More organic (in every way)

A day after I posted the item below on organic wine production, a colleague in Brazil sent me an e-mail saying, “Just back from a ‘natural’ wine tasting. Seriously one of worst wine experiences of my professional life. Everything bio, terrible. Only good thing was dark chocolate and foie gras amuse-bouche.” I hope those last two were separate, but I know what she means. A few months ago a writers’ group I belong to did a similar tasting, with wines mostly from Italy and France. It was more work than most wine tastings, and certainly more than it should have been: Not one of the dozen tasted good, even when we tried them with food (although a few at least tasted a little better then). 
        What was most irksome was the way the proponents of these wines keep saying that their biodynamic principles really and truly demonstrate their terroir, which simply traduces language, making it meaningless. What they demonstrated, in fact, was that in making wines with primitive methods, the flavours simply reflect the winemaking—they were similar to each other, no matter where they came from, or sometimes whichever grape they were made from. “Terroir” is in danger of going the way of “minerality” as a hollow phrase. (As wine-drinking may be in danger of becoming dutiful assessments of moral standing rather than sensual pleasure.)
        But on the other hand, I went to lunch and then, because it was so good, dinner, at a wine bar called Antidote, on Carnaby Street (it used to be La Trouvaille). The wine list is organic, etc., and we drank—quite happily!—glasses of Domaine de Bellevue Muscadet 2014, Domaine de Veilloux Cheverny 2011, and Domaine Ledogar Corbieres 2011. So, there is still something to talk about. The INAO, the French appellation governing body, is now preparing a report aimed at defining “natural” wine. It won’t please everybody—perhaps nobody—but it’s a start.

You say organic, I say. . . ?

Some of the best wines I’ve ever drunk were organic, or at least made from organic grapes. Some of the worst, often labelled as “natural” or biodynamic, were too, really quite punishing to drink (“enjoy” didn’t come into the conversation at all—drinking them seemed more like a duty, or maybe a penance, than anything else).
        The good ones were so good that I’ve always leaned toward the idea that, at least for small-to-medium-sized producers, organic was probably the way to go, and I wasn’t alone—around the world, the number of producers embracing the idea has grown: in the last couple of decades, the acreage of Spain’s vineyards farmed organically quintupled, France’s quadrupled, and Italy’s nearly doubled. That’s what was officially reported; the actual number of people simply adopting some or most of the organic methods was even higher. Now, however, according to an extensive survey in Europe, the numbers are dropping slightly, especially in France (there seem to be problems of administration of their Ecocert program, and people willing to go against the grain by going organic are also the sort of people also willing to go against the grain from bureaucracy). Italy, however, seems to still be moving on; their organic program is more biodiverse, and more directly participatory—it’s called “Biodistretto,” with more local control, and farmers as well as vineyardists involved.
         I can still, decades later, vividly remember drinking a range of splendid wines from the Dry Creek Valley and other parts of northern Sonoma, where there was an early and enthusiastic move to organic principles: Zinfandels from Quivira, Nalle, Seghesio, Preston, and Ridge, Barbera from several vineyards, and a whole range from early-adopter Dave Stare’s Dry Creek Vineyards. All proof enough that it can work, done sensibly.
copyright 2010-2015 by Brian St. Pierre