Your Guide to Organic, Biodynamic and Natural Wine

Milos Winery summer

While standing on slopes of vineyards carved out of a mountainside, you wonder how Miloš Winery produces any wine at all — let alone some of the best organic wines in Croatia. Terraces march up the face of the mountain, leveling off just enough to allow a jeep to bounce its way halfway up. From this height, you admire an amphitheater of Plavac Mali grapes swaying in the ocean breezes. It is bone dry here in the summer, but the grapes draw moisture from the limestone-rich soil, which is adept at holding humidity. Below you, the lone road traversing the Pelješac Peninsula wends out of sight around a bend and sparkling blue seas extend in every direction.

The Plavac Mali grape is revered in this part of the world, the long lost relative or perhaps even forefather, of the much more famous Zinfandel. No matter the exact origins, the grape stands on its own — though too often a tannic bomb best cellared for years, if not decades. The sun is relentless here, making for big wines that can easily spin out of control. Only the cool ocean breezes can rein in this monster — or a storied winemakers like Frano Milos, whose family has lived in these parts for nearly 500 years.

Miloš wines have been made for generations, though only after the fall of Communism did they have the ability to be sold under the family name. Indeed, Frano’s was the first Croatian winery to launch as a private business in those early days of the new republic. From the start, he eschewed modern techniques for tradition and he continues to work in what can only be described as “the old ways.” Certified organic, the wines are made with minimal intervention, including no added yeast and only a small amount of sulfur added just before fermentation. The wines also age much longer than is the norm. As Frano’s son Ivan told us during our tasting, the goal of his father’s winemaking is to “achieve elegance.”

Milos winery

You can taste both the entry level Plavac and the Stagnum range, made with Plavac Mali grapes from vines over thirty years old. We started with a 2013 Stagnum Rose which was intense, with a good balance of acidity and minerality. The 2010 Plavac, billed as an entry wine, but far more than that, was the opposite of tannin bombs you find elsewhere. The alcohol level sat at a reasonable 13.6% and the resulting wine was softer and more enjoyable than other Plavacs we tried in the region. The 2006 Stagnum, a current release no less, was herbaceous and savory with a hint of spice followed by dry finish. 2003 Stagnum, by turns, was intense with good tannins and showed the potential for greatness, but would benefit from at least another five years of aging. Incredibly, this wine was aged for 3 ½ years in barrel and another 6 ½ years in bottle before being released. We finished with two very good sweet wines, a 2007 Stagnum Semi-Sweet and the 2007 Stagnum Dessert Wine. The former was more fruit forward than sweet, while the latter had a balanced sweetness, raisin-y with great structure.

If you should find your way to the paradise that is the Croatian Coast, do drop in on the family and taste some wines. Admire the stunning photos Frano takes, which adorn the old winery’s walls. And before you leave, pick up some tea full of Mediterranean herbs like sage, germander, rosemary, heather, bindweed and St. John’s Wort that grow on the surrounding lands.

Miloš Winery

Boljenovići 15, Ston, Croatia

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London Raw

The annual RAW natural wine fair, held in London’s East End each May, is quickly turning into a force of nature. This year, over 4,000 people attended the two day tasting event, showing that interest in organic, biodynamic and natural wines continues to build among mainstream wine aficionados.

To show at RAW, winemakers must meet several criteria: being certified organic or biodynamic, hand harvesting their grapes, not adding yeast except in secondary fermentation for sparkling wines, avoiding any heavy manipulation and keeping added sulfur levels below 70 mg/L. Plenty of highly regarded names were represented — Movia, Radikon, Champagne Larmandier-Bernier, Frank Cornelissen, Coturri, Eric Texier and Cascina degli Ulivi, along with a bevy of producers, mainly from Europe.

Sasha Radikon pouring

While I did retaste many favorites such as Lunar from Movia and some great 2008 Radikons (Ribolla, Oslavje and Jakot), a few regions and wineries did stand out. Several wineries showed well from Emilia Romagna, including Podere Pradarolo, Cinque Campe and Casé, putting the spotlight on this lesser known region as one to watch. An innovative winery from Slovakia, Strekov 1075, specializes in skin contact — its standout was Nigori, a cloudy Welschriesling named for a style of sake. Equally surprising was the first Polish wine I’d ever tried — my wife is Polish so we’ve long been on the hunt for Polish wine — from Dom Bliskowice, a young winery from Wisla in southern Poland. Their collection of 2012 and 2013 Rieslings showed some potential and we’ll keep our eyes on them.

Famed producer Emidio Pepe, from Abruzzo, presented six wines ranging from 2012 all the way back to 1983. Known for their reds, the 2012 Pecorino Colli Aprutini IGT started off the tasting and showed very well. Then it was on to the reds, with the star, of course, being the 1983 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, a full-bodied wine, a bit bloody with olive notes, mature but still showing great vibrancy. Truly stunning.


Another winery, little known outside its region and not yet distributed in the US, Laurent Bannwarth from Alsace impressed as well. Highlights included a very good 2013 Riesling Coeu de Bild, a minerally 2013 Gewurtztraminer and a rich 2009 Pinot Gris “Patience.” Each wine showed deep dedication to tradition and none had added sulfites. US distributors should jump on this winery.

In London, RAW is held at the Old Truman Brewery in the East End, which allowed for a large open tasting room and fairly good traffic flow. While there were a few challenges with the space. It gets extremely warm, bathrooms are in short supply, and spit buckets are not on the tables — awkward cardboard receptacles in the middle of the aisle encouraging more drinking than tasting. Overall the venue handled the crowds well.

Emidio Pepe

While I did hear a few people approach tables asking for orange wines as if they were trinkets to be collected, the crowd struck me as extremely engaged and that bodes well for the continuing growth of natural wines worldwide. On to Germany for the first RAW Berlin on November 29.
More info on RAW events can be found at

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Cascina degli Ulivi

Cascina degli Ulivi vineyards-3-500px

Some organic winemakers evolved as the movement gained recognition, while others come from families that never used pesticides for financial or philosophical reasons. But few have had the experience Stefano Bellotti of Cascina degli Ulivi recounts. It was the early Eighties and Stefano had gone from organic to biodynamic, but this was decidedly out of fashion with the winemaking set, then enthralled with all the new technologies being introduced. He was producing 50,000 bottle at the time when the floor fell out beneath him. Some negative press, including poor reviews in Gambero Rosso, had vaporized his customer base. Nearly a decade’s worth of effort building his name wiped out with a swipe of the pen.

Stefano works land that has been in his family since 1936, when his grandfather bought the farm. His grandfather may have had no idea about organic practices, but worked the land for years in this fashion, including planting the first vines. By the time Stefano was 18, only an acre of vineyards remained and the steadfast lad decided to revitalize the holdings. The year was 1977 and it never occurred to him to use pesticides. An encounter with Luigi Brezza led him to convert to biodynamic practices, and the market responded positively — until that bout of bad press brought him to his knees.

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Luckily for wine drinkers, Stefano persisted and rebuilt his reputation, with an assist from the German market. Today he sells over 110,000 bottles all over the world and is widely respected as one of the top biodynamic winemakers on the planet. He resurrected the farm side of the property as well, to balance out the crops and also supply an agriturismo and restaurant he opened in 1998. His holdings today amount to 22 hectares of vineyards, 10 hectares of crops that include ancient varieties of grains and cereals, 1 hectare of vegetables and 1,000 fruit trees along with cows and chickens. He even planted almond trees to help combat phylloxera.

Located near Alessandria in eastern Piedmont, the pastoral agriturismo is set amidst vineyards, rolling fields and wandering farm animals. A rustic building offers 4 duplex rooms and a restaurant mainly supplied by the farm — over 80% of the goods are grown and raised on the grounds. You will find homemade yogurt, jams and delicious rustic bread among other treats. And don’t miss the house-cured 3-year-old prosciutto.

During dinner one night, we tasted 10 wines alongside a degustation menu (antipasti, pasta, secondo and dessert) costing €28. Wines by the glass are a reasonable €4 – €6 and the full range is available to taste, thankfully with your room a mere steps away.

Cascina degli Ulivi ext-500px

A 2007 Filagnotti Cortese from Gavi grapes was a rich, fruit-forward wine that showed very well with some age. The 2009 Montemarino is Cortese aged in acacia barrels, a complex wine that needed the extra years to integrate its flavors, while a 2009 A Demua, a blend of Riesling, Timorasso, Moscatello, Verdea and a few others, sees 2 years of skin and 2 years in bottle, making for a deliciously funky oxidized style wine. We tried two Nibios side by side, a 2006 Terre Bianche and a 2007 Terre Rosse. The ’06, grown on limestone from vines aged 10-40 years was more elegant and showed great balance. The ’07, grown on red clay, was earthy, more full-bodied and quite intense. By contrast, a 2006 Mounbé (85% Barbera with Dolcetto and Ancellotto) with evident tannins still had years to go. We finished with a floral 2008 Passito, made from the moscat grape, which sees 1 week of skin contact and 10 months of fermentation. The resulting wine is all about balance, not too sweet with notes of honey.

I have met few winemakers as passionate as Bellotti in their respect for the rhythms of nature and their stewardship of the land. He never set out to be an evangelist but even through the lean years, he persisted in executing his vision. The proof is evident in everything he does and these wines, not of all which are imported into the U.S., are worth searching out.


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Daniele Ricci — Piedmont

Ricci in field lo

The pile of grape skins sitting in the middle of a field provides the first clue that Daniele Ricci is no ordinary winemaker. When asked about it, he remarked “what comes from the ground, returns to the ground.” The skins are fertilizer for next year’s vines and we have on display, in vivid detail, full-circle, ultra-natural winemaking.

Carlo Daniele Ricci is a third generation winemaker, making wines under the label Azienda Agricola Ricci in the town of Costa Vescovato, a little-tread corner of southeast Piedmont. Not even an hour from Milan, the province of Alessandria is easily bypassed by the wine consuming hoards in search of Barolo and Barbaresco to the west. This is timorasso country. “Huh?” you ask. “Timo-who?” It turns out that the signature white grape of the region is one that nearly vanished into the dustbin of history, until being revived by another area winemaker, Walter Massa, in the past two decades. The grape is an aromatic white varietal with good acidity that ages well, yet somehow proved easily forgotten. Ricci, along with Massa and a handful of others, are working to build a new audience for timorasso, though few can rival Ricci’s natural, long skin-contact wines.

Ricci grape skins in field lo

We met Ricci in his winery, just off the town’s main square, and it’s readily apparent he eschews technology in the winemaking process. His wines are unfiltered with long maceration times of up to 90 days. He uses a pneumatic press and does not believe in batonage. He climbed up on a ladder to show us wine fermenting in wood, pushing down on the slats to reveal grape skins and gurgling liquid fully alive. Some of these wines will age for years in bottle — one current release, the 2004 San Leto, is ten years old. About the only thing Ricci will do is add minimal sulfur, about 60 mg/hectoliter.

Ricci Vats

Ricci is equally non-interventionist in the fields, where his philosophy is to follow the rhythm of nature. “Quality of life has no price,” he says, showing us the healthy vines now hibernating for the winter. In the spring and summer, herbs and greens grow beneath the vines, imparting herbaceous notes in the grapes. Ricci considers himself a farmer first, and even grows an ancient variety of wheat low in gluten.

Down in the valley where he has a two room agriturismo, for friends and family, we settle into chairs to taste wines alongside a three year old prosciutto. First is a 100% timorasso, the 2009 Il Giallo di Costa. With 90 days of skin contact, the wine proves very intense with a long finish, and is definitely built for aging. In comparison, the delicious 2007 Il Giallo di Costa, which has some sherry-like characteristics, is a blend of cortese, favorita and timorasso. By contrast, Terre di Timorasso, aged twelve months in stainless on the lees, showcases the brightness and acidity of the grape with a more approachable style and medium body that would be versatile to work with a range of foods, from seafood to chicken.

Ricci vineyard lo

The 2004 San Leto Riserva, named for the vineyard where the grapes are grown, is killer. 100% timorasso, the wine sees 2-3 days of skin maceration before aging for 18 months in 500-liter oak and acacia barrels and an additional 12 months in bottle. The ’04 is rich and oxidized with a racy perfuminess. Alas, this riserva San Leto, identified by its blue label, is not made every year. The next release will be a 2006, possibly followed by a 2010.

Ricci San Leto lo

Far off the beaten path, Ricci has succeeded in creating a sustainable model for winemaking that leaves him, perhaps, less famous but instead a true steward of the earth. If you make it to his corner of the world, there’s even a place to stay.

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Luca Roagna

Luca Roagna

Barbaresco occupies an outsized reputation in the wine world, relative to its modest size. The town occupies a narrow outcropping, surrounded by vine-covered hills undulating off into the distance. Only one main road gives access to the town center, leading directly to a thousand-year-old tower standing guard over the vineyards. Beside it stands a medieval church, while nearby a fine trattoria called Antica Torre dishes out Piemontese specialties like the delicious egg yolk pasta tamarin.

The Rocca Family

The Rocca Family

Organic wine is taken seriously in Barbaresco. Producers following organic practices include Punset, Cascina delle Rose, Moccagatta, Bruno Rocca and Roagna. The two Barbaresco producers we visited on a recent trip, Bruno Rocca and Roagna, exemplified the two ends of the winemaking spectrum, modern vs classic, and provided the perfect overview of the region’s winemaking.

Bruno Rocca’s holdings include 15 hectares, mostly in and around Barbaresco as well as land in Neive and Treiso. Bruno’s parents moved the family out of the town to Rabajá in the late 1950s and purchased their first vineyard. Prior to 1978, they sold grapes rather than produce their own wines, but Bruno was determined to create his own label. Today, they are practicing organic and produce ten different wines, from Chardonnay to Barbera d’Asti to Barbaresco DOCG. To match the growth of the company, the cellar has expanded over the years and reflects their modern approach to winemaking.

Unfortunately the limited production chardonnay was sold out long before we arrived for a tasting, so we started with a 2011 Barbera d’Asti from vines replanted in 2000, a lean wine with a good acidity. The 2011 Barbera d’Alba was a big wine, richer with more fruit and rounder than the Asti. A 2010 Barbaresco, described as entry level and approachable, displayed a warm earthiness, though the tannins overwhelmed at this stage. The 2009 Barbaresco Coppa Rossa married grapes from their Neive and Treiso vineyards, which give structure and elegance to a wine that can age for years to come.

Afterwards, we took a quick tour through the spiffy five-year-old winery, which is now outfitted with solar panels providing more than 90% of its energy needs. We descended through three levels, ending up in a large expanse populated with barrels aging Barbaresco. The facility is impressive, as are the strides the Rocca family has made as it moves into the second generation of winemaking.

Roagna Vineyards

Roagna Vineyards

Upon greeting us, Luca Roagna says “you can only understand the wines if you see the vineyards,” so we pile into his car for a quick ride up and over the hill. Roagna has four sites with varying terroir, from limestone and clay to blue marl to sand and we quickly see his dedication to organic winemaking. All the vines are old and native to the area. He believes in biodiversity and a quick comparison of his vines, blanketed in uncut grass, to neighboring rows laid out in bare earth shows, in stark relief, the value of organic practices. Everything Roagna does is as natural as possible, including adding very little sulfur and only utilizing natural yeasts.

Back in his cellar, we experience the opposite of the Rocca estate. While Rocca maintains a pristine facility, Roagna’s cellar reflects the old school winemaking he is known for. We started with a 2008 Barolo Pira from old vines planted in 1937 that displayed good acidity. A tannic, masculine 2008 Pajé revealed delicious dried dark fruit over time, while a 2004 Pajé was vibrant and tasted younger than its ten years. A 2008 Asili was very approachable while an elegant 2008 Montefico was more fruit forward and exuberant. After spending twelve years in barrel, the recently released 1998 Riserva Pajé is already drinking extremely well.

The Rocca Estate

The Rocca Estate

With each wine, Luca aims to achieve a pure expression of nebbiolo. His respect for tradition remains evident in both the vineyards and what’s in the bottle, underscoring Roagna’s well-deserved reputation for excellence.

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Domaine de Montcy

Domaine Montcy Vineyard

Laura Semeria loves a challenge. The Italian native was a sommelier and food producer, but on a trip to Loire Valley she fell in love with the nearly-forgotten grape Romorantin. Coming across a young, but floundering estate, she was determined to buy it and set out to do big things.

Laura took over Domaine de Montcy in 2007 and began converting it to organic practices in 2008. In 2010, she started the process of becoming biodynamic. No doubt, her neighbors were taken aback at the Italian showing up with her newfangled ways, but she made it work. Today, her winery is thriving, she’s built a two-room guest cabin in the middle of her fields and she even encourages lingering among the vines, with signage spotlighting the different grapes.

Montcy Guest Cabin

Guest cabin at Domaine Montcy

The domaine makes 12 different wines including several expressions of Laura’s beloved Romorantin, which she ages 18 months on lees, and is her only grape not used in a blend. We started with a fresh, vibrant 2011 Cheverny Tradition that is 80% Sauvignon Blanc, 20% Chardonnay, then moved on to 2011 Clos de Sondres, a 50/50 Sauvignon/Chardonnay blend that exhibited more body and power.

Next were two expressions of Romorantin – a 2009 Cour Cheverny, more acid driven and a bigger vintage than usual, and 2010 Plénitude, which was sharp with prominent acidity. Moving on to the reds, we tried a nicely structured 2010 Cheverny Rouge Louis de la Saussaye (60% Pinot Noir, 25% Cot/Malbec, 15% Gamay) and a vibrant Cot (Malbec) & Pinot Noir blend. To finish, the 2009 Cour-Cheverny Claude de France (100% Romorantin) was lightly sweet (39 grams/rs) with plenty of acid to back it up.

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Domaine FL

Domaine FL

In Rochefort-sur-Loire, Domaine FL has big plans for the future. A brand new winery building had largely been completed when we arrived last year, but a B&B and restaurant on the upper floors was yet to come. For our visit, we took in a gorgeous view of rolling hills while standing around a table trying the wines in the not-yet-completed top floor.

Founded in 2007 and organic since 2009, Domaine FL is named for owner Philip Fournier’s parents’ names: Fournier and Longchamps. Unusually for the area, the winery’s holdings are spread on both sides of the river, including some in the prized Roche Aux Moines sub-appellation. Wines produced by FL fall are classified as either Savennières or Anjou.

Domaine FL Vineyards

We started with Anjou Blanc, from the hills around the winery. In France, the wine is called “Les Bergeres,” but in the U.S. it is labeled “Le Chenin” -apparently an easier sell. The 2010 was refreshing with pronounced apple and drank easily. A good introductory wine not meant for aging. More intriguing was the 2008 Chamboureau made from Savennières grapes grown on schist. It aged for 18 months in barrels and vats, garnering an intriguing truffle nose in the process. This is a rich, complex wine ready to drink now by contrast the 2009 was fuller bodied but less intriguing. Just as interesting was the 2008 Roche Aux Moines from across the river. The volcanic rock imparted strong minerality to this racy wine. The Anjou Red "Le Cochet” is 100% Cab Franc with pronounced tannins when we tried it.

In good vintages, the domaine also makes sweet wines. We especially liked the 2009 Coteaux du Layon ”Les 4 Villages” – a medium sweet wine (80 grams/rs) balanced by nice acidity, perfect for foie gras or blue cheese.

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Damien Laureau – Loire

Damien Laureau

Damien Laureau

Damien Laureau has been making wine since 1999 but he only started his own domaine in 2007, picking up parcels as they came up for sale. Now his is the newest winery in Savennières and adheres to organic principles. Since he owns eight different plots, he vinifies his Chenin separately then blends the wines together for two of his labels – Les Genets and Le Bel Ouvrage. Laureau also has a quarter of a hectare in the prized Roche Aux Moines sub-appellation, allowing him to bottle with that designation (the 2011 we tasted is his biggest, most powerful wine).

Damien Laureau Vineyard

We compared four vintages of the Les Genets, starting with the 2011, a vintage with good fruit and high acidity. 2010 amped up the acid and added a nice mineral background but was less approachable than the younger wine. 2005 reminded of a rich Savagnin, with half the wine having undergone malolactic fermentation.

We moved on to two vintages of Le Bel Ouvrage, which were more full-bodied. The 2011 was young, yet drinking well. Again the 2010 was not as immediately approachable – as it opened up, it drank well with the hallmarks of being better with a few years. To see where the wines could go, we finished with a 2003 – from that notoriously hot year – finding a very rich, powerful, ultimately delicious wine.

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