti Colli Sensi (Italy) 2003 $11
This tangy and dry deep red evokes black licorice with hints of pepper and violet. In classic Chianti style, it sports tons of tannins, making it a perfect counterpart to richer fare.
Lindsey’s Picks ($15 & under)
WHITE: Sobon Estate, Viognier (California) 2004 $15
Lovely aromatics of honeysuckle, ripe peach and vanilla blossom are a fitting prelude to this full-bodied and flavorful alternative to Chardonnay. Just slightly sweet with a hint of oak, this Viognier pairs well with grilled seafood and roasted chicken.
RED: Luzon Verde, Monastrell, Jumilla (Spain) 2004 $13
The small, sweet fruits and rather thick skins of Spain’s Monastrell grape (known as Mourvèdre elsewhere) are reflected in this wine’s deep garnet hue. Aromatics of cedar, white pepper and clove complement lush fruit notes of black currant, cherry and warm spice flavors. The pronounced tannins of the 2004 should relax in a couple of years, so enjoy a bottle now with a hearty stew or juicy tenderloin, and set some aside to uncork later.
The Truth About Sulfites
Current research indicates that less than 1 percent of the population reacts poorly to sulfites, which are widely used as preservatives in wine.
According to Andrew L. Waterhouse, professor of enology (wine chemistry) at the University of California, Davis, three myths are circulating in wine-drinking circles.
Myth: Some wines are sulfite-free. “All wines contain sulfites,” says Waterhouse. “Yeasts naturally produce sulfites during fermentation, so there is only a rare wine that contains none.”
Myth: European wines are made without sulfites. “Nearly all winemakers in the world add sulfites. U.S. wines average 80 mg/liter of sulfites, or about 10 mg in a typical glass of wine,” says Waterhouse. “Survey studies show that European wines also contain an average of 80 mg/L sulfites.” Until recently, only the U.S. government required sulfite labels, but sulfite-using winemakers in Europe and Australia are now also being required to add “Contains Sulfites” to their labels.
Myth: Sulfites cause headaches. “Sulfites do not cause headaches!” says Waterhouse. “There is something in red wine that causes headaches for some people, but the cause has not been discovered. If you think sulfites are causing your headache, try eating some orange-colored dried apricots, and let me know if that induces a headache. To avoid headaches, try drinking less wine, and drink with food.”
Organic Grapes into Wine Alliance,
Sulfites in wine:
Jessie Price is EatingWell’s food editor.
Susan Buchanan is a lawyer and cook.
Lindsey Bolger is director of coffee sourcing for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters.