In my welcome post, I mentioned that when given a choice, I prefer to drink organic wines, biodynamic wines, or, at the very least, “sustainable” wines.
I’ll get to why in a moment, but first let’s define our terms. By law, organic wine is made from grapes that have not been treated with chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or fungicides. The wine must be produced in a certified organic winery, and the winemaker can’t add sulfites. Sulfites are a natural product of all winemaking, so it’s virtually impossible for a wine to be completely sulfite-free. If the winemaker does add sulfites, which help preserve the wine and keep it stable, the wine can only be labelled “made from organically grown grapes.” Some producers make organic wines but aren’t certified organic because it takes considerable time, money, and effort to get the certification.
Biodynamic wine is organic wine on steroids, to use an analogy that would undoubtedly bum out the biodynamic movement. It’s as much a philosophy as it is a way to make wine, and it takes into consideration not just the grapes and the soil but the whole ecosystem of the vineyard. Some of the methods are undoubtedly wacky — like stuffing manure in a cow’s horn and burying it in the soil — but some of the results are compelling, with several prominent winemakers swearing by it. And it’s not at all a flaky California thing: biodynamism, originally an Austrian movement, has a passionate following in Europe.
Sustainable or natural wine, meanwhile, is organic lite–these are general terms, not mandated by law, and they can mean almost anything. Sometimes sustainable wines are those in transition from conventional to organic — it takes several years to shift a vineyard from traditional to organic agriculture — but sometimes there’s a little wine marketing sleight of hand going on. Caveat emptor: whenever I buy a wine that calls itself “sustainable” I do some hard-core Googling when I get home to find out exactly what’s sustainable about it.
OK, now that we have the what, here’s the why. I prefer these wines for a few reasons. First, winemaking, when you peel away the “back-to-the-land” marketing language, is not always that great for the environment. Pesticides, fungicides and herbicides are all employed in conventional grape-growing, and making wine requires a lot of an increasingly scarce resource: water. In one of my diploma classes I heard that it takes 20 gallons of water to produce one bottle of wine. (I’m trying to verify that, but no luck — if anyone has any more stats or sources, I’d love to hear them.) I’m not the greenest person on the block, but given how often I drink wine, I do feel some responsibility to make good choices — and I’m willing to pay a few extra dollars for it.
Second, I think the overall quality level of organic wine is high. That’s not to say there aren’t mediocre organic wines out there — I’m not a huge fan of Bonterra Merlot, an organic wine from California that’s distributed widely — but I do believe that anyone who takes the time and money to go organic cares about their grapes. Great wine is made in the vineyard, and the more attentive the producer is to the health of the grapes and the health of the soil, the better.
I’m also more likely to be surprised by these wines. A lot of these producers, particularly the biodynamic ones, operate on a small scale, in remote corners of the world, using unusual grape varieties and very old-school winemaking techniques. The results can be strange sometimes, but never boring. All of the Savio Soares wines I poured at my tasting were made using either organic or biodynamic methods, and they all provoked strong reactions (usually positive ones, thankfully.)
Here are some of my favorite producers using organic and biodynamic techniques. You can check out an extensive list here. I’ve also taken tours at Benzinger in Sonoma and Shinn Estate on Long Island, where you can see organic and biodynamic practices up close and personal.
Benzinger (Sonoma, CA– only estate wines are biodynamic)
Coturri (Sonoma, CA)
Shinn Estate (Long Island, NY)
Catherine et Pierre Breton (Loire)
Marc Kreydenweiss (Alsace)
Domaine Léon Barral (Languedoc-Roussillon)
Alois Lageder (Alto Adige)
Gravner (Friuli/Venezia Giulia)
López de Heredia (Rioja)