Green – as in environmentally friendly – is the theme of the decade and it’s no different with wine. But when it comes to wine, what exactly do the terms sustainable, natural, organic and biodynamic mean? The wine experts at Jacques Scott sat down for lunch at LUCA to discuss the greenness of six different wines.
Terms such as sustainable, natural, organic and biodynamic are increasingly used to describe wines and wineries today, even though many consumers don’t really know what the terms means, or even if it’s a good quality attribute for a wine to have.
“Some stores will have the organic and biodynamic wines together in a section and people will walk right by it because they think these wines are inferior,” says Jacques Scott Marketing Manager (Wine) Lee Royle, referring to the common notion that in order to be organic or biodynamic, a compromise must be made with quality.
Many of today’s winemakers have learned just the opposite – that there is a correlation to green growing/production methods and a higher taste quality of wines.
“The reason winemakers do it is because it does produce wines that are superior,” says Jacques Scott’s Sarah Howard. “They wouldn’t do it if it produced [inferior] wines.”
The definitions of the various levels of “green” depend largely on who is defining them. Even the term organic, which has the most accepted definition, can mean slightly different things in different countries. In the United States, organic wines have to be produced from 100 percent organically grown grapes, meaning no pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or chemical fertilizers are used in the farming process. Additionally, it means that the wine can contain no added sulfites, and the level of naturally occurring sulfites in a wine must be less than 20 parts per million. The big difference in the definition of organic wines between the U.S. and some other countries revolves around whether there can be any added sulfites.
The other “green” terms are even more subjective, but there are some widely accepted definitions.
Natural wines are typically made with organically grown grapes that: have been hand-picked and subjected to little or no technological manipulation; have no added sugars or additives for color, mouth feel, minerality or acidity; use indigenous yeasts for fermentation; and have minimal or no filtration; and little or no added sulfites.
Sustainable wines take into account the practices of producing wines that are ecologically responsible, economically viable and socially fair to everyone involved in their production. Although some chemical/synthetic compounds can be used minimally, sustainable winegrowers favor natural alternative methods for pest control and fertilization; use trapped rainfall for irrigation; practice recycling and the use of recycled products for bottling and packaging; use alternative energy sources like solar power; and adopt energy-saving practices like storing their wines in underground caves to reduce their carbon footprint.
Biodynamic wines are much like organic wines, but have incorporated the theories of biodynamic farming, which originated with Austrian Rudolf Steiner.
“Biodynamic is one step above organic,” Royle says, explaining that Steiner believed that everything in the natural world was linked.
“It basically treats the vineyard as its own ecosystem,” Howard added. “It’s a very holistic approach.”
Biodynamic farming takes into account influence of the phases of the moon and planets on planting and harvesting; uses natural products used in particular ways for fertilization and pest control; and in some cases, tries to evoke an element of spirituality in farming.
To be considered biodynamic, the farmer must use nine different preparations in the vineyard, one of which is cow manure, which is buried in cow horns before winter and then dug up, emptied, mixed with water and sprayed on the soil.
“It’s pretty radical stuff,” says Royle. “If you’re biodynamic, you’re held to very strict rules.”
The Demeter Association is the entity in the United States that certifies products, including wine, as biodynamic. For a wine to be deemed biodynamic, in addition to meeting guidelines on growing standards, it must also meet guidelines on the winery’s sustainability, its post-harvest grape handling and its processing procedures.
Purato is a winery in Sicily that produces three eco-friendly, organic wines, two of which were tasted during lunch. The Catarratto Pinot Grigio Terra Siciliane [Retail: $16.99] is a blend of 60 percent Catarratto and 40 percent Pinot Grigio grapes.
“The Catarratto definitely rounds it out and gives it some oomph,” said Howard, who admitted she’s not a big fan of Pinot Grigio on its own. “This I love; it tastes like something.”
Purato goes beyond being organic and ventures into the realm of sustainability.
“The cool thing about this wine is it’s not only organic; all of the bottles are made of recycled glass, the ink on the label is pure vegetable ink, the label is made from recycled paper, and the cardboard in the shipping boxes is recycled,” said Howard. “So, it’s like you’re saving the earth when you drink this wine.”
The other Purato wine, Nero d’Avola Terre Siciliane [Retail: $16.99], is made entirely from the iconic indigenous Sicilian grape Nero d’Avola. This lush, fruity wine has soft tannins and high acidity, making a good pairing with red meats, pork ribs and tomato-based sauces.
Napa Valley’s Grgich Hills Estate is certified both organic and biodynamic. Its 2011 Fume Blanc [Retail: $36.99] is made from 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc grapes, 80 percent of which are fermented in 900-gallon French oak casks. The influence of oak is why Robert Mondavi first coined the term Fume Blanc for his Sauvignon Blanc, but these days, Fume Blanc is simply a synonym for Sauvignon Blanc in California, regardless of whether it is fermented or aged in oak.
The result is a unique wine that doesn’t taste like New World or Old World Sauvignon Blanc, but a different expression of the grape altogether.
“It’s nice and mellow,” said Jacques Scott’s wine representative Sergio Serrano. “The oak definitely rounds it out.”
DeLoach Vineyard produces a variety of wines, some of which are organic and some of which – in particular its estate wines – are certified biodynamic. Its California appellation Heritage Reserve collection is neither, but the winery still tries to use sustainable viticulture, even though it sources the grape from several vineyards. The 2012 California Pinot Noir [Retail: $22.99] is a fruit-forward, easy-to-drink wine that pairs with many foods. It was particularly good with Luca restaurant’s grilled Cornish hen.
The labels of Frog’s Leap wines don’t say they are organic, or biodynamic, or natural, or even sustainable. But when it comes to being “green,” few Napa Valley wineries are any greener. The grapes used for its wines are all organically grown. It dry-farms its vineyards, meaning it doesn’t irrigate; and its main building was the first LEED certified private building in Napa Valley. It also practices several sustainable and biodynamic techniques.
Unlike many Napa cabernets, Frog’s Leap doesn’t over-extract and manipulate the grapes to produce overripe fruit bombs, instead choosing more Bordeaux-like techniques that leave the herbaceous side of the grape intact. This “green” taste was evident in the 2010 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon [Retail: $45.99] which, while soft enough for drinking now, will likely improve with a year or two of age.
Inglenook Winery, known as Rubicon Estate until 2011, uses all organically grown grapes. Its 2009 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Cask [Retail: $83.99] is a delicious, silky wine that proves just how good organic can taste. The Inglenook paired well with Luca’s pistachio-encrusted New Zealand rack of lamb.
“This is a well-balanced wine,” said Royle. “The tannins aren’t aggressive, but well integrated. It’s still very young and has a lot of life left to go on this, but it’s drinking very well right now.”