Thursday, May 7, 2009

Earth Friendly Wines

Last night I hosted a wine tasting at my local wine bar The Veranda. In cooperation with the Good Earth Co-op we tasted organic and biodynamic wines. What a topic, I could have devoted a whole day to talking about the subject, but fortunately, for the patrons sake, I only had a couple of hours.

When I tasted my first organic wine about 5 years ago I thought it was awful. Not only was it expensive but it was reminiscent of dirt with hollow fruit and a flabby body. In addition many writers and critics have proclaimed the lack of quality organic and biodynamic producers. However last night I was blown away by the wines we tasted. Organic and Biodynamic wines have come a long way over the last 5 years and I am anxious to see where this road is going to lead.

The first wines we tried were organic. They were made by producers that practiced organic rituals in both their vineyards and wineries. This is usually a costly procedure for wineries to undergo. First, they can't use chemicals in their vineyards. This can lead to a loss of crops as well as under or over developed fruit. Second, they can't use chemicals in their winery. This can cause fermentation too go to quickly or to slowly. It can also lead to a fermentation stall leaving the wine low in alcohol and flavor. Lastly, being an organic certified producer requires a winery to get an independent source to come and inspect their operation and that is not cheap.

I was shocked when I learned there were around 240 chemicals used to adulterate wine. Whether it be in the vineyard or in the winery, many producers use these out of necessity to save their wine, or to give it what it didn't have. For example, say you have bad fruit, your wine will only be as good as your grapes, but you can add things to it to mask the flavor. Much like some jug wine producers (Yellowtail) of Australia do with their Chardonnay. They over use oak and malolactic fermentation to adulterate their wine. I do not know the exact chemicals used, but rest assured they are add to those producers wine.

The next series of wines we tasted were biodynamic. This is a whole books worth of information so I will give you the highlights. What separates biodynamic from organic is that organic wine are doing something good by not harming the earth when planting and growing. Whereas biodynamic wines are giving back to the earth, regrowing bacteria, habitats, and making the earth better than how they found it.

Biodynamic producers do more than just converting their tractors in to biodiesel machines. They go beyond not polluting the earth with insecticides, they give something back. For example, they will create a biodynamic compost that will promote growth but also stabilize nitrogen, and combat plant disease. They also use horn manure, burring this in the ground like a "tea" for the soil to promote micro life and beneficial bacteria. Through homeopathic sprays and herbal preparations the soils fertility is increased. This ensures that the vines will be protected from both diseases and pests.

Giving back to the earth is just one element of the Biodynamic philosophy. They are very conscious of the life cycle and more specifically the celestial cycle. They use cosmic forces to help ensure appropriate growth and eliminate their foot print. The Biodynamic cycle runs on five periods: Root, Fruit, Seed, Leaf and Flower. Each period signifies a cosmic rhythm that they follow. For example, only on root period days can they cultivate, or plant. But it goes one step further, Biodynamic producers and followers believe that they will have better taste sense s in some periods over others. Take the root period, the philosophy is that you will have little to no taste sensation, whereas on a fruit or seed day you will taste the best. Some wine personnel live by this and will not open a great bottle or more dramatically not taste wine at all on root days.

Biodynamic sustainable agriculture does not just have a loose set of guidelines. There is a strict regiment to their theory. For example the best root periods in June are on the 21st at 8pm through the 25th at 1pm. And the best fruit period in June is on the 19th at Midnight through the 21st at 4pm, but then there is an astis that states: avoid two hours before and after the Moon's lower nodal point at 4pm on the 20th. This theory while crazy to some people is said to be very effective.

Biodynamic wine making was described to me by one of my classmates as wine making for geeks. I can see where she is coming from. The amount of effort it takes to follow this lifestyle is pretty daunting. I have heard that when wine makers rip up their crop and replant using Biodynamic agriculture the first six years are a lot of work. They are require to make their own fertilizer (stinky) and convert all of their practices in both the vineyard and the winery. But it is told that after that six year window they will produces some great wines. More importantly they will be sustainable, cost essentially will go down and the quality of the product will go up.

Biodynamic and organic wines do not stop at just the viticulture, it is a part of the whole wine making process. The use of certified cork through the rain forest alliance as well as screw tops reduce our footprint on this earth. A lot of people do not realize that wine makers are not obligated to post on the label if they are using animal products to fine and clarify the wine before bottling. The use of egg whites for example to brighten a wine or gelatin to remove bitterness. Many biodynamic and organic wine producers are using a vegan friendly alternative like bentonite. Whatever the steps are that a producer uses it is important to ask questions. Call the winery or check them out online if you want to be certain.

In December of 2008 the bistro I consult for entered in to the cult following know as coffee. One of the hot tickets in coffee was organically grown beans. However a number of coffee producers also use fair trade ethics. This a new concept in the domestic wine market. Fair trade wine and coffee promotes competitive wages, a better work environment, and after last night I would say a quality product. The wine we tasted last night was a Malbec from Argentina. 19 small family growers took part in this wine. Each one owning less than a hectare (2.5 acres) of vines. The idea of fair trade to me use to mean that the price of the product is higher (which it does), but after last night I now believe that it ensures the quality as well. I would buy this wine again and again.

The debate between organic and biodynamic is minimal. They are both better for our bodies and mother nature. I believe it is much more difficult to make a quality wine with little intervention. And after the tasting last night I have a whole new insight in to organic and biodynamic quality. If someone where to ask me 5 years ago if I would put organic wines on my list I would have said no. But after last night I am contemplating revising my list to offer only organic and biodynamic wines. That way I can reduce my footprint simply by drinking.

Nicholas Barth
Wine Director
Cru Wine Specialsts


Anonymous said...

I want to say that I am starting to become a fan of your articles. I am just a beginner in the whole wine culture, and the information you present is succinct and extremely enlightening. My question is why do some wines drink better warm, some cool, and others cold?

Kristian Twombly said...

I thoroughly enjoyed the tasting, and agree that those wines were perhaps the best organic wines I've ever had! The only other organic wine (labeled as such) that I've liked was Southern Right from South Africa, but that was as much a reflection of the circumstances of eating a fantastic vegan meal in New York City than it was the wine.

Cru Wine Specialists said...

I think that the experience absolutely has a lot to do with perceived quality. Who knows, maybe all of the organic wines we have tasted in the past were on "root days". Either way, to me biodynamic wines are really fascinating and I look forward to more producers making wine with this theory. Thanks for the comment, keep them coming.