by Paul Howard
on Sep 22, 2008
There’s a wine revolution taking place on the northern slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily. One of the leading lights is Tenuta delle Terre Nere, owned by Marco de Grazia, an US importer of fine Italian wines. His first vintage was only in 2002, while the wine featured here, Feudo di Mezzo, was first made in 2004, immediately winning the coveted Gambero Rosso three glasses award. This is my pick from his wine range.
Tenuta delle Terre Nere (meaning “black soil”) is sited on the best slopes of the Etna DOC, between the towns of Randazzo and Passopisciaro. The azienda is found down a long rutted track that must deter all but the most zealous visitors. Here individual vineyard parcels are vinified separately; each is named after the local Contrade (or district) where they are sited and all show different terroir. The wines represent separate Cru, a similar system in a way to that of Burgundy or Barolo.
Hence this wine is from the 1.35 ha north-facing vineyard in Contrada Feudo di Mezzo, specifically the part known as Il Quadro delle Rose. The soils here are black volcanic ash as opposed to the adjacent rocky lava flows that make Terre Nere’s other Cru; Calderara Sottana and Guardiola.
The gnarled albarello (freestanding bush) vines were planted in 1927 and 1947 and their yields are kept commendably low. The vineyard lies at an altitude of 650-700 metres and this confers important advantages. There is considerable diurnal variation, a slow ripening season and a late harvest – early November is not uncommon.
Being an Etna Rosso DOC, the wine must be made from at least 80% Nerello Mascalese and here it is 98%. Its compulsory sister grape, Nerello Cappucio, contributes just 2% – just enough to get it classified within the DOC rules. When Nerello Mascalese is tended with care it is capable of making very fine wines.
All the Terre Nere vineyards are farmed organically, helped by a low natural incidence of pests and fungal diseases. Organic Certification will be awarded from the 2008 vintage and just 5,200 bottles are made per year.
After hand-picking, the grapes were macerated and fermented on their skins for 15 days. The wine was then matured in oak, 25% of it in new barriques, for 18 months.
Given its youth, Feudo di Mezzo 2006 was decanted for 30 minutes to open it up, and as there is neither fining nor filtering, sediment was expected.
In the glass it is a light crimson colour, rather Burgundian in appearance. The nose is perfumed and floral – cherries and violets interweave with an herbal garrigue note. The palate has great balance and finesse, the fruit features sour cherry, a little blackcurrant and a very attractive blueberry note that all overlay a savoury undertow.
Already quite silky and mouth-filling, those tannins could still use a little more maturity to resolve fully. I was delighted by the already seamless oak integration, especially as the combination of Nerello Mascalese and oak barrique is rarely the unqualified success it is here.
A nerve of minerality appears during a long length bound with an amazing amount of Nerello spice. The oak then delivers a final espresso note to rounds things off.
I enjoyed this wine while watching a blazing Mount Etna sunset and moon-rise from the vantage point of Feudo di Mezzo itself. A few rounds of Bruschetta topped with funghi porcini were all that were required to complete a memorable evening.
Wherever you drink it you’ll find that this is a serious and fine example of Etna Rosso, proving that Etna can produce exciting wines with lift, poise and energy without resorting to International varieties or full-on oak effects.
Drinking now, it ideally needs another 3-4 years to peak and then ought to hold easily in the longer term -perhaps to 2018.
Do also look out for the other Terre Nere wines, all classified as Etna DOC. At the entry level there is an Etna Rosso, Rosato and a particularly fine Bianco. Next come the Contrada or Cru Rosso’s; Feudo di Mezzo, Calderara Sottana and Guardiola.
Finally, there is the hyper-premium Rosso made from pre-phylloxera vines in tiny quantities called, (wait for it) Prephylloxera.
by Paul Howard
on Aug 3, 2008
Johan Reyneke’s family purchased a rundown property called Uitzicht in 1988. This is in the heart of South Africa’s Cape winelands, in the Polkadraai Hills to the west of Stellenbosch. After Johan took over from his mother he made the first wines under the Reyneke label in 1998.
Uitzicht was initially farmed using convention methods. Self taught as a winemaker, Reyneke had studied environmental philosophy at University and this, together with an encounter with the wines from biodynamic guru Nicholas Joly, gave him the impetus and determination to move to natural methods of wine growing for his Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Pinotage and Sauvignon Blanc.
His first experiments with organics were unsuccessful but Reyneke persevered. He went fully organic in 2001 and commenced biodynamic conversion in 2003. This process took a further three years to complete and Uitzicht is now certified as organic and biodynamic and has grown to 35 hectares. Reyneke is regarded as a biodynamic pioneer in South Africa, offers advice to other wineries and is a member of the prestigious “return to terroir” group of wine growers.
What of this super-sauvignon? All the auspices are good; as well as biodynamics careful winemaking techniques are employed to produce a premium white wine that demonstrates a clear sense of place. Wild yeasts are used for low-temperature fermentation in stainless steel and the wine is left to mature for six months on the lees. In the cellar there is no addition of enzymes or fining, racking is timed to the biodynamic calendar and the use of sulphur as a necessary preservative is admirably low.
A pale yellow-gold in colour, explore those aromatics before taking that first sip – there are nettles, elderflower, citrus and gooseberry to linger over. The first taste gives an immediate impression of balance – zesty acidity and nicely restrained alcohol. Layered pure fruit flavours are presented with satisfying intensity, with nothing raw or sweaty and no oak to get in the way. Green fruits – greengage and gooseberry – are interleaved with that herbaceous character so typical of Sauvignon Blanc. Slightly pétillant, there’s elegance, understatement and a long dry finish to complete the package. Style wise, this wine really shows just what South Africa can do with this grape it’s in the right hands – it sits nearer to Sancerre’s elegance than New Zealand’s pungency.
Drinking perfectly now and over the next year or so, try it either as an apéritif or with shellfish. I matched it with a simple open sandwich. Fresh homemade bread with organic free range chicken in light mayonnaise topped off with a salad garnish made for a delicious pairing.
Coda: the workers at Reyneke own a 24% share in the farm and take advantage of winemaking, marketing and business training as part of a Black Empowerment project. How cool is that?
A great advert for biodynamics and terrific value too, this is a wine likely to gain a deserved cult following. Meanwhile I’ll be looking out for Reyneke’s red wines as well.
by Paul Howard
on Jun 29, 2008
The Mâconnais is perhaps the birthplace of the Chardonnay grape. These low rolling hills are underpinned with Jurassic Limestone and support a wide range of mixed agriculture as well as vines. You’ll see woods, cherry orchards and soft fruit, market gardens, goats and the ubiquitous white Charolais cattle chewing quietly in river meadows.
The vineyards grow Gamay and Pinot Noir for reds, but today Chardonnay is predominant. Sadly the Mâconnais has long been the least ambitious part of Burgundy, dominated by the huge co-ops founded in the 1920’s making over-cropped and frequently ordinary wines. As a result, the image of Mâconnais is poor, with perhaps only the higher quality appellations based around the twin escarpments of Vergisson and Solutré (such as Pouilly-Fuissé) having a better reputation.
However, thanks to luminaries like Jean Thévenet, the best producers of the Mâconnais are now making wines to rival the great whites of the Cote de Beaune farther north. But this is a quiet revolution and there is still great value to be found.
At this individual producer level the Mâconnais is now one of the most exciting places in Burgundy, achieving the classic potential of Chardonnay on Limestone with stunning terroir-driven wines. There are illustrious Cote d’Or estates like Lafon and Leflaive seeking new horizons in this area where land prices are much cheaper. Others have settled in the region, like Olivier Merlin from Charolais or Jean-Marie Guffens from Belgium. Some are ambitious locals not content to make ordinary wines or sell grapes to the co-op’s, like the Bret Brothers, Saumaize-Michelin or Guillemot-Michel. Most are organic and many go further and are Biodynamic.
There is a group of sixteen winegrowers called ‘les Artisans Vignerons de Bourgogne du Sud’. Here’s their manifesto: “Now, with the standardisation of taste, the worldwide standardisation of Chardonnay, the systematic destruction of the soil in intensive and mindless agricultural practices, we are raising a timid voice to defend our liberty to be different, to offer a real diversity of wines faithful to their terroir. We hope that others will join us in this struggle.”
All owe a huge debt to Jean Thévenet, Chardonnay’s master, magician and maverick. Naturally, he is a member.
Situated in the village of Quintaine, just north of Mâcon on the west bank of the mighty river Saône, the Thévenet operation comprises three domaines that all run along the same lines:
Domaine de la Bongran. This flagship 9 ha estate in Quintaine has Thévenet family records dating back to 1439. It was originally known as bon gran, meaning good (wood) grain – as there were barrel makers (tonneliers) in the family ancestry.
Domaine de Roally. This micro-estate of just 3.5 ha is run by Jean’s son, Gautier. It was acquired from Henri Goyard when he retired in 2000, a winegrower that shared a similar outlook to Thévenet, so his traditions are being maintained here.
Domaine Emilian Gillet. This Domaine is named after Jean Thevenet’s great-great grandfather and is rented by Jean and Gauthier. There are 2 ha in Clessé to the south and a further 3.5 ha in Viré, to the north of Quintaine.
Jean Thévenet is in his early 60’s, an impish man that exudes good humour. His hands are calloused from years of tending vines and his mind sharp and wise. He has been involved on the estate since commencing work with his father back in 1961, but he made his first vintage in 1972.
We arrive at the Domaine same time as a local furniture repairer and are immediately treated to example that illustrates Thévenet’s patience and attention to detail. After a warm greeting for all of us, Thévenet retrieves a battered and clearly well-loved wooden chair from his office. The chair is handled lovingly and over the next 30 minutes the chair is earnestly discussed with the local man and the work required explained, revised and finally agreed upon in minute detail. Expressing himself satisfied, Thévenet returns to us with a big grin, “now it’s time for my wines, but first, the vines.” I’m left wondering. If an old chair gets this amount attention, what about his wines?
The Bongran vineyard contains shallow marl-like soils formed from limestone. These soils found at the bottom of the slopes of the low Quintaine hills are perfect for Chardonnay because they are derived from Oxfordian and Superior Bathonian Limestones (also good rock for building and sculpture). Further up the slopes the underlying rock changes to Inferior Bathonian, and here there are no vines. Jean describes those soils as “best for goats”.
There is mechanisation in the vineyards, for example, ploughing and weeding, but all the key operations including the harvest are by hand. Herbicides and pesticides have never been used on this land. Organic methods are used throughout, but not Biodynamics, which is “too new age for me.” No treatments are used apart from bouillie bordelaise against fungal diseases. The 55 year old vines are trained with a single cane in the traditional Taille a queue du Mâconnais.
Total belief in natural winemaking means that Thévenet works with nature and what the year brings. He is inspired by and passionate about the traditions passed down through his long family history. For example his father wrote and lectured on the subject of the harvests at Clessé in the Nineteenth Century, which he knows off by heart.
Thévenet looks for ripeness in the grapes and will often leave harvesting for as long as possible deep into the autumn, but is most concerned with equilibrium. “I never chaptalise and I want to preserve sufficient acidity to give an impression of freshness – but balance is all”.
Low yields, that mantra of quality winemaking, is a given here. “I like 10-12 small bunches per vine, small grapes with a high skin/juice ratio.” Yields are 30-35 hl/ha for the dry wines. The norm in these parts would still be more like 80-90 hl/ha!
Thévenet makes three different Chardonnay cuvées at Domaine Bongran, each one at a different level of grape ripeness:
Cuvée Tradition is in the traditional dry yet rich white burgundy style
Cuvée Levroutée is again dry but includes an element of botrytis and a hint of residual sugar
Cuvée Botrytisée, a sweet wine made from ultra-ripe grapes with a high incidence of botrytis affected fruit.
He delights in making wines from grapes affected by Noble Rot (Botrytis Cinerea) if and when this occurs, and indeed he encourages it by picking as late as possible and far later than is usual. This is very rare in Burgundy but the villages of Quintaine, Viré and Clessé run parallel to the river Saône and the mists that rise from the river in autumn provide the conditions for Botrytis to flourish, though its incidence varies considerably from year to year.
Because sweet Botrytised Chardonnay is almost entirely confined to Bongran (and just one or two others like Guillemot-Michel) those wines have troubled the INAO authorities for years as there simply is no Appellation that accommodates the style. The wines are therefore labelled with the humble description Mâcon-Villages and for years the authorities have dithered and made rulings against them based on the fact that the wines are not typical of the region. If there was a Vin de Pays here no doubt that would be applied.
Cynics might say that INAO prefer to embrace the norm of the distinctly ordinary. It is still possible that the Viré-Clessé appellation (itself now 10 years old) will be granted – but no one knows when. Thévenet is diplomatic, though his tongue is partially in his cheek and his eyes twinkle when he says; “it may seem very bureaucratic but the authorities are right to consider this matter most carefully, if this style is to be allowed we must ensure the highest standards”. He also is complimentary about the head of INAO, René Renou, “He owns a property in Bonnezeau (in the Loire) so I’m sure he understands sweet wines and Botrytis”. Thévenet knows about sweet botrytised wines too, and was Chairman of Sapros (the Botrytis wine club), featuring 13 notable estates from the Loire, Alsace and Sauternes.
The winery is relatively new, built in 1989. It is a winner of design awards but still employs some very traditional techniques. He shows us an ancient basket press kept in an outside courtyard. ”Modern pneumatic presses are ok, but for me you can’t beat the traditional press as used in Champagne”. It gives the best juice although, as with many of Thevenet’s techniques, using it is painstakingly slow.
After the juice has settled naturally, it is fermented at low temperatures that require very long and slow ferments. Fermentations can last between 6 months and 2 years! Only naturally occurring wild yeasts are used, found on the grapes or in the winery, and the vessels employed are either stainless steel Inox or ancient oak tuns that impart no oak flavours.
The wines are never released until Thévenet believes they are ready. Given the long fermentation and maturation times before bottling, the latest vintages available from Bongran, Gillet or Roally are likely to be several years older than from compatriots. The following wines were tasted with Jean Thévenet over a couple of hours. Indicative cellar-door prices shown.
Domaine de Roally, Viré-Clessé 2005. 13.5%
Very rich dry white wine, elegance and exotic, fruits densely textured. Not high acidity but “sufficient for balance”. Ready now, delicious drinking over the next five or so years. Bright, fresh style and lots of minerals. Mini-Bongran, great value.
Domaine Emilian Gillet, Viré-Clessé 2003. 13.5%
Tauter and more focused, a leaner and fresher white wine with more acidity. Given that this is from the super-hot 2003 vintage where plenty of other winemakers produced wines with low acidity, flabby alcohol and burnt flavours, the style and success of this wine is amazing. Thévenet explains, “the 2003 harvest on August 22nd was the earliest since 1822. I don’t perform leaf plucking or green harvest in the summer, I’m happy with my low yields and don’t need the grapes in full sun for good ripening, the leaves shade them. Look at a beach on a hot day, the clever sunbathers are shaded by their parasols. They enjoy the sun and they tan but they don’t burn. The leaves are my natural parasols”.
Domaine de la Bongran, Cuvée Tradition EJ Thévenet. Viré-Clessé, 2003 14%
Bongran’s dry wine, dedicated to his father Emile. An absolute classic, winemaking this clever means you can disregard any qualms about the qualities and charms of this vintage. Thévenet adds, “yes, low acidity can be found in inferior wines from this vintage and perhaps some winemakers thought about adding acid, (which is illegal). There’s plenty of good natural acidity in my grapes and in this wine”. Delicious minerality, big and broad and creamy, again that impression of acidity without tartness or sharpness, perfectly balanced with alcohol. Grapefruit, peach and pineapple flavours, very long and satisfying. Hints of orange peel – tiniest bit of botrytis? This will develop further over the next five years and will easily last another ten.
Domaine de la Bongran, Cuvée Levroutée, Mâcon-Villages 1999. 14%
The first wine that clearly show botrytis flavours, but vinified to dryness rather than left sweet. “Tres Mur” says Jean. Yes, very soft and subtle, a dry white with just a small percentage of noble rot that adds complexity and a unique character. “We made a special selection in the vines during the harvest”, he says. There are botrytis tones of orange peel and honey, exotic tropical fruit like pineapple and kiwi and finally some delicious hazelnut brought on by bottle age. The palate also has a wonderful flavour hard to pin down. “Truffles in butter”, says Jean, nailing it instantly. Just a hint of residual sugar, a stunning and unusual wine with perhaps another 10 or 15 years ahead, made in only small quantities.
Domaine de la Bongran, Cuvée Botrytisée, Mâcon-Villages 2001, 13.5%
The ultimate Bongran wine and a fine way to finish. 2001 was a year when a larger part of the harvest was affected by noble rot. This “Grand poirriture” allowed Thévenet to produce this deliciously dense sweet wine. All the botrytis hallmarks are here; voluptuous intensity and a complex array of flavours including that Truffle flavour that lasts minutes. Evolves and opens up in the glass over 30 minutes. Medium sweet, it is perfectly balanced by the acidity. Then Thévenet asks, “Ok then so how many grams of residual sugar?” There’s such weightless balance with the acidity it’s hard to tell. “Eighty”. With minute quantities made, it’s not cheap. But if there is a Montrachet of the Mâconnais, this it.
Chardonnay isn’t known for its affinity with botrytis, and certainly not in Burgundy! The more usual French suspects are Chenin Blanc in the Loire or Sémillon from Bordeaux. Someone needs to rewrite those textbooks. Think you know Chardonnay? Think again. Those wanting to experience the excitement of the Mâconnais should start here.
by Paul Howard
on Jun 2, 2008
Limoux is a small French appellation in the eastern Pyrenees of France, buried deep in the Languedoc and surrounding the town of the same name.
Given the southern location and summer heat it is unusual to find that Limoux is dominated by white grapes – the local Mauzac, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc are grown extensively. This is primarily because of altitude; the vineyards range from 200-400 metres above sea level in this undulating and frequently wild landscape and hence they are some of the coolest in southern France.
Winegrowing here probably dates back to Roman times, but Limoux should be better known for being the true birthplace of fizzy wine. This can be attributed to the Benedictine monks of Saint Hilaire abbey, where records date back at least to 1531 – over a century before bubbles appeared in Champagne! Now that should be a question in Trivial Pursuit! The original fizz made was sweet and low in alcohol and made from the Mauzac grape. It is still made to this day, where it bears the name méthode ancestrale.
However, Limoux produces two other sparkling wines by the more advanced méthod traditionnelle that became established in Champagne. Crémant dates only from 1990, created to take advantage of Chardonnay and Chenin’s ability to make elegant fizz. Mauzac may be included in this blend, but it usually plays second fiddle.
The fizz made predominantly with Mauzac is known as Blanquette. Indeed, Blanquette is a local name for Mauzac, referring to the distinctive white hairs found on the underside of its leaves. For me, Blanquette has a more original and distinctive style and is highly underrated. Here Chardonnay and Chenin play a minor role, principally to add some elegance. Blanquette is perhaps slightly more rustic than Crémant, but it is a true taste of Limoux, and when made well by an artisan winemaker the results are delicious.
July 2007. I’m standing with several hundred others by a dusty roadside at Esperaza waiting for Stage 14 of the Tour de France. The hours pass slowly on a hot morning. Picnic tables laden with bread, cheese and beer are decanted from the backs of dusty Citroëns and Renaults. Corks are popping and children playing, but no cyclists appear. Finally a cavalcade of sponsor and team cars pass, showering gifts and goodwill, building the excitement. Finally the leading cyclists flash past, followed closely by the peloton. In five minutes it’s over. I look at the wooden sign I’ve leant against for the past three hours. In faded letters it says: Delmas, Vins Biologique, Antugnac, à 3 km.
And so we visit Marlene and Bernard Delmas. They have 25 ha of organic vineyards at 300 metres altitude in the southern and coolest part of the Limoux appellation, a sub-zone known as the Haut-Vallée. They grow Mauzac, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Pinot Noir and produce all three fizz styles as well as some excellent still wines – Limoux Chardonnay and a very fine Pinot Noir. All are some of the best wines I found in Limoux.
My pick of the Delmas wines is this Blanquette de Limoux – which is also great value. It’s made from 80% Mauzac and topped up with Chardonnay and a splash of Chenin Blanc. Delmas treats his Mauzac especially well, using the minimum of sulphur, experimenting with skin contact and ageing the wine on the lees longer than the minimum 9 months to enhance flavours.
This isn’t a cheap Champagne look-alike, it has a personality all of its own. There’s a golden hue and a foaming mousse with long-lasting and fine bubbles. On the nose there are delicate citrus, quince and yeasty aromas, while the palate is dry and has fresh creamy acidity and bite. Medium-bodied, there’s a very gentle cider-apple character alongside grapefruit and lemon flavours. A nutty and slightly spicy ending and a clean finish round things off. Drinking now and over the next couple of years (where it develops some honeyed flavour), this isn’t for keeping long-term.
But does it taste as good back home as in Limoux? You bet. Apparently Blanquette was a favourite of Thomas Jefferson, 3rd president of the United States – and he knew a thing or three about wine.
Try as an aperitif – very refreshing on a hot day – or with fish or chicken accompanied by white sauces.
Price around $19.99. Bargain!
by Paul Howard
on Apr 20, 2008
Querciabella is a small Italian property based at Greve in the heart of Chianti. Their considerable reputation rests upon a range of superb hand-crafted biodynamic wines (see my Querciabella review). These include the Super-Tuscan Bátar, Palafreno and Camartina plus a delicious Chianti Classico DOCG.
Owner Sebastiano Cossia Castiglioni has expanded by planting a new vineyard in the Maremma – a low lying area about 50 miles away on the Tuscan coast. Like other Tuscan winemakers he saw the vinous potential of this region where land is available at more affordable prices than in Chianti. Consequently, Querciabella has 36 hectares growing Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot near the town of Albarese.
2005 was the first vintage made from these vines, christened Mongrana after Ariosto’s epic poem of 1516 called Orlando Furioso. The review here is of the second, brand new 2006 vintage just released.
Mongrana is roughly 50% Sangiovese with equal parts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. These young vines are of course biodynamically farmed and yields are restricted to 45-50 hl/ha. The grapes are hand picked and then fermented separately in temperature-controlled stainless steel before maturation in cement vats.
Just a small part of the crop is matured in oak barriques for 3 months and this is added back at final blending. The barriques are not used to add oak flavour which would only mask the youthful fruit qualities. Instead they introduce a little more maturation from exposure to oxygen, so bringing extra complexity to the final blend.
Given that this is a very young wine, Mongrana was decanted for an hour. A dark cherry coloured core and a purplish rim show the evidence of youth.
Decanting really helps open up the nose – there are typically Italian aromas; sour red cherries accompanied by dried herbs and spices.
The palate shows plenty of juicy fresh acidity. Initially cherry flavours are to the fore then hints of cassis and damson appear alongside cloves and cinnamon. Final hints of earth and almonds on the finish make this typically Italianate and moreish.
There’s a medium body and an elegant balance of acid, alcohol and fruit. It is refreshing to see a modern wine released at a very palatable 13% alcohol and while the fruit is relatively straightforward it has a racy exuberance so typical of young vines.
Being so young, the tannins are still a little grainy and need a longer to resolve fully. However, there is nothing harsh on offer here and because this is a wine designed to accompany food the tannins play a complementary part. Charcuterie, fillet steak or spinach and ricotta pasta all work well.
This wine will improve over the next couple of years and possibly beyond that. However, I recommend drinking it young while it’s fresh and energetic with food. Querciabella’s other wines are more suitable for bottle ageing.
Mongrana is positioned as the entry-level wine in line up. That shouldn’t put you off as it is a fine introduction at a very sharp price – $17.99/£8.99 is a bargain given the pedigree of this great Tuscan estate.
by Paul Howard
on Mar 18, 2008
Many years ago I stood in the middle of an organic vineyard for the very first time (Aubert de Villaine’s at Bouzeron in the Cote Chalonnaise, since you ask ). I could tell the difference from the conventional vineyard next door with ease. There were flowers between the vine rows; there were bees, butterflies and birdsong. A closer inspection showed the vineyard was teeming with beneficial insects devouring the pests that prey on vines. The vines themselves had a healthy vitality. Afterward a tasting of the wines confirmed their delicious flavour, character and individuality.
From that moment, I was converted from my previously sceptical view of organics. I went back to the wines I had previously enjoyed, now with fresh eyes and palate. I discovered that, whether these came from the Old or New World and regardless of their style, many of them were organic.
Frequently, this was never mentioned on the wine label. At that time, I couldn’t understand why an organic wine wouldn’t proudly state its credentials on the label. As I delved deeper I found that some organic producers found some wine drinkers perceived organics as a new-age fad, and worse, saw organic wines as over-priced and in some way dirty.
Some producers see no advantage in calling their wines organic because they just want to avoid harmful pesticides and herbicides, or wish to pass on their vineyards to their children in a healthy condition. Many still farm their land in the traditional ways handed down to them over many generations, using methods that pre-date farming with chemicals.
Others don’t relish the extra expense and paperwork needed to obtain official organic certification which allows the word “organic” to be used. Some highly rated winemakers are even opposed to certification because they do not want to be pigeon-holed by production methods.
Most of us have grown up with the brave new world of synthetic chemicals brought to us by science and agribusiness; those herbicides, pesticides, rodenticides, fungicides and fertilisers which promise so much and on which modern agriculture has become ever more dependent. Why work in harmony with the land without chemicals when using them can reduce pests and diseases, increase crop yields and profits and cut down on the sheer back-breaking toil involved?
Well this view has led to entire ecosystems being destroyed and it’s an environmental dead-end. Ever increasing chemical inputs are needed to control the pests that evolve resistance, the chemicals are indiscriminate in their toxicity, they kill beneficial insects as easily as the pests, they kill the birds and animals in the food chain, they get into the water supply, and they kill people. Ever seen a vineyard worker in full NBC protective suiting? That’s not an image we readily associate with wine.
There are clear and proven environmental benefits from being organic, which is why more and more vineyards are converting. Don’t get me wrong, there was never some “golden age” of agriculture and it is harder to succeed with organic methods in cooler and wetter regions which increase the risks of devastating diseases and pests. However these days the latest vine management techniques and education can augment natural methods in the vineyard and produce quality grapes even in difficult years.
Artificial pesticides and fertilisers are also left over in the wine as chemical residues. While these may only be present in miniscule amounts and safety standards are set, is it really possible to know what levels are safe? Isn’t it safer not to have them in the first place? Their presence is not even shown on the wine label as wine is legally considered a single item rather than what it really is – a huge batch of complex chemicals carried in alcohol.
The wording “contains sulphites” has recently appeared on labels. Most wines contain them because sulphur dioxide is an essential preservative used to stop wine turning to vinegar. There are laws governing the maximum amounts allowed in wine because sulphites can cause headaches and allergies. Asthmatics are particularly keen to avoid them. If you’ve ever had a headache after just a glass or two of white wine then over use of sulphites may be to blame. Poor wine makers use sulphites indiscriminately whereas organic wines on average use just one quarter of the maximum allowances.
Organic wines are generally defined in law as those that have been made from organic grapes. The laws cover the only fruit production, not the making of the wine; hence not all organic wines taste great! But then again neither do all conventional ones! However if you have spent extra effort in the vineyard why then spoil it in the winery? Modern winemaking techniques, equipment and knowledge complement organic grapes and very often there is then less to do in the winery. The phrase “great wine is made in the vineyard” has become a cliché. However, good, bad or indifferent wine can result from good grapes, but poor grapes will only ever make bad wine – garbage in, garbage out, as they say.
Of all the organic methods used, arguably the most extreme is biodynamics (or BD for short). There isn’t space to explain the details of BD here, but it is essentially a form of super-organics where homeopathic quantities of natural substances are used to enhance vineyard health. BD techniques are now employed by many of the world’s top wine producers as state-of-the-art viticulture. How BD works is still not fully understood and it has its detractors, but it is widely accepted that superlative wines frequently result from using BD methods. As BD has gained ground there are now BD wines available at most price points too.
There are many reasons to seek out organic or biodynamic wines. You might want purity. You might be bored with the big wine brands that all seem to taste the same and want to find more individuality, interest and sense of place. You might look for environmentally sound wines that maintain biodiversity. You might want to try wines on the cutting edge. These are all valid reasons to find and drink organic wines, but ultimately they have to taste great!
If you already eat organic meat, fruit and vegetables then trying organic wine isn’t a big step. According to the Soil Association, sales of organic food increased by 30% in the UK last year and are now worth £1.6 billion annually. Two out of three out of us knowingly buy organic food. Health scares like Bird Flu and Foot and Mouth, resistance to genetically modified crops and increasing awareness of the dangers of junk food all help drive this.
Who sells organic wines in the UK and which ones are worth buying? Well, organic wines come from all over the world, from every wine-producing region and in just about every style imaginable. These days they are no more expensive than their “conventionally” made counterparts and can be found at most price levels.
Organic wines are stocked in many supermarkets, but the ranges are rather limited. You’ll also need to rely on the label and there’s no-one to help you choose. It’s a bit of a lottery. For the hundreds of interesting flavoursome organic wines that are only made in small quantities or that don’t flaunt their credentials you need to look elsewhere.
The best way to start your search is to seek out an independent wine merchant with whom you can develop trust and a rapport. Ask them which organic (and biodynamic) wines they recommend, and why. They’ll know which of their wines are organic because they often source wines directly from the producers. As their business will stand or fall according to their recommendations, put them to the challenge! While you’re buying and trying organic wines look out for organic beers, cider and spirits too.
We wine drinkers have terrific buying power and have the ability to influence how wine is made; it’s up to us to choose. Choose wisely.
by Paul Howard
on Mar 18, 2008
This wine comes from the Entre-Douro Minho region of northern Portugal, where the Vinho Verde country borders the river Douro. Owner Nino Araújo bought Quinta de Covela 15 yrs ago from the previous owners – Port House Ramos Pinto. There’s a long history of viticulture here, 19 ha of vines plus orchards and cork oaks growing on granite-based soils. The vineyard is arranged as a terraced amphitheatre and is said to have its own microclimate – a beautiful spot.
Araújo started by adopting “reasonable agriculture”, involving the minimal use of artificial sprays. However, very quickly he moved to fully organic methods. Now the estate has been in biodynamic conversion since 2006 and is working towards full Demeter Certification, a rarity in Portugal.
It has just been announced that Quinta de Covela is also the first Portuguese wine estate to be accepted into the prestigious ‘Renaissance des Appellations’ group, run by biodynamic-guru Nicolas Joly. So yes, technically this 2005 wine is not Biodynamic, rather organic. But future vintages will be BD.
All these fine credentials help produce a range of excellent Branco (white) Tinto (red) and Rosado (rosé) wines. Quinta de Covela are certainly an estate to watch, very much at the forefront of the New Portugal.
Escolha (meaning “choice”) is also my pick of the range. It’s a white blend made from the local Avesso grape combined with Chardonnay and a splash of Gewürztraminer. The percentages aren’t given and the Gewürztraminer is strangely listed as “others” on the back label. Regardless, this is a terrific white wine made from local and international varieties. Avesso is one of the staple grapes of the local Vinho Verde and presumably brings a backbone of zesty acidity, the Chardonnay fills it out with flesh and body and the Gewürztraminer adds some subtle aromas into the mix.
The grapes are all hand-picked and the wine is fermented and matured in stainless steel and sees no oak at all. (Interestingly, this is signified by the use of a silver bottle capsule). The wine is also has a low sulphur content too – a conscious quality policy and clever winemaking.
A pale lemon colour with floral citrus aromas and just a hint of Gewürztraminer roses, this wine really comes into its own on the palate. It’s full textured and mouth coating but the zippy high acidity keeps it fresh. The fruit intensity is remarkable; full limey fruit laced with apple and pear, there’s also a slight vegetal note that appears as it warms, adding some complexity. Dry, taut and well-balanced, there’s a good medium length and just a hint of spice on the finish.
You could drink this happily enough as an aperitif, but it really shines with food. Seafood will work but fish is a better choice given the body of the wine. A white fillet of Bara (a sustainably farmed Vietnamese fish) simply pan-fried with a little butter and olive oil and dressed with lime juice is a perfect foil for Escolha.
Refreshing, individual and a hint of summer to come, drink this wine now and over next two years while the fruit is at its most vibrant.
Portugal is known primarily for Port and secondly for some stunning reds, with the whites frequently trailing in a very distant third. So it’s particularly exciting to find a Portuguese branco worth shouting about!
In the UK: Waitrose, £9.95
In the US: Vinopolis, Portland, Oregon for $9.99