Thursday, August 16, 2007

A Review of Sustainable Wines

Those who know my husband and me would agree that there’s no more appropriate way to start this blog than with a review of sustainable wines. We like wine. When I was a child, wine was invariably served with dinner. This is a tradition that my husband and I have incorporated into our family life. When we were both Big Law partners, we could afford a “good” ($15-20)wine each night. But after I left the law for the food world, we needed to change our habits or at least our wine selections. These days, we have our weeknight wines and our weekend wines. We’ve become masters at finding “value” ($15 and under) wines: high quality, yet inexpensive. As a result, while the vast majority of the food that we eat on a daily basis is sustainably-produced, I haven’t given as much thought to the wine that we drink. My perception was that these wines would be far too expensive for everyday consumption.

The motivation for challenging my perception is two-fold. First, I need to find value wines to serve at our Purple Asparagus benefit on August 26th at Crust: Eat Real, the first certified organic restaurant in the Midwest. But also, I would like to find wines that are both kind to the earth and my wallet.

Before I share my tasting notes, I should explain a little about the different categories of “sustainable” wines.

Organic Wines: Organic wines are those produced without synthetic fungicides, pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Wines that are imported may be labeled organic without bearing the USDA Organic seal as long as they meet the organic standards of the country from which they are imported.

USDA Organic Wines: Organic wines are made from at least 95% organic ingredients and are certified by an agency, which will be named on the label. A USDA organic wine cannot have any added sulfites. To determine whether a wine is USDA Organic, just look for the USDA seal.

Made with Organic Grapes, Organically Grown Grapes: Wines bearing this label are made with 70% or more organic ingredients. While it cannot bear the USDA Organic seal, it must give information about the agency certifying the organic ingredients. Wines in this category may contain added sulfites.

Biodynamic Wines: Like organic farming, biodynamic agriculture shuns chemical fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides. In fact, this type of agriculture is considered by some to be a sub-set of organic agriculture. What sets it apart from organic agriculture is its emphasis on the spiritual side of nature. Very romantic, even slightly kooky, biodynamic vintners keep track of the moon, the stars and tides and their perceived effect on their vines. However strange it may sound, I intuitively feel that biodynamic agriculture and wine are a perfect fit, at least to make some very special wines. I have not found any biodynamic wines affordable enough to be an everyday wine or even a weekend wine. Instead, these are best reserved for a special occasion. I’ve been particularly impressed by the biodynamic wines produced by Nicolas Joly and by Baumard.

Local Wines: If you’re lucky enough to live in a wine-growing region, buying local is easy. For those of us who live in colder climes, wine tends to fall into the same category as coffee and spices, a staple for which we will set aside our ordinary desire to support local producers.

A Note on Sulfites: Sulfites serve as a preservative in wines. While there wines include naturally occurring sulfites that are a byproduct of fermentation, organic wines cannot include any added sulfites. I will note that we encountered a far greater percentage of spoiled wines while tasting organic wines and wines made with organically-grown grapes than ever before, including one that was so disgusting that you could smell its putrid bouquet from a room away.


Cooper Mountain Vineyards Pinot Noir 2004 (Oregon) (Organically Grown Grapes) $16.99. Ruby color, nice weight, balanced acidity, elegant with notes of stone fruits, plums and cherries. This is slightly above my price limit of "value" wines, but it was really good. I would open it for a really nice everyday meal.

La Rocca Vineyards Barbaresco 2005 (California) (USDA Organic) $14.99. This bottle was corked.

Frey Pinot Noir 2006 (California) (USDA Organic) $14.99. My husband said that it had the bouquet of a McDonald’s cheeseburger. I don’t necessarily agree, but it is a funky and not particularly pleasant wine. Not a good value.

Frey Petite Sirah 2004 (California) (USDA Organic) $13.99. Deep color, well-rounded fruit, a little spice and good acidity.

Frey Syrah (California) (USDA Organic) $12.99.

Albet i Noya Tempranillo 2005 (Spain) (Organic) $10.99. Spanish wines are one of the great values in the wine world. This is a really good wine – warm, good balanced flavors, tannin and fruit. I would buy this again even if it weren’t organic.

Stellar Organics Cabernet 2004 (South Africa) (Organic) $9.99. Many South African wines have a rough hewn quality to them and this is no exception. Dark in color, slightly woody in taste with good fruit, especially blackberry

Orleans Hill Lodi Syrah 2006 (California) (USDA Organic) $9.99. A typical Syrah, in my opinion. I’ve never been a big fan of Syrah as I find them to have a cloying quality that verges on sweetness. Good dark purple color.

Frey Natural Red (California) (USDA Organic) $7.99. An inoffensive wine, light in texture and in taste. For the price point, it’s a good value as it’s easy to drink.

Orleans Hill Zinfandel 2006 (California) (USDA Organic) $8.99. A good, eminently drinkable wine. Like most zinfandels, it is fruit forward. It is a little light in its weight on the tongue and nowhere as rich as many other zins, but heck, it only cost $8.99.


Lolonis Ladybug White Cuvee 11 (California) (Pesticide-free) $12.99. Made of Colombard, Semillon, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay, this was crisp, refreshing with well-balanced acidity. I liked this a lot.

Lolonis Fume Blanc 2004 (California) (Pesticide-free) $11.99. I really like this wine. Well-balanced, crisp with just a hint of sweetness. I also appreciate their labeling, which has an adorable picture of a ladybug on a leaf. I didn’t think much of it – I dismissed it as a cute picture to appeal to the wine novice. Their tagline “Ladybugs Love Lolonis” explains that its presence is not simply novelty, but instead to show that the vintner uses friendly predators to make their vineyards pesticide free.

Meinklang Gruner Veltliner 2006 (Austria) (Organically Grown Grapes) $9.99. Quite a nice gruner, crisp with a bit of sweetness.

La Rocca Vineyards Chardonnay 2005 $9.99 (California) (USDA Organic). Crisp with nutty tones, but not oaky. Richer than most of the other white wines that we tried.

Terra Sana Sauvignon Blanc 2006 (France) (Organically Grown Grapes) $10.99. Light and crisp, very refreshing with citrus notes, but not overwhelming grapefruit flavors as many Sauvignon Blancs tend to be.

Snoqualmie Naked Riesling 2006 (Washington) (Organically Grown Grapes) $9.99. A good example of a Riesling, slight sweetness that would pair well with spicy foods.

Orleans Hill Viognier (USDA Organic) $9.99. This was the second corked bottle that we had, which is obviously a risk when you’re buying sulfite-free wine. Always keep your receipt when buying organic wine and check the cork before pouring.

Frey Sauvignon Blanc 2005 (California) (USDA Organic) $8.99. A slight aeration; herbaceous, not particularly grapefruit-y. Not great.

La Rocca Vineyards Chenin Blanc 2003 (California) (USDA Organic) $5.99 on sale. Semi-sweet and refreshing. Not particularly memorable.


Organic Consumers Association, Clearing Up the Confusion About Organic Wine

Albet i Noya, Cellar

Joly, Nicolas, Wine from Sky to Earth: Growing & Appreciating Biodynamic Wine (1999).

1 comment:

  1. Melissa,

    First off, I love the fact that you apply the same standards to wine as you do to food. I am frequently surprised by how many chefs serve organic, locally grown tomatoes that they found at Green City Market alongside wines that have none of the same pedigree.

    I'd like to offer a couple of clarifications and thoughts:

    1) You have had biodynamic wines that you enjoyed and that were affordable - from me! This is not an ad, but I can share the list with you. Biodynamic does not mean expensive, just as expensive does not mean good.

    2) There is a base to biodynamics that is much more important (to my mind) than the astrological beliefs, and that is the application of closed system ecology. You mention Nicolas Joly who is as enamoured with the "kooky" end of biod as anyone, but his farm contains goats, chickens, cows and other animals that eat the grasses between the vines, turn that energy into manure which is then spread on the soil, which helps grow more grass... That closed system is a wonderful thing and its the piece of biod to which I am most attracted.

    3) You said "Organic wines are those produced without fungicides, pesticides or chemical fertilizers." In fact, there are lots of herbicides and fungicides. Copper sulfate is used extensively in organic agriculture as a fungicide. I would say there are no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. This can be seen as nitpicking, I am sure, but it is in fact key to promoting sustainability.

    4) I have struggled with sustainable vs. organic ever since our first producer, John Guilliams of Guilliams Vineyards on Spring Mountain in Napa explained to me that in order to be certified organic, he would have to truck certified compost 20 minutes up the hill from the valley floor. That compost would be delivered in diesel trucks which would just pollute his neighborhood. Hardly a sustainable plan.

    5) The USDA's regulations for organic wine that insist on no added sulphur are very hard to meet. There are not many producers who achieve success without adding a bit of sulphur during fermentation. Sulphur is an antioxidant and protects against the rotten smells you have found. Without some additional sulphur, wines are often unstable and the bad versions give organic wines a bad name. In the outcry against sulphur, people ignore the fact that a glass of wine has less sulphur than a glass of orange juice, yet no one complains of headaches for oj. (I can not find it right away, but Nathalie Maclean wrote a great piece on this in her newsletter a while back

    So what should wine lovers interested in sustainability do? I suggest they should do exactly what your clients do when interviewing you for catering jobs. Look your vendor in the eye and ask why a wine might be considered sustainable. I know for a fact that you have answers for all of the produce you prepare and a merchant should do the same for their wine. More often than not, you'll find these people in smaller shops and you'll hear more than you bargained for.

    Finally, one last word to insist that organic / biodynamic does not have to mean expensive. Most will not be under $10, but then organic milk and other produce is rarely cheap, and in this case, one truly does "get what one pays for" if you are interested in being part of a more virtuous cycle.