As a growing number of wine producers go organic, one frustrating challenge persists for green-conscious oenophiles: Many organic producers simply don't label their wines as such. The marketing vacuum can seem like a missed opportunity, given the increasing consumer demand for pesticide-free pinots and cabernets, but there's good reason for it. "Organic" still carries a stigma in some circles.
There are, for example, drinkers who believe the designation is merely a marketing ploy designed to fetch a price premium. Worse, some people expect organic wines to taste inferior, the same bias that unfairly plagues today's quality kosher wines. But there's another reason: Most organic producers are driven by imperatives that have nothing to do with sparing you or me from headaches (the main malady cited by the readers of this column who regularly ask for organic-wine recommendations). These producers simply are not targeting the health-conscious segment of the market.
The incentive to work without toxic pesticides and herbicides generally has more to do with ecosystem vitality and vineyard-employee safety (not that nasty chemicals are rampant in fine-wine production, by the way). By getting knee-deep in cow dung and harnessing natural vinepest predators such as wasps and bats, organic producers believe they're growing healthier vines and better grapes, end of story. The wine, they believe, should stand on its own merits, not on perceived health benefits.
Some of the greatest names in the firmament, including France's Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Château de Beaucastel, Zind-Humbrecht and Louis Roederer, have quietly embraced zero-pesticide farming. This is not to say that all quality producers remain in the closet. You will find exemplary producers that have taken up the cause – some discreetly, some more openly – including Summerhill Pyramid in British Columbia and Tawse and Southbrook in Niagara.
The first seven wines in the notes below, from today's release at Ontario Vintages stores, are made from organically grown grapes. The first three were also farmed biodynamically, a sort of super-organic practice that relies on extreme ecological self-sufficiency, often including homemade compost sprays and a sprinkling of cosmic mysticism. They may not spare you from suspected sulphite headaches (since all wine contains sulphites, a byproduct of fermentation), but they do represent less of a headache for the planet.
Quartz Reef Pinot Noir 2010 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $44.95
Austrian-born Rudi Bauer landed in New Zealand in the 1980s and pioneered grape growing in Central Otago, the world's southernmost wine region. His winery, Quartz Reef, is among the country's finest, and this biodynamically grown pinot offers clear evidence. Resembling a fine, premier cru Burgundy, it is medium-bodied and elegant, with pure berry flavour laced with baking spices, beetroot and moist earth. The tannins are ample but fine-grained and the finish is satisfyingly crisp. Perfect for duck breast, grilled salmon or roast pork.
Wittmann Riesling Trocken 2011 (Germany)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $20.95
Light but big on flavour, this dry German white tastes as though it were squeezed from ripe peaches. Well, almost. Succulent and initially soft, it pulls up the rear with tangy acidity and a whisper of chalk. Great for simply prepared freshwater fish. Organic and biodynamic.
Southbrook Triomphe Cabernet Franc 2011 (Ontario)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $21.95
Medium-full-bodied and bone-dry, here is a properly ripe cabernet franc that never lets the grape's herbal tendencies get the better of it. Well-structured, with an astringent backbone, it offers up additional nuances of earth and smoke. Try it with roast lamb. Organic and biodynamic.
La Cappuccina Soave 2012 (Italy)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $14.95
It may sound like a Starbucks beverage, but this is white wine – from a Veneto estate that went au naturel way back in the organic stone age of 1985. It is light and crisp, though with more concentration than the run-of-the- mill Soave you'll find by the glass in cheap Italian restaurants. Crisp peach and tangy herbs give way to pleasant, racy sourness on the finish. A lovely patio sipper, it would suit light seafood and salads. Organic.
Domaine Saint-Rémy Gewurztraminer Réserve 2011 (France)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $18.95
A dollop sweeter than off-dry, here is an Alsatian white with all the classic gewurztraminer nuances – lychee, ginger and flowers – plus a note of honey. The texture is delectably smooth, almost syrupy, but it is well-balanced. Perfect with foie gras or liver pâtés. Organic.
Frog's Leap Chardonnay 2011 (California)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $36.95
Barrel-fermented, Frog's Leap's 2011 chardonnay was mainly aged in neutral concrete vats, with just 7.5 per cent matured in wood barrels. Despite the modest oak treatment, it is rich and smooth, with big tropical fruit bathed in toffee and brown butter, balanced by crisp acidity. It is ideal for fish or chicken in cream sauce. Organic.
Familia Zuccardi Organica Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 (Argentina)
SCORE: 85 PRICE: $13.95
Big producers are more likely to play up the organic status of their wines, as is the case here. If you are looking for a green bargain, this may be worth considering. It is concentrated and ripe in a crowd-pleasing way, but the fruit veers toward the confected, wine-gum side, with a grip of bitter herbs on the finish. Good for braised meats. Organic.
Quails' Gate Merlot 2010 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $26.95
This is a meaty merlot, full-bodied and ripe, with flavours of plum, blackberry, vanilla and coffee. Very dry, it is supported by substantial fine tannins. Not organic. Pair it with big steaks or braised red meats. $22.97 in B.C., $27.19 in Sask., $22.99 in Man.
Yalumba Patchwork Shiraz 2010 (Australia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $21.95
It is not organic, but it claims another ethical virtue. It is "vegan and vegetarian friendly." Translation: No animal-derived clarifying agents, such as milk or egg whites. Rich and boldly fruity, this Barossa Valley red delivers concentrated plum and blackberry flavours supported by vanilla, spice and tangy acidity. Pair it with substantial red-meat dishes. $25.99 in B.C., $24.99 in N.S.
Clos de Nouys Demi-Sec Vouvray 2011 (France)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.95 Prepare yourself for considerable off-dry sweetness. But this is sumptuously balanced chenin blanc from the Loire Valley, with honeyed cantaloupe lifted by juicy acidity, spice and a tingle of chalky minerality. It is perfect for spicy crab cakes or the cheese course. Available only in Ontario. Not organic.