Your Guide to Organic, Biodynamic and Natural Wine

Cà de Noci Tre Dame 2013

A few days ago I had the chance to meet up with a good friend at Maialino, a terrific restaurant and wine bar on Gramercy Park. I got there first, and had just ordered a glass of a Valle d’Oste rosé when he blew in and said, “Let’s do bubbles.” That sounded good, so he chose one that was new to me, the Cà de Noci Tre Dame from Emilio-Romagna. The choice was genius.

Cà de Noci, named after an adjacent walnut forest, is run by brothers Alberto and Giovani Masini. They started in 1993 with Lambrusco, the region’s traditional grape, then decided to plant other native varietals, that had long been abandoned by the region, in 2001. Around that time they also started to farm organically, with very low yields, and to make the wines with minimal intervention. In the cellar there is no fining or filtration, and no sulfites are added.

The Tre Dame is a blend of Sgavetti and Termamira. It’s an extremely vivacious frizzante, thanks to a second fermentation in the bottle, a technique that is unusual in a region of mass-produced wines. Don’t look for any hint of sweetness in this savory fizz, though the cherry and currant fruit is amazingly lively and fresh. Because of the acidity and bubbles it works great with fatty foods, dry sausages and fancy pizzas. You can also enjoy a glass or three thanks to the 11.5% alcohol. Break the budget for this one because it’ll cost you around $35, but it’s worth every cent. Just give it a little chill and you’re good to go.

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Roagna Langhe Blanco 2012

Rogana Langhe Blanco

The Roagna family has been growing grapes organically and making wines traditionally in the Piedmont region of Italy for four generations. The family’s principle holdings are in Barbaresco (6½ hectares), but in 1989 they expanded into Barolo. The wines are known for their classic style. Never filtered or fined, they’re made with minimal amounts of sulfur and are aged from three to five years in large, old Slavonian oak. The Roagna’s have been known to bottle and then hold back the wines for a couple of more years before release. What they end up with is complex, well structured and made to age for a very long time.

All that being said about their spectacular reds, they also make one white that I completely forgot about until recently, when I was having lunch at Locanda Verde in Tribeca with some friends and saw it on the wine list. It was a hot day and the wine called to me. One of my hosts only drinks white wines, with the exception of Chardonnay, which she finds repulsive and undrinkable. I thought I was safe ordering the Roagna, thinking that it was probably Arneis or Cortese.

When the wine came and I was given the chance to sample before pouring, something wasn’t quite right. Don’t get me wrong, the wine was fantastic, but it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. It tasted eerily like a wine from the Macon or even a Meursault, and that meant Chardonnay. Too late. The bottle was open, everyone was ready to drink and celebrate (her kids had just graduated from high school), so I gave the go ahead to pour away.

Now, I have tried to slip a great Chardonnay past her many times, and I have always failed. She’d take one sip, wrinkle her nose, smack her lips in a disgusted way and ask for something else. Maybe it was the spirit of the celebration, or just the fact that this is a beautifully made white (90% Chardonnay/10% Nebbiolo), but there was a huge smile on everyone’s face at the first sip that lasted all the way through the second bottle.

The Roagna Langhe Blanco is medium-full bodied, crisp and minerally, with the taste of hazelnuts, pear and honey. It’s fermented in old oak casks and is then aged for 1 ½ years longer in a large oak cask. The 2012 is just out, and it’s priced at retail at $20. You have to buy one for that friend of yours who hates all Chardonnays.

P. S. I may never tell my friend what she loved so much that afternoon.

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Fattorie Cerreto Libri Canestrino Bianco

Back in the dark ages of my early wine life, I used to be one of those clowns who thought Italian white wines were something to be tolerated, if not out and out ignored. Isn’t it just innocuous pinot grigio from massive cooperatives or insipid and watery Orviettos? That may have been the case 30 years ago, but thank goodness much has changed since then.

It wasn’t until I did the wine thing full time (15 years ago) that I came to learn of the amazing whites from Friuli and Campagna and Piedmont and the Valle D’Aosta and Sicily and so on and so on. You get the idea – I’m a convert. Now I actually go and seek them out, and that was the case when I visited my friend Philippe Essome’s Brooklyn wine shop Passage de la Fleur. It was there that I took a chance and picked up a bottle of the Canestrino Bianco, and I was handsomely rewarded.

Andrea and Valentina Zanfei own 80 hectares in the Chianti Rufina region of Tuscany. The husband and wife team decided to work together in 1997. The first thing they did was convert all of their agricultural practices to biodynamics, and they’ve been farming that way ever since. At first Andrea had to balance his winegrowing with his day job, that of a high school history and philosophy professor, but now he’s a full time vintner making a Chianti Rufina as well as the white.

The Canestrino Bianco is a blend of 80% Trebbiano and 20% Malvasia (both 30 year-old vines). He describes it, off-handedly, as a typical, dry Tuscan white.

If this is typical, I’m moving to Italy.

It’s unfiltered (slightly cloudy) with a beautiful light amber color, not quite “orange”. It’s fermented in cement and aged in steel and fiberglass. The nose is surprisingly floral given its slightly oxidized nuttiness and citrus on the palate. Its medium body begs for hard, aged cheeses and salamis of all kinds. The price is right (mid teens), so get yourself a bottle and get yourself to your own version of an Italian piazza immediately, preferably on a hot summer night. Enjoy.

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I recently sat down at Bin 71 (my favorite neighborhood wine bar) with Sam Coturri to taste through his father Phil’s new vintages. Just as background, Phil Coturri is the premier organic/biodynamic viticulturist in Northern California and has been farming this way for over 35 years. Through his vineyard management company, Enterprise Vineyards, he works with a number of major organic wineries such as Oakville Ranch, Kamen Estate, and Amapola Creek. He is also the brother of Tony Coturri, the legendary biodynamic Sonoma winegrower.

The winery name is a combination of its street address and the fact that this specific vineyard was once a citrus grove. In 1978, a hard frost wiped out the lemon trees, except for two which Phil tried to save. I mention this because it’s known by viticulturists that if a place is good for growing citrus, it’s also good for growing Syrah, so that’s what Phil did. The vines for this wine were planted in 2002, and the vineyard is certified biodynamic. It’s also a part of one of California’s newest AVAs — The Moon Mountain District.

The 2010 crop was relatively small because of the cool year, but the grapes were very ripe and bold. The wine went through a long slow fermentation and then aged for 22 months in neutral oak. The result is quite simply one damn good red wine. Its bacon and pancetta nose is reminiscent of the Northern Rhone. It’s full-bodied and round, but in no way jammy. The minerals in it are alive and well, giving the wine a beautiful lift. You’ll like the finish, too — long and soft.

I’m breaking the under $20 rule here (it’s usually more like $40), but it’s well worth treating yourself. You’ll also have to do some hunting around because only 65 cases were made, but the search is part of the fun.

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While selling my wine shop, I came across a number of wines that I just couldn’t let myself hand over to the new owner. They were simply too good to be left behind, so they came home with me. One of them was Philippe Tessier’s Cheverny Blanc. It had been another “love at first taste” for me, and one that I turned a lot of folks onto over the years. It’s one of the fabulous wines from the Cheverny appellation of the Loire Valley, a region I love. The Cheverny white is always a cepage dominated by sauvignon blanc and rounded off by a small percentage of chardonnay.

Domaine Tessier was started in 1961 by Roger Tessier and his son Philippe. In 1981 Philippe took over, and has been overseeing the 23 hectares ever since. The wines have been certified organic (ECOCERT) since 1998. Philippe’s winegrowing practices epitomize the natural wine philosophy. “We practice and promote small farm viticulture. A wine should be the expression of the place from which it comes. It should reflect the climactic conditions of the year, as well as a little of the vigneron who produces it, while respecting the life of the soil and the environment. It must give pleasure, but it must also be sound and healthy, alive and digestible… should be natural wine.” That pretty much covers it.

The Cheverny Blanc is 80% Sauvignon Blanc, 15% Chardonnay and 5% Arbois. It’s neither filtered nor fined, and is fermented with natural yeasts. No sulfites are added, and it’s vegan and vegetarian friendly. It has all of the wonderful qualities of a Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc, but slightly rounded off with a touch of chardonnay. I’m thinking mussels, sole or a creamy chicken dish. At around $14, this is one of the great wine values. If your wine shop doesn’t know it or carry it, go find another wine shop. Or stop by my house.

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I have always been a believer in the versatility of rosés, and while they are not wines for the ages (with the exception of the serious ones from appellations like Tavel) they shouldn’t be dismissed as frivolous summer quaffs. I enjoy them all year — they’re especially good with Thanksgiving dinner — and I especially like them with a couple of years aging. That said, I discovered this Sicilian rosé a couple of years ago, and immediately added it to the 40 others that I sold.

The Di Giovannas have been making wine since 1860 (newcomers) and all five of their vineyards have been certified organic since 1997 (Suolo e Salute srl). The brothers Di Giovanna, Gunther and Klaus, oversee all the winemaking and winegrowing. This rosato is 100% Nerello Mascalese. The juice is macerated for about 12 hours — this is no light, pink, watery rosé — and then fermented on the lees in stainless steel for three months. It’s then filtered and fined, giving it some softness without taking away from its relatively full body.

Try this with grilled fish or even a lamb burger, because its reasonable 13.5% alcohol level belies its heft. About $15 will get you a bottle. Even in a world of a gazillion rosés, this one should make your cut.

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Luyt Carignan Trequilemu 2011

South American wines have enjoyed quite a run in the United States, thanks to their reasonable prices and their boringly even quality. They aren’t terrible, but they aren’t, for the most part, the least bit special. So when one comes along that truly breaks the mold, it really stands out.

Louis-Antoine Luyt is a winemaker who saw an opportunity in the sea of completely ordinary wines he tasted in Chile. Bored with living in France, he arrived there as a 22 year old, got a job as a dishwasher and worked his way up to wine buyer. After studying winemaking in a class, he decided to go back to France to learn more. He studied in Beaune and worked five harvests under the tutelage of Mathieu Lapierre (the son of the legendary Marcel Lapierre) in Morgon, and then returned to Chile determined to make extraordinary wines. He found a number of small vineyards with very old vines (some as old as 300 years), but their grapes were either being sold off to huge wineries or being made into so-so wines by the locals for their own consumption. So he took over the vineyards and employed Lapierre’s techniques, converting to organic farming, plowing with horses, and staying away from irrigation. Now he makes arguably the most interesting and complex Chlean wines out there.

In the winery, Luyt uses only natural yeasts and minimal sulfur. The wines undergo carbonic maceration and they are all remarkably low in alcohol. The result is Chilean wine that can stand up to the finest red wines anywhere in the world. The Carignan Trequilemu is made from 70 year-old vines, and is a rich, dark, earthy beauty that’s amazingly vibrant and alive. 12.9% alcohol levels are a big reason why.

We sneak slightly over the $20 a bottle criteria with this one, but for a couple of bucks more you’ll get a whole new take on Chilean wines. I remember all too well my reaction to Luyt’s wines when I first sampled them, and I know you’ll enjoy that same revelatory experience. The label, inspired by the Santiago transit system, is a standout, too. You can’t miss it in a retail environment.

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Our Wine Rkatsiteli 2010

I first I stumbled upon the grape Rkatsiteli years ago at a New York State wine fair in Watkins Glen. It was made by the mega Finger Lakes winery Dr. Konstantin Frank, and I loved it instantly. As for the grape, all I knew was that it came from eastern Europe, it was very old and that Dr. Frank was one of the only wineries around making wines from it. I carried Dr. Frank’s Rkatsiteli in my shop each year, while supplies lasted, and those who were courageous enough to take my word for it shared my enthusiasm.

Flash forward several years later, and along came Our Wine Rkatsiteli into my life. Now we’re not only in love but engaged. This is an Rkatsiteli of a different color, literally. While Dr. Frank’s is white, slightly fruity, fresh and crisp, Our Wine is a classic amber (orange) Georgian wine, and is savory, smoky, leafy, resiny, deep and full bodied. Night and day, as it were.

The wine is made as it has been since as far back as 8000 B.C. – so they’ve had time to work out the kinks. First and foremost the grapes are farmed biodynamically. While the American version is fermented in stainless steel, in Georgia it’s fermented in qvervri, or clay pots, similar to amphorae but without handles. The qvervri is lined with a thin layer of beeswax, and the grapes are put inside with skins, stems, seeds and all, crushed, and then sealed and buried in the ground. Combining all of the parts in fermentation gives the wine enough stability to make preservatives unnecessary. This is natural winemaking at its most natural. The grapes can remain in the qvervri for years, but the Our Wine is fermented for just six months, and then bottled without filtration.

Our Home is made with 90% rkatsiteli, along with 10% mtsvane and khikhvi. If fruit-driven wines are your thing, forget you read this review. When I say savory, I mean savory. It has wonderful acidity, a long tannic finish, and is the perfect partner to creamy sauce-based dishes, fatty fish and hearty meat dishes like pork ribs. This wine makes the price cut at $20, so be brave, buy a bottle, and enjoy a taste of true antiquity. If you like this wine, there’s more where that came from. Pheasant’s Tears is another excellent Georgian winery, and the winemaker is an American (Jonathan Wurdman). His wines are superb. Only small quantities are made and imported, so grab them when you can.

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