“So this wine was made from grapes that grew… out of the ground?”
My friend Jon stared at me blankly after he said this, as if issuing some kind of challenge.
“Yeah,” I snorted. “Of course.”
“And it fermented? Naturally?”
“So, why isn’t it ‘organic’?”
I fumbled for a minute or two before I could respond coherently, realizing that the world of “organic wines” is a seriously confusing one. The word “organic” by itself is really meaningless. All wines are, in essence, organic. But then there are those wines that are labeled “organic.” Why are they different?
The first major difference between organic and typical wines is that no chemicals are used as additives, and little or no sulphur dioxide is added to the wine. Sulphur dioxide sounds toxic, but it actually helps ensure the stability of the wines you drink. It prevents oxidization. If you’ve ever taken a sip of a Chardonnay that tastes like sherry, you’ve had the unpleasant experience of drinking an oxidized wine. Sulphur dioxide also speeds up fermentation by killing bacteria and wild yeasts that are nonproductive in the winemaking process. Sulphur dioxide, or sulfites, are present in all wine. There is no such thing as a 100 percent sulfite-free wine, as sulphur dioxide is a natural byproduct of fermentation.
Another obvious difference in an organic wine is that, for the most part, producers that make organic wines use ambient yeasts. This basically means that instead of adding a strain of yeast to the raw grape juice to start fermentation, they rely on the yeasts that occur naturally, or “ambiently,” on the skins of the grapes.
Also, organic wine must be made from—you guessed it!—organic grapes. That translates to organic viticulture. Basically, the same laws that govern the growing of organic fruits and vegetables (at least here in the United States) govern the growing of grapes for organic wine. That means no chemical pesticides whatsoever.
All of this is well and good, but do these wines taste different?
Sometimes. Just because a wine is organic, doesn’t mean the winemaker is any more talented than one who makes typical wines. It also doesn’t mean that the wines have some kind of otherworldly health benefit that other wines don’t have. So don’t down an entire bottle of “organic” Merlot and expect to wake up the next morning without a hangover.
Stellar Organics Shiraz Rose 2009 ($13.99 @ 67 Wine, 179 Columbus Ave. at 68th Street, 212-724-6767) is a garnet-red rose that hails from South Africa. It starts with an explosion of bright strawberry and finishes with strong notes of vanilla and spiced gumdrops. This wine also has no added sulfites.
If you want something bubbly and organic, try the Albet I Noya Cava ($20 @ Bottle Rocket, 5 W. 19th St., betw. Fifth and Sixth avenues, 212-929-2323). From the Penedes region of Spain, cava is made using the same method as Champagne, but at a fraction of the cost. The Albet has subtle stone fruit flavors of white peach and apricot, but finishes dry and crisp. This is a cava that doesn’t need a mixer.
For those looking for something dark, red and organic, go no further than the Santa Julia Cabernet Sauvignon Organic 2008 ($9.95 @ Sherry-Lehman Wine and Spirits, 505 Park Ave. at 59th Street, 212-838-7500). From the Mendoza area of Argentina, this wine is everything you’d expect from a big, Napa style Cab at a much lower price—and it’s organic. Smoky baked cherry fruit up front leads to a peppery finish with notes of cedar. With a hearty structure, but enough fruit to make up the balance, this juicy Cab is missing nothing.
“As long as they left the alcohol in,” Jon said, cutting off my dissertation, “I think I can do without the sulfites.”
Indeed, Jon. Indeed.
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