Wine Talk

Snooth User: Erica Landin

Organic wines - good or bad?

Posted by Erica Landin, Aug 29, 2012.

Hi all! I've recently posted three different lists of organic wines. Since I'm really interested in organic and biodynamic farming, I'd love to hear your tips on favorite wines in these categories. Is there anything you think I should taste? Also, it tends to be a topic on which people have strong opinions. What is yours? What do you think about when you hear "organic" in conjunction with wine?

(The picture is of one of the rare pre-phylloxera vines still alive and kicking in Europe - this one in Ribera del Duero at the Cillar de Silos property)

 

 

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Replies

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Reply by Wai Xin Chan, Aug 29, 2012.

Hi Erica,

Just saw this post about organic wines, coincidentally I had an online tasting session with SmallFry Wines from Barossa today. A certified Organic vineyard and biodynamic certification in progress, the wine maker was clearly very proud of their achievement and natural wines without SO2.

While the industry talks about the benefits for the grape flavours and sustainability of the land, does consumers really care what goes in? At where I am (Singapore), wines that are certified organic or biodynamic are marked higher to an already high price.

Personally I take no sides with regards to farming practises, but focus on the balance and intensity of flavours with reasonable pricing. 

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Reply by Erica Landin, Aug 29, 2012.

Yea, a lot of the time they are more expensive because it's more expensive to do, especially biodynamic farming. Then there is the cost of certification...

But my interest lies in your last sentence - I'd say most wine lovers find balance, flavor and reasonable price the most important factors. But do we not care how it has been produced if it meets those criteria? A British wine personality posted that question last week (it drowned in the insinuation, in the same post, that wine writers are more or less bribed by the large producers which caused quite a stir... but never mind). Would love to get a broad answer.

Greetings to you in Singapore - I have great memories from visiting the city. First time I was 9 years old and bought a CD player which made me the coolest kid in school!

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Reply by Wai Xin Chan, Aug 30, 2012.

Given that Singapore doesn't produce any agricultural or food products, people don't appreciate the importance of land health, sustainability farming, fishing and etc. Well fortunately there are some exceptions with the green activists. 

Then adding to the lack of appreciation, people also lack of understanding on how things are made. To them its price factor and availability. Hopefully all these will change for the better. =/

I'm not sure if there is anything that can make you look cool, but hope you will come by Singapore again! 

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Reply by napagirl68, Aug 30, 2012.

Erica,

One of my top fav 20 or so CA wineries is Robert Sinskey Vineyards.  They are a 100% Certified CCOF Organic and Demeter Biodynamic Vineyards.  And I like many of their wines.  My fav is the 2008 Vandal Vineyards Cab Franc.   I find their wines to be exceptional, and I do not personally notice a difference, necessarily, in flavor, after they became certified.  The fruit and winemaking must still be solid, of course.

Now, going back about 15yrs ago here in CA, there was a sudden appearance of "organic" wines on the market, and in restaurants.  The few I tried tasted horrible.  I suspect some may have had unsuccessful attempts at going organic (ie disease), and others may have been trying to market inferior wines under the organic buzzword.  I am not sure if there were the strict standards back then as far as labelling "organic".   But from what I have read, if you go organic today, the biggest setback is yield (if you don't strike the correct symbiotic balance), and the money it costs to effectively go organic and become certified.  It is NOT easy or money-making by any means for a winery, at least here in the US, to go organic or biodynamic. And the irony is that MANY, MANY wineries here in CA ARE, in truth, organic or biodynamic.  They just cannot afford to obtain legal certification for one reason or another.  I hear this a LOT!!  While regulation is necessary, as with most things, the "spirit" of the law can be lost.   I read a great book by Susan Sokol-Blosser.  She and her husband started one of the first successful wineries up in Willamette, Oregon back in the 70s.  In one part of her book, she talks about an earlier attempt to go biodynamic/organic.  It soon became obvious, at that time,  that yield would suffer, and they would thus suffer. They almost lost a whole harvest.  Perhaps advancements in technology (of all things) have made going organic a more successful endeavor in current times.  All I can say is, knowing what little I do know about the process, I highly commend those wineries that choose to be environmentally responsible and go that extra $$$ and time to make wine in the cleanest way possible.  It is COSTLY.

Short answer?  I still choose wine based on flavor/quality.  But if it is organic/ biodynamically created, all the better.  And being here in CA, we wine consumers are being exposed to the idea of this, and liking it.  Yes, I would buy a wine for those reasons over another, but quality/flavor is the much bigger influence.

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Reply by JonDerry, Aug 30, 2012.

I'd say it'd have to be pretty hard to tell the difference between the farming of organic grapes, but this is a consumer driven, world-wide effort that the general public pretty much demands now. Successful wineries have little choice but to use some of their cash reserves and put some biodynamic/organic principles to use.

With the effort/s, it stands to reason that they take a hard look at all of their processes and with the investment they probably come out with purer fruit, if only microscopically, the winemakers and consumers are pleased with the effort and look for the improvements in the glass, even if the extra pleasure derived comes only from the mind. 

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Reply by jamessulis, Aug 30, 2012.

When I think of organic wines, I envision a smaller selection of varietals, possibly inferior taste to what I'm used to and why even go organic?. What types of pesticides are used on non-organic grapes. Let me also ask what types of organic fertilization is used on organic grapes.

This is a wonderful post in which we can now educate all of the people who belong to Snooth and those who use Snooth. We talk of how the wine tastes, what the flavors represent, the alcohol volume, the clarity, the finish.

Lets find out more from both processes about what it takes from a maintenance angle in the fertilization area and the benefits and drawbacks to wine lovers from both systems.

Lefty -The Great Pacific Northwest

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Reply by snglmltrblnd84, Aug 30, 2012.

I haven't tried many but I really enjoyed the Cono Sur line.

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Reply by gregt, Aug 30, 2012.

Lefty - good questions but it's actually more complicated.

There's no reason organic grapes should be in any way inferior.  Remember, in many places, the climate is hot and dry. In Mendoza for example, recent vintages being exceptions, it's usually pretty dry. Same in much of Spain once you get away from the Atlantic regions, and same in much of France and even the west coast of the US.

As a result of the dryness, you don't get the fungus and mildew that thrives in humidity. The reason they invented the copper sulfate blend in Bordeaux was because that area isn't really prime for growing grapes. They don't need that fungicide in drier regions.

And then there's the question of fertilizer. Generally, people making "fine" wine don't fertilize much except for adding manure or compost. Don't forget, grapes were usually grown on land that was hard-pressed to grow something requiring really fertile soil.  Think of the mountains in Greece and Italy - the soil washes down to the valleys so grapes and olives are grown on the hills.

So "organic" is something that people often trumpet in regions that are in need of spraying, whereas in other regions, it's just the way things are done. And if you talk to people in those regions, they're sometimes surprised that people even care how the grapes are actually grown.

The original post linked "biodynamic" to organic, but those are very different.  Biodynamics is a belief system. And like most, it's divorced from reality.  Hence the need to "believe". 

Now "certified" organic is something else. The Ribera del Duero where the OP picture is from for example, has many producers who would be organic. However, they're near a farmer who grows cereal crops and fertilizes and well, some of that fertilizer runs into the vineyards and consequently the regional authorities won't certify the winery as organic.

Or the winery is on land that was recently used for production of things that can't be proven organic, so they don't get to certify. You yourself have to decide how you want to call those. 

BTW - that winery in the picture, Cillar de Silos, is a winery you should look at. They're in Burgos, next door to Bodegas J.A. Calvo Casajus and close to Condado de Haza and all three make wines that seriously over-deliver for their prices.  Ageworthy, not overdone, and fairly priced.  It's a wonderful area of Ribera del Duero for wine.

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Reply by napagirl68, Aug 31, 2012.

Excellent points, mi precioso tarsier, excellent points.

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Reply by JonDerry, Aug 31, 2012.

However, they're near a farmer who grows cereal crops and fertilizes and well, some of that fertilizer runs into the vineyards and consequently the regional authorities won't certify the winery as organic.

I hear this point made quite a bit lately, though maybe it can help underscore the difficulties in getting anything perfectly pure, or organic, it shouldn't, and doesn't affect the fundamentals here, which is the work being done to reduce pollution and superfluous chemicals going into and around the vineyard. Just how effective is each winery doing? Whether certified or not, employing some type of impartial organic auditor (which really should be done routinely for anyone certified) is about the only way to know what's going on. 

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Reply by zinfandel1, Aug 31, 2012.

I really don't know much about certified organic or biodynamics pertaining to wine. What exactly are the processes, components and elements that make these wines more costly?

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Reply by gregt, Aug 31, 2012.

Jon - good questions.  As for me, for the most part I simply take the word of the winery. I'm sure there are probably some who would call themselves organic and do nothing at all organic, but eventually they'll be outed by someone and everyone I've ever met who claims to be actually seems to care.  If they don't claim to be, they are usually quick to justify their thinking. For now anyway, it's one of those things that I'm willing to take on trust. For some reason I would feel very differently if it were a cosmetic company or some other business.  Many years ago in Advertising Age I read something about how it was very clever to call your product "natural" because it didn't mean anything, at the time had no legal implications, and customers were very responsive to the term.

Zin - depends. Since those days of the AA article, the government has come up with regs.  In Europe they also have regs regarding "organic" etc.  Organic usually means something has been grown without using fertilizer made from petroleum and w/out using chemical pesticides and fungicides. So people might release ladybugs into their field for example, to eat other bugs, and they fertilize with manure or something. In a vineyard, after the grapes are pressed, sometimes people compost the skins and seeds or sometimes just spread it as is in the vineyard to decompose.  In Hungary I was told that's illegal and the grape skins have to be carted away - they're afraid people will make a kind of grappa from them.  But in any event, the idea is to recycle and to use only plant and animal products in the production of the wine.

Mayo Clinic has some good info :

http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/organic-food/NU00255

As to whether the wines are more costly - not always. For other foods, where volume is the key, like say, wheat or beans, you want to increase yield so if you dump on some fertilizer, you might get more product per acre.  But with wine, that's not really the goal. The goal is to get the maximum yield of top quality grapes that your vines can bring to perfect maturity. So going for yield alone is not good because you end up with uneven quality.  As a customer, you don't care if one grain of wheat is riper or less ripe than another but it makes a big difference in wine if some grapes are more or less ripe than others. So at the better wineries, people walk the vineyards and if they see grapes or bunches that aren't ripening well, they often remove those. They pull leaves that may shade bunches, ensuring adequate sun, or in some cases they prune the canopy to provide more shade so the grapes don't get burned. Depends on where you are. But that level of attention obviously adds to cost.

Then if there's a certifying authority, they check up on you to make sure you're complying with the rules. There are many wineries that practice organic farming but that don't bother with certification. I'd say there are more of those than there are wineries that are certified, but I have no statistics on that - it's just anecdotal. 

Why?

Because if the year is really bad for some reason and they get freakish humidity, etc., the producer wants the option of spraying, rather than losing their entire crop. And the publicity they'd get from spraying after certification, plus whatever fines or other troubles they'd end up with, just aren't worth it.

Biodynamics is entirely different. It's like Scientology - you need to believe in mysterious forces and energy phases and all kinds of other nonsense, and there are specific preparations you're supposed to use, with specific mixing requirements, like 100 turns by the hand of a man during a full moon.  Men have different energy than women and depending on what you need, you may need the strength of a man's energy.  Although maybe Steiner, who was the creator of the belief system, was just mysogynistic - I really don't know.  Some of his rules actually make perfect sense; some are simple idiocy, but it's like any dogma - you buy it or you don't, even though those who do treat it as revealed truth. There's a certifying organization - Demeter, that will certify your winery. Kind of like having a group of rabbis or bishops certify what you're doing.

And some of those wines are not more expensive - in CA Fetzer and Benziger come to mind.

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Reply by napagirl68, Aug 31, 2012.

So GregT's points are a sort of example of what I was mentioning... i know, for a fact, of many wineries PRACTICING organic and/or biodynamic growing, harvesting and winemaking, but being unable to get the actual certification.   I hear it's pretty tough, and one thing can throw the whole deal off, like GregT's example.  I find that unfair, that a winery is really trying, doing its best but cannot reap the publicity benefit of their efforts.

Biodynamics is entirely different. It's like Scientology - you need to believe in mysterious forces and energy phases and all kinds of other nonsense, and there are specific preparations you're supposed to use, with specific mixing requirements, like 100 turns by the hand of a man during a full moon.  Men have different energy than women and depending on what you need, you may need the strength of a man's energy.  Although maybe Steiner, who was the creator of the belief system, was just mysogynistic - I really don't know.  Some of his rules actually make perfect sense; some are simple idiocy, but it's like any dogma - you buy it or you don't, even though those who do treat it as revealed truth. There's a certifying organization - Demeter, that will certify your winery. Kind of like having a group of rabbis or bishops certify what you're doing.

Yea, we be a bit wacky out here in CA (where I see this practice most often)!   Reminds me of the Farmer's almanac....  Pick your tomatoes on a full moon at midnight! Should I be nude too?  LOL!  But some of the practices make sense, and are meant to keep a balance in the your environment's ecosystem.
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Reply by zinfandel1, Aug 31, 2012.

GregT

Thanks for the response. Some of which I can understand and is sensible.

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Reply by Bettie Infante, Aug 31, 2012.

O'Brien Estate Winery in Napa, California is one of my favorite wineries. They believe low yields make better wine. They drop a great deal of fruit to maintain quality. On the average they yield 3 tons per acre. Their vineyards are sustainably farmed without the use of pesticides.  They, like many vineyards follow organic farming practices but have not applied for organic certification because of the expense and requirements. Try their wines, I'm sure you will be happy with the taste.

 

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Reply by zufrieden, Aug 31, 2012.

Yeah, the West Coast is a place where people feel free to cast a wide net in terms of thinking and what to think about.  That's good and bad. I think most of us like the attempt to seek balance - certainly the scientists (or science-oriented) among us as well as those seeking balance through measured philosophical meditation (some call this a religious modality).

However, life has made me a skeptic, and I think skepticism accompanied by compassion and understanding is an essential combination.  Since I see nothing amiss here in either respect - just the push and pull of ideas - let the experiments continue.

California is indeed an odd place in that people there (like here in British Columbia) seek a lifestyle that is in balance (sorry to be vague, but this is a forum post - not a thesis) while wanting to continue consumption patterns that are either incompatable with said balance or in some sort of uneasy conflict with it. Commercial success and biodynamical vineyard arrangements may grate, but I like the fact that peole try to do both.

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Reply by Erica Landin, Sep 1, 2012.

Interesting comments, sorry I had missed that there were all these comments to my question! I will write a more through response tomorrow, as I currently have a lovely bottle of (organic) McLaren Vale Shiraz under my belt. I'd like to argue you a bit on the biodynamics, Greg. Though full-on biodynamics do indeed require a fair amount of spaced beliefs, I meet a lot of winemakers who have picked the best part. I like biodynamics when the goal is to get a functioning ecosystem in the vineyard and winery. Verdict still out on the homeopathic sprays. Seems a bit iffy to me. However, I more often notice an added dimension in biodynamic wines than I do in regular organic wines (blind tastings) and thus my scientific mind is intrigued. More thoughts tomorrow!

PS Yes Cillar de Silos is a lovely winery, notes from my last visit are on my blog, http://twosisterswinetripping.com/2012/07/lambs-live-dangerously-in-ribera-del-duero/

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Reply by JonDerry, Sep 1, 2012.

I like the potential bio-dynamic battle here!

So here's a question: Is replacing a tractor with a horse to do the ploughing biodynamic, organic, or both?

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Reply by gregt, Sep 1, 2012.

Nicholas Joly thinks it's more in tune with the earth's "vibrations".  He can feel them. Out here in NYC, we can't. I think he's on a permanent high from eating mushrooms under the moonlight, but he's an enjoyable person so what the hell.

Got little to do with organic though. You can let the horse graze or feed it corn that's been genetically modified and heavily fertilized. Then it poops in the vineyard and what do you have? Does it matter if he ate the corn or merely grazed the land? Or you can spray pesticides and later ride your horse thru the vineyard. It's not organic, even if he poops organic poop.  Horse may be indicative of organic, but it's not really tightly related.

Some folks, like the Amish in PA who I've talked to about this, feel that the horse doesn't compact the soil as much as a tractor and that allows for a better environment. Perhaps they have a point. I'd kind of doubt it makes all that much difference however, because unless you're driving a tractor up and down the vineyard all day long, you're not compacting the hell out of things entirely, particularly the dirt directly under the vines.  I could be convinced either way I guess, but I think it's more theory than any soil compaction tests.

More "organic" if you will, is letting the grass grow between the rows and letting sheep graze it to a manageable state.

Biodynamic isn't quite the same as organic. We can agree on the terms of being "organic" and to most people it just means not using products put out by Monsanto, using no "chemicals" and composting. Biodynamics is an entirely different thing. I'm not joking when I say it's a belief system. It is and it has rules. Doesn't have priests yet, but give it time. You actually have to believe that the energy from a man is different from a woman and that it's imparted into the things you touch and holy crap already!  Then they base some of their theories on Aristotle, which is really nice - he never did an experiment in his life, just spouted off whatever came to his head. So the fact that we can have this conversation on computers thousands of miles away from each other and the designs of them and the networks is based on empirical science, well, we just ignore those little details and decide that faith is just as good. It's all about planetary alignment and energy forces..

Lest anyone display any doubt about those unseen forces, you simply tell them "There's a lot that we don't know."

Clinches the deal.

It's the gift of faith my friend. Appropriate, as tomorrow is Sunday.

As Mark Twain defined it, "faith is believing what you know ain't so."

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Reply by Wai Xin Chan, Sep 2, 2012.

Jon, I see using tractor as being more biodynamic than organic. Organic will be looking at what went into the crops in terms of the nutrient or use of chemical. As what GregT mentioned biodynamic is looking at planetary system, days and etc ( that I can't bring myself to type out any more).

Not unless the tractor has stipulated timing based on tidal period or stars position, it should not be classified as biodynamic. :-)

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