Your Guide to Organic, Biodynamic and Natural Wine

I hailed a taxi from Mendoza’s 6th section on a sun-filled winter day. The season had been mild, but the elderly women on Calle Olascoaga could be seen in puffy coats performing their driveway sweep routine, unfettered by passersby tracking through their dust piles. The drive to Luján de Cuyo, one of Mendoza’s highly touted sub-regions, could confound any visitor; despite the wine capital’s conspicuous fuchsia-splashed billboards, the city’s immediate surroundings are starkly desert-like. However, just fifteen minutes away, past big box supermarkets, turf soccer fields and a bit of nothingness, vineyards begin to appear like oases before a towering Andes backdrop.

I went to visit Alpamanta to learn from agronomist Pamela Federici how responsible viticultural methods translate into award winning wines. Their 35-hectare estate sits in the south of Luján in Ugarteche, which rests at a slightly lower altitude than its neighboring valleys. It is characterized by alluvial soils and stark contrast of hot days and cool nights, providing an ideal amount of stress on the vines while allowing a long ripening period for grapes. What sets this winery apart is a simple but strenuous homeopathic approach: the vineyard is farmed according to organic and biodynamic certifications and winemaking is conducted without cultivated yeasts and additives. Through its work with Alvaro Espinoza and René Piamonte, Alpamanta has honed in on essential farming practices that have transformed the estate into a flourishing ecosystem, yielding healthy fruit and increasingly popular wines.

Pamela Federici is in charge of day-to-day operations at the estate and, like other dedicated agronomists, practically lives in the vineyard. She boasts work experience spanning three continents, but decided to remain in her home region after a chance encounter with owner Andrej Ruzumovsky.

Alpamanta does all its farming in accordance with René Piamonte’s biodynamic calendar; a schedule set by the lunar cycle, revealing the optimal dates for pruning, picking, composting – every aspect of the harvest cycle. In compliance with organic and biodynamic teachings, the vineyard team refrains from chemical use in both the vineyard and winery, opting instead to let nature take its course. This approach is meant to allow a vineyard to remain in a harmonious state, with insect and yeast populations unharmed, but it can also leave crops susceptible to problems that a conventional winery could easily eradicate with chemical spraying. I asked if being biodynamic was worth the extra trouble.

“Overall I have seen a very balanced vineyard,“ said Federici. ”There is a very good relationship of leaf to fruit and the quality is outstanding. The plants have adapted very well to the natural conditions under which we grow; they fight for themselves against the odds of rain, heat, insects and fungal attack. Thanks to our minimal intervention and the greatly diverse microclimate, the plants have managed to survive and adapt.”

I was watched closely by a small heard of sheep, presumably waiting for me to leave their hangout. They do the dirty work around the farm, eating weeds and providing organic material that supports the life of the vineyard. Most people don’t like to talk about the behind-the-scenes aspect of farming, but it’s essential to the process. Like an unblemished apple, an organic or biodynamic vineyard without free-roaming animals is rather suspicious. Sure, some organic projects manage just fine by purchasing all their compost and manures, but it seems to remove some of the meaning. Alpamanta’s large animal population, plant growth and vegetable garden support Federici’s claim, “We believe in diversity, not monoculture.”

In following with biodynamic practices, Alpamanta does utilize some techniques to add nutrients to the soil and avoid undesirable outcomes in the vineyard. To learn more, we made our way down into a basement below a tasting room and stopped in front of two opened barrels laid down on their sides. They revealed various components of biodynamic preparations separated in clay and glass jars – chamomile, dandelion, oak bark, horsetail, eggshells, quartz, yarrow and manure. Each application is readied in a specific fashion – the oak is inserted into the skull of a domestic animal, then buried next to the vineyard, to be added to compost or used as a spray. These preparations are part of a homeopathic approach meant to improve the health of the ecosystem’s soil and crops; the belief is that they populate the soil with an abundance of microorganisms, aid the breakdown of manures/composts and prevent pests, fungi, molds and diseases.

We ended the day with a lengthy asado (Argentine barbecue) in a space carved out into the vineyard. There’s no better way to experience Mendoza than sitting for hours with old and new friends around a table of meat, cheese, salad and wine. Asados are fully engrained in the culture; on Sunday afternoons locals stay at home with friends and family, while the smell of caramelized fat flows into the quiet city streets. If someone eats or drinks too much and is feeling a bit sleepy, they are welcome to take a nap in the host’s bed. I managed to stay in my chair. Our asado was accompanied by a generous tasting of Alpamanta’s current releases. Standouts included the honey-filled 2012 Natal Chardonnay, the peppery oak-free 2009 Natal Cabernet Sauvignon and a nostalgic 2007 Reserva Malbec that nearly coaxed me into staying in Mendoza for a few extra days.

More than anything else, the wines at Alpamanta seem to provide a sense of place. As in the case of other meaningful projects in the region, a glass of this wine, enjoyed anywhere, can invoke the undeniable charm of the Argentine wine experience – the tranquility of the vineyards, looming westward mountains and asado beneath a shaded canopy. It’s all made possible by a philosophy that allows for healthy soil and grapes to do all the talking. After arriving back in New York a week later, I was pleasantly surprised to find a bottle of Alpamanta among the usual Mendoza selections in a narrow West Village wine shop. Now I just need to find an Argentine butcher.

List of wines:

Natal Sauvignon Blanc 2012
Natal Chardonnay 2012
Natal Cabernet Sauvignon 2009:
Estate Malbec 2010
Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2008
Reserva Malbec 2007

Dani Rozman is a contributor to Organic Wine Journal. He is currently working the harvest at Clos Saron. Photographs courtesy of Alpamanta.

read more

The Cleveland

Paul Shaked and Hudson Solomon opened up The Cleveland in the Nolita neighborhood of New York City in January. The restaurant features an all-organic and natural wine list to match their seasonal American/Mediterranean cuisine. We asked Paul and Hudson to tell us more about the restaurant and their support for organic wine.

What motivated you to exclusively offer organic and natural wines?

Paul Shaked: I was making adjustments to the wine list at my family’s restaurant, Sofia’s of Little Italy. I didn’t have a background in wine, so my only guide was my palate, and what salespeople tried to sell me. Being as my criterion was artisanal technique, it wasn’t long until I discovered the world of organic/natural wine. In my opinion, there are many reasons to serve natural wine, ranging from environmental benefits to supporting small vineyards. The key sticking point above all else, though, was that I find terroir driven, honest wine to be the best tasting.

What goes into putting together a thoughtful wine list?

PS: It’s difficult because you’ll never be able to satisfy everyone no matter how many wines you add to a list. Offering natural wines is a challenge because each cuvée we look at is a limited production wine. As a result, our by-the-glass selections must be on constant rotation. I have to work hard to keep slots filled with quality stuff, but as a built-in bonus, it also means that our guests are assured a tailored, seasonal selection.

How did you decide to open The Cleveland together? What are the advantages and disadvantages of owning a restaurant when you’re both 25?

Hudson Solomon: The Cleveland came about when Paul, who grew up in the restaurant industry, wanted to open up his own restaurant. What came about once we set our minds to it felt very serendipitous; the location at 25 Cleveland Place has a backyard garden and is only a few blocks away from his parent’s restaurant.  We wanted to create a place around the garden that embodied that atmosphere. We thought that Mediterranean food, especially with Paul’s background being Israeli, really fit to that image.

PS: I think that our age provides us with stamina and the ability to work hard with the feeling that we’re really investing in ourselves. Some people don’t take us seriously, but we actually like that, because we view it as an opportunity to exceed expectations.

You have one chance to impress a customer with a wine/food pairing – what do you suggest?

HS: If it is a cold night, the NY Strip with beet puree and charred spring onions paired with the Donnas Nebbiolo/Freisa from Val d’Aosta in Northern Italy; it has a palate of rich alpine fruit that pairs excellently with the spices in the beets. We have an excellent trocken/dry Riesling, Clemens Busch grey slate cuvée, that you could pair with our whole roasted Branzino served with large herbed couscous, favas and harissa. Clemens Busch is one of the only biodynamic producers in Germany and it’s awesome to have them on the list – and even more awesome that we get to serve it every night.

Do you prefer reds or whites?

HS:  I find more going on with red.  The spectrum of flavors is broader, how tannic or full something is how light and fruity. I also find carbonic maceration’s effect on reds to be really interesting; particularly the strength of the initial effervescence and how it dissipates or not as the bottle is decanted or just left to open on its own.  Every time you open a bottle of wine it is like reading a new book, it’s always going to be slightly different.

PS: White, almost always. 

Can you really taste a difference with organic or biodynamic wine?  Are they worth the effort?
PS: I do believe that it is worth the effort. I LOVE natural wine and can totally tell the difference as sulfite levels are reduced. 

If we enter the argument of blind taste tests – there obviously are wines that can fool any sommelier. The argument should lend credence to the benefit natural and biodynamic products have to artisanal craft and to the environment: when you put it that way I think organic wins every time. Go to a mass produced winery like Yellowtail and then go to the Monteraponi Vineyard and tell me you don’t see a difference.

Visit The Cleveland online.

Dani Rozman is a wine consultant and contributor to Organic Wine Journal. Photographs courtesy of Daniel Krieger.

read more