DECEMBER 2006 / Links updated 2010 BEST-KEPT WINE SECRETS
Have you ever bought organic wine? Despite the fact that I've recommended it in the past, I never tried buying it myself till recently. Now that I have, all I can say is: easier said than done.
At a time when organic food has become nearly ubiquitous in America, organic wine is still extremely difficult to find -- not because it doesn't exist, but because labeling requirements have made it practically invisible. It's a strange story, which I will explain to you. Better yet, I will tell you how to locate a bottle.
But wait, you may ask -- what about the quality? Is it even worth the hunt?
I, too, was skeptical at first, remembering the rather inferior reputation organic wine acquired in its early days. However, after two weeks of grueling research, sampling a different wine each night (purely for the sake of you, dear reader), my answer is, resoundingly, yes.
The wines I tasted were from a new breed of organic winemaker -- small artisanal producers, whose concern is more with the palate than the planet, which probably explains their success. These winemakers aim for authentic wines with a taste and aroma that evokes the place they come from -- what the French call terroir -- which chemicals and additives can mask. This is why they take the natural route. Perhaps they also do it for love of the environment -- who knows? -- but if so, that motivation is second to producing distinctive wines.
From my own little taste test, I think these folks are onto something. Of course, not every wine I tried hit the mark. But most were interesting and individual, all were drinkable, and some were very fine. My favorites are listed in the sidebar on the right.
Now, let me explain how the idiosyncrasies of organic standards in the United States contribute to the problem of finding organic wine. Any wine marketed here -- whether produced domestically or abroad -- can only be labeled organic if 95 percent or more of its ingredients are produced organically and its non-organic additives do not include sulfites. It's the sulfite clause that causes the trouble.
Most winemakers, including most organic ones, regard the addition of sulfites as necessary to the making of good wine -- and indeed, the practice goes back hundreds of years. But if sulfites are used, even in minute amounts, the wine itself can't be called organic. At best, the label can say "made with organic grapes" or "organic ingredients." More significant, it cannot display the USDA's green-and-white organic insignia, which means you have to read the fine print to find the O word at all.
Interestingly, the USDA permits the addition of various other non-organic ingredients in small amounts, but sulfites are apparently excluded because a small percentage of the population has a dangerous (potentially deadly) sulfite allergy. The irony is that sulfites are a natural byproduct of the fermentation process, so hardly any wine is truly sulfite-free.
There's another major reason, beyond sulfites, that organic wine is hard to find. Some winemakers whose wine or grapes qualify as organic avoid labeling it as such for fear their wine won't be taken seriously. Shops that carry organic wines don't always advertise it either. As a result, organic wines and the stores that carry them are not always readily identifiable.
Here, finally, is how to get around the problem. If you habitually pick up wine at the supermarket, try an organic market instead, such as Wild Oats or Whole Foods. Both carry organic wines in some of their stores. In fact, any wine-selling market that has a healthy selection of organic products is a good bet. In New York, for instance, Fresh Direct offers a very small but diverse selection of organic wines.
If you have a more serious interest in wines, and would like to try the more artisanal types, call around to the various wine shops to see if any specialize in organic wines. Keep in mind that a store that does may well carry conventional wines, too, and you won't be able to distinguish one from the other reliably from the labels. For this reason, it's important to ask for help when you get there.
Finally, if all else fails, try the Internet. There are a number of online merchants to choose from. One in particular that I can recommend is Chambers Street Wines, where I bought the wines for my taste test. As it happens, the store is located right in my neighborhood. I'd seen it countless times, but never realized its focus, which just goes to show how invisible organic wine stores, and wine, can be.
Depending on where you live, you may find you don't have far to look either. So, happy hunting, happy tasting and happy new year! Skoal!
THE BUZZ ON BIODYNAMICS
This hyperorganic type of farming has been catching on of late in the wine-growing world, due to high ratings for certain biodynamic wines. Inspired by a series of lectures in the 1920s by the Austrian philosopher and father of the Waldorf method of education, Rudolph Steiner, biodynamics treats the vineyard as a living, Gaia-like organism -- a self-contained and self-nourishing system that is fertilized by other crops and animals grown on the farm. So far, so good, but biodynamics also has a "spiritual" dimension, involving counterclockwise mixing of fertilizer preparations, timing in accordance with a special astrological calendar and the like. For a rationalist like myself, it all seems pretty silly. Still, it's conceivable that the extra attention lavished by practitioners on their vineyards could result in better wines. Certainly, the couple I tasted were very good.
Sheryl Eisenberg, a long-time advisor to NRDC, posts a new This Green Life every month. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), wherealong with her children, Sophie and Gabby, and husband, Petershe tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling. Read more about Sheryl.
TASTE TEST RESULTS For this column, I sampled a mixed case of organic,
biodynamic and natural wines, put together for me by David Lillie, co-owner
with Jamie Wolff of Chambers Street Wines. All but two are what I would call
affordable (under $25), including seven bottles in the teens. I particularly
Ocone Taburno Falanghina 2005 (Italian White, $12.99): Bright,
fresh and crisp, with good acid and a hint of lemon. A great value!
Cascina Degli Ulivi Nibio Dolcetto 2004 (Italian Red, $16.99):
A good, balanced wine -- deeper and more robust than you'd expect for a
Sobon Rocky Top Zinfandel 2004 (California Red, $17.99): Very
big with notes of cherry and cocoa. Best paired with red meat or other
Bartucci Bugey Cerdon (French Sparkling Rosé, $19.99):
Refreshing, slightly sweet and low in alcohol at 8 percent. Festive with its pink
Pierre Brigandat Champagne Brut Réserve (French
Sparkling White, $24.99): Full-flavored and very affordable for a genuine
Nikolaihof vom stein Riesling, 2005 (Austrian White, $28.99):
Earthy and enjoyable, if a bit pricey.
Riesling grapes. In the right hands, they produce an elegant wine. Many organic Rieslings are available from Alsace, Austria and Germany.
Do sulfites in red wine cause headaches? No. The source of those headaches is unknown, but it's not sulfites (which are usually higher in white wine anyway). Sulfites don't affect most people. However, they can cause hives and breathing problems in those with sulfite allergies. Though few and far between, wines containing no detectable sulfites can be found. One source is Frey Vineyards.
--------------------------------- Sheryl Eisenberg is a web developer and writer. With her firm, Mixit Productions (http://www.mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites.