Your Guide to Organic, Biodynamic and Natural Wine



Cascina degli Ulivi

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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.

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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.

Website: www.cascinadegliulivi.it/eng/index.php


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Daniele Ricci — Piedmont

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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.

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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.

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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.

www.domaine-de-montcy.com


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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.

www.domainefl.com


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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.

www.damien-laureau.fr


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Domaine Mosse

You’ll rarely come across more of a character than René Mosse. The day we visited, he was perched at a little bar in a Yankees cap ready to pour us wines. I asked him if the cap was for us, since we were from New York, and he regaled us with his last visit to Yankee Stadium. His wife, Agnès, popped in from tending the garden and saw we were in good hands so she left us to René.

Agnes and Rene Mosse

Agnes and Rene Mosse

René, who used to sell wine in Touraine, decided to start his own winery with Agnès in 1999. Since then, their holdings have grown from 9 hectares to about 18 – all farmed biodynamically. We started with two enjoyable entry level wines – 2011 Le Rouchefer, a well-balanced wine with lovely structure and acidity, and the 2011 Arena Savennieres, from young vines in sandy soil, which displayed more acidity and just a hint of minerality.

We stepped up to a more racy acidity with the 2011 Les Bonnes Blondes, from 40-year old vines. The 2011 Initials BB, an ode to an infamous Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot duet, showcased their oldest vines, averaging 60 years, in rich, elegant fashion. This complex wine with an exceptionally long finish really demonstrates how great Chenin Blanc can be. The wines are delicious and show that je ne sais quoi imprint from Agnès and René.


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Domaine Roche Aux Moines

Domaine Roche Aux Moines

Next door to the estate of Nicholas and Virginie Joly, on a hilltop in Savennières overlooking the Loire, sits an ancient cluster of buildings behind a stone wall. This is Domaine Roche Aux Moines, founded in 1981 and named for the area’s highly regarded sub-appellation. The winery is run by second-generation winemaker, Tessa Laroche. A vivacious woman, she is pushing the domaine to new directions, and acheived 100% organic status in 2012. All her wines are unfiltered, harvested by hand and built for aging.

Tessa led us on a tasting of Domaine Aux Moines, their label of 100% Chenin, starting with the 2011. The wine shows promise, thanks to a mineral backbone, and is already drinking well. The soil here is schist and clay, imparting a flintiness to the wines and making them ideal for aging. How ideal? We soon found out.

Monique et Tessa Laroche

Monique et Tessa Laroche

We travel back in time to the 1999 vintage, for a very different wine. Honey notes are predominant in this full bodied wine. 1998 reveals a more austere version and 1994 brings more acid and staggering complexity. All these wines are from the same plot, yet are vastly different. The 1992 brings it all into harmony – acid balanced with minerality and ripeness. This is our favorite.

We also tried a 2010 Les Moines, the first vintage of this wine, unfiltered with no sulfur and aged 24 months in new and old barrels. The wood was a bit too prominent, but the aging potential was evident. Clearly, the domaine is in good hands with the next generation.

Website: www.domaine-aux-moines.com


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