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Organic wines spark quality debate
2013-05-14
By John H. Isacs

ONE of the most hotly debated subjects in the wine world today is organic wines. The controversy revolves around their quality and if they are truly better for the environment.

Based on my tastings over the years, I am somewhat dubious about the quality of many organic wines and also their value for money. Over the years many of the organic wines I tasted just didn't deliver the quality they should have for their price.

Simply put, equally priced non-organic wines were usually better. Gradually, this may change. Before we examine the relative merits of organic wines, let's look at what makes a wine organic.

Different requirements

The requirements to label an organic wine differ around the world. Each nation or region has its own criteria. In general, for a wine to be considered organic it must be farmed and made without artificial chemicals or additives.

In the vineyards, that means no insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and artificial fertilizers. In the winery, no artificial additives may be used, especially the popular stabilizer and preservative sulfur dioxide. Sulfur dioxide or sulfites are a preservative that allows wines to age longer while still retaining their aromatic and taste attributes.

Depending on the labeling and national certification authority, wines with naturally occurring sulfates up to 10 parts per million may be labeled organic. Keep in mind that many conventional wines have sulfates added up to 100 to 300ppm.

Many winemakers still swear by sulfates. They insist only wines with sulfates are able to age long enough to bring out the various attributes that aging bequeaths; principally, greater complexity, tertiary sensations as well as roundness.

In most countries, wines that are cultivated organically but have sulfates added may still be labeled "made with organic grapes."

One step further

One of the more amusing ways to define biodynamics is "organics on steroids." In fact, biodynamic winemaking takes organic practices several steps further and introduces elements of both practical and spiritual philosophy.

Based on the ideas and practices of Rudolf Stiener (1861-1925), the biodynamic movement predates the organic movement and covers all agricultural, production and post-production actions and methods. Biodynamics views the vineyards and winery as one interconnected living system guided by nature and also lunar and cosmic rhythms.

Biodynamic vineyard preparations include the act of burying cow horns and heads filled with manure as they channel new life forces from the cosmos. While decidedly funky to the layman, an increasing number of reputable producers have adopted biodynamic winemaking. Notable practitioners include the highly esteemed producers Maison Chapoutier in the Rhone Valley, Domaine Leroy in Burgundy and Dominio de Pingus in Spain.

Really better?

Are organic and biodynamic wines healthier than conventional wines? Yes. Eliminating the insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and artificial fertilizers from the vineyards makes for a more healthy wine. In conventional wines, small trace amounts of all those nasty "cides" and artificial fertilizers find their way into the roots, leaves, grapes and yes even in your glass. You can debate how much of a health risk these artificial additives represent, but they certainly aren't good for you.

The real controversy begins when we ask the question, "are organic and biodynamic wines higher quality than conventional wines?" There's no real proof of this, and in fact the higher cost of production means conventional wines often are better wines than organic wines at the same price points.

Proponents of organic winemaking claim their wines are more expressive of their terroir than conventional wines. They assert that the use of chemicals and other artificial additives mitigate the unique natural qualities of the soil, killing not only pests but also important microorganisms, insects, worms and other life. In other words, the unique biodiversity of a vineyard is compromised leading to more generic style wines that don't reflect their distinctive place of origin.

Another area of debate is whether organic winemaking is better for the environment. Organic vineyard cultivation is more intense and labor intensive than conventional cultivation and this often means much more use of machines and tractors running on polluting internal combustion engines.

Organic opponents point out that organic farming may necessitate running a tractor through the vineyard five to 10 times more often than needed in conventional farming.

Like many others, I believe the truth depends on where the vineyards are located. Lower humidity areas with very poor soil can adopt more organic cultivation while it's currently not very practical in regions with higher humidity and richer soils. The debate will surely continue.

Recommendations

Switching gears from debate to the practical application, here are my organic and biodynamic wine picks. All these wines make strong arguments for buying organic or biodynamic wines.

Roberto Voerzio is an acclaimed winemaker from Piedmont in northwest Italy. For decades he has been cultivating his vineyards using strict organic guidelines but declines to label his wines organic.

For Voerzio, the ideal of organic farming is a philosophy not a marketing scheme. His Barolo Rocche dell Annunziata DOCG, Barolo Cerequio DOCG and Barolo Brunate DOCG wines are consistently three of Italy's finest and most prized red wines that justifiably command high prices. More affordable but still delicious is his Barbera d'Alba Cerreto DOC red wine.

The hot and dry climate and rocky soil in the Southern Rhone make it one of the more suitable regions to make organic wines. The Domaine de Beaurenard Cote du Rhone and Chateauneuf du Pape wines are all examples of organic wines that provide weight to the organic wine movement. The reasonably priced Cotes du Rhone Villages red is a rich fruity wine with lovely spicy notes and well-integrated tannins.

A step up in the quality and price latter is the Domaine de Beaurenard Chateauneuf du Pape Cuvee Boisrenard. The exceptional 2007 vintage in particular offers the purity, complexity and typicity that top organic wines should ideally exhibit. The 2006 vintage is also noteworthy.

Another French organic wine I highly recommend is the Gustave Lorentz Riesling Reserve. I tasted the 2010 vintage recently and all the lively and refined citrus and white floral aromas and flavors one craves in a top Alsatian Riesling are well expressed in this wine. The Lorentz family has been making wines in Alsace since 1832 and their wines are fine examples of expressive organic wines done properly.

Recently Chinese producers have also started making organic wines. These include COFCO's Huaxia Great Wall Organic, Gansu Weilong Organic and Chateau Hansen.

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