Your Guide to Organic, Biodynamic and Natural Wine

Fred Niger Van Herck

Fred Niger Van Herck

When Guy Bossard was looking for someone to take over his winery, he could hardly have found a more unlikely partner than Fred Niger Van Herck, a lawyer who once owned a web hosting company. The organic tradition runs deep at ECU, spanning almost 40 years, but Bossard’s new partner was determined to push the boundaries – a trip through the winery reveals some surprises.

Anforas at Domaine de la ECU

Anforas at Domaine de la ECU

For starters, Fred says he makes reds “just for him,” and we are surprised to find 2012 Cabernet Franc in anfora in the middle of Muscadet. Having taken over as winemaker in 2009, Fred is just now starting to play with things like anforas. At this stage the cab franc displays more minerality than fruit, but Fred is hopeful about the wine’s future. Next, we tried a barrel sample of 2012 Ange, a Pinot Noir that already has a surprising depth of flavor.

Domaine de la ECU Vineyards

Domaine de la ECU Vineyards

Back in his tasting room, we dive into the whites (all 100% Melon), starting with a 2011 Vintage Classique, which proves young and chalky with a mineral backbone An easy drinking wine. Interestingly, ECU names wines after the terroir, which makes sense when we jump to a 2011 Gneiss that immediately amps up the minerality. The 2011 Granite is bigger, yet pair this one with Epoisses – it can take it. 2011 Orthogneiss is a rounder and fuller expression of Melon. 2011 Taurus brings together grapes grown on granite and orthogneiss (50/50) for a rich, Burgundy-style wine. Aged in old barrels for six months, this unfiltered bottle should sit in the cellar for several years.

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No. 9 Park

Winning James Beard awards for Outstanding Service and Outstanding Wine Program is impressive – winning them without an appointed sommelier is downright spectacular. How did Boston’s No. 9 Park restaurant accomplish this? Wine Director Cat Silirie attributes it to her professional credo: “Ten sommeliers are better than one.”

Silirie, Executive Wine Director and Wine Buyer for the Barbara Lynch Gruppo, leads two other directors, the self-proclaimed “Team Wine Super Heroes,” for No. 9 Park, as well as sister restaurants Menton, and The Butcher Shop. Weekly wine classes are held at each place with the goal of “making wine more approachable not only for ourselves but for our guests too.”

“It’s not this cult of personality of just one person who knows the entire wine list,“ says Kate Gilarde, who started as an intern 10 years ago and now helps shape the wine program. ”We have a team of people and they all love wine. Your decisions as a guest are based on what they can do to help you.”

The diverse wine list at No. 9 Park reflects the interests of the entire team. The cuisine inspires traditional French and Italian selections, but also represents other parts of Europe and the United States. “We have this fascination with Sherry, which is really spurred on by my colleague Melodie Reynolds,” says Gilarde, while tends to lean towards Burgundy. “It’s natural to have food that echoes something from the old world, and then to have wine that beautifully underscores it.”

The preference for traditional styles of production often leads to wineries that practice organic farming. “You can tell when a wine is made with care,“ says Gilarde. ”We’re trying not to over manipulate the wine with our own personality, and certainly organics and small production are a function of helping that shine through.”

While Gilarde says she does not consciously seek out organic wines, the majority of her wine list is organic. "More often than not, we’re trying a wine then say, ‘Oh, of course, it’s organic.’ Wow. Organic is more than just a label or category. It’s part of a bigger, richer story that inspires our appreciation for the quality.”

Gilarde, however, avoids marking the organic wines on the menu. "I seek quality first, and I believe when you start putting labels on a wine list, you’re automatically casting a shadow on others. We stand by all of the wines on our list for representing themselves well, whether they’re organic or biodynamic or not.”

Ultimately the hope is that the wine list at No. 9 Park contributes to the conversation about wine. Says Gilarde, “I think it’s such a wonderful way to learn, and that way we get to talk about wine together, we drink wine together. It’s a way to enjoy connecting with each other.”

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Fattorie Cerreto Libri Canestrino Bianco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Winemaker Olivier Cousin

Winemaker Olivier Cousin

The trial of winemaker Olivier Cousin finally has a verdict – he must pay 1 Euro for using the word “Anjou” on his wine. More to follow, but for more information (in French) see this story.

And if you want to help Olivier with his legal costs – buy a t-shirt.

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Hatzidakis Winery - Santorini, Greece

Hatzidakis Winery – Santorini, Greece

In the varied world of winemaking there are gorgeous French châteaux and sprawling Napa estates – and then there is Hatzidakis, a small Santorini winery consisting of a simple trailer and sparse vegetation. Other than a picturesque view of Pyrgos Kallistis in the background, a visitor might start to wonder where they made the wrong turn.

Fortunately, there is more below the surface – literally. The majority of the winery is underground in a cave. And not only is Hatzidakis making some of the best wines in Santorini, they are also organic.

The underground winery at Hatzidakis.

The underground winery.

After heading through a wooden door next to the trailer, steep stairs lead down to the winemaking cave and the subterranean tasting room – one of the more adventurous paths to taste wines in the age of accessibility. There are now plans underway for a new winery and tasting room.

Kostas Stamou - Agronomist

Kostas Stamou – Agronomist

We tasted wines with Kostas Stamou, Agronomist for Hatzidakis. The winery, like most in Santorini, favors using indigenous grapes. Assyrtiko makes up the majority of their output, but they also have a 100% Aidani, a 100% Mavrotragano (one of the two main red grapes on the island) and two dessert wines – the standard Vinsanto and a Voudomato.

Haridimos Hatzidakis

Haridimos Hatzidakis

Haridimos Hatzidakis founded the winery in 1996 and has been committed to organic winemaking from the very beginning. He started with this original property, replanting the abandoned vineyard with Aidani, and now farms 10 hectares of vineyards around Santorini.

Hatzidakis Vineyards

Hatzidakis Vineyards

Low yields in a vineyard lead to quality grapes, but the amount of space between plantings at Hatzidakis is at the extreme. There isn’t a lot of water to go around and this is what the soil can support without intervention.

Santorini Vines

Santorini Vines

In Santorini, vines are grown in a circular basket pattern (“koulara”) that protect the grapes from the strong wind and heat.

Pyrgos Kallistis

The view of Pyrgos Kallistis.

To learn more about Hatzidakis, visit them online at

All photos by Adam Morganstern.

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Organic wines would be much more widespread in Italy if legislation and organizing entities were more unified, producers say. In my talks with wine producer over the years, certain themes keep popping up: the expense of certification and the length of the time needed to be certified, but the confusing number of certifying entities is perhaps the most prominent reason winemakers choose to forgo the process. Each one has different standards, and it is not always clear where those practices fit in with EU and US regulations.

At this year’s Vinitaly wine fair in Verona, there were two different areas for wines that are organically certified, sustainably farmed or biodynamic – a good sign of the confusion within the Italian wine community. One of them, FederBio, is an organizing entity while the other, Vivit, hosted a plethora of wineries using diverse certifications. Vivit has been part of the Vinitaly fair for three years and was by far the more crowded pavilion this year.

FederBio itself is made up of a large number of certifiers – Bios, Ccpb EcoGruppo, Icea, Qcertificazini, Sidel, and Suolo and Salute, among others. The group claims land used for organic vineyards, and those in the process of converting, increased 15.8% in 2013. The number of wineries participating also increased 16.5%. Clearly there is a desire to produce more organic wines. Italy is already the third largest producer of organically grown grapes in Europe after Spain and France.

There was also a third area at the fair dedicated to more “natural practices,” called Free Wine, made up of wineries that were reducing the amount of sulfites added to their wines.

For many years there have also been two well-known wine fairs that coincide with Vinitaly – Vin Natur and Vini Veri. It was only three years ago that Vinitaly decide to host an area dedicated to more natural wine practices. Vin Natur showcases Italian and foreign natural wines. Vini Veri defines itself not as either organic or biodynamic, but have strict rules about chemical use, mandate using indigenous grape varietals and insist on hand harvesting.

Italian wineries would benefit from more clear guidelines on how to become organic – the demand is already there. Italy is already the second largest exporter of organic wines into the Unites States, and as Americans continue to look for organically produced wines, Italy’s organic winemaking has incentive to thrive and grow.

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

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

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

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

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Trentino’s Ferrari Winery has just purchased a 50% stake of Bisol, the prosecco superiore producer from the Veneto. According to Ferrari’s Alessandro Lunelli, “What we are trying to do is showcase the variety in Italian sparkling wine. Some people may have seen us as competitors but we see Prosecco DOCG and Trento DOC classico as completely different wines. One is made using the traditional method while the other uses the Charmat method. Not much will change at Bisol, we are just giving them access to our distribution system and our high levels of technology,” he added.

Gianluca and Desiderio Bisol will continue their work with the company in their current positions, continuing the family tradition that is now in its twenty-first generation.

“’This investment in Bisol is consistent with our plan to create a group made up of Italian drinking excellence,“ says Matteo Lunelli, CEO of the Lunelli Group. ”We’ve deliberated whether to enter the world of prosecco for a long time and we’ve found the ideal company in Bisol: a historic and prestigious brand with huge potential for growth, managed by a family we greatly esteem. Back in 1952 our grandfather, Bruno Lunelli, started to work alongside Giulio Ferrari and would continue to do so for years. And, as advocates of continuity, today we’ll do the same and work enthusiastically alongside the Bisol family.”

In addition to this new family venture, Alessandro has a strategy for sustainability. “We have been in the process of converting to organic winemaking for the past year. We are currently hand harvesting, using low yields, mechanically pruning and using green manure on 120 hectares of our property.” They are involved in a project with 500 families that farm the land that is called “sustainable mountain agriculture.”

The Lunelli group is composed of Ferrari sparkling white wine, but also includes the Lunelli wines, a true expression of the Trentino region, Segnana Grappa, a historical brand of Italian distillates, the Umbrian wines of Tenuta Castelbuono, the Tuscan wines of Tenuta Podernovo and Surgiva water – one of the lightest waters in the world.

The grapes at Castelbuono in Umbria are certified organic and starting in 2014, the wines will be as well. The wines made at Tenuta Podernovo are also certified organic and are part of the Colli Pisani denomination.

Ferrari was founded in 1902 by Giulio Ferrari and their name is synonymous with sparkling wine in Italy. Made in the Metodo Classico style from chardonnay, Ferrari was among the first wineries to bring sparking wine into every Italian household. Giulio had studied at the School of Viticulture in Montpellier and dreamt of making an Italian equivalent to Champagne. They produce some 4.5 million bottles a year.

Giulio Ferrari didn’t have any children and chose a friend and local merchant Bruno Lunelli as successor for his winery, who took over in 1952. The company was run by Bruno’s three sons, Gino, Mauro and Franco, starting from 1969 until 2005, and then Bruno’s grandchildren, Marcello, Matteo and Camilla took the reins of the firm. They have a team of eight winemakers, led by Marcello Lunelli, and four agronomists.

Ferrari is also active in arenas related to the Italian lifestyle. This year they have instituted their own Ferrari Award – given to a newspaper or magazine, published outside of Italy, which calls attention to the ‘Italian Art of Living’ in an original fashion. The prize consists of 1,000 bottles of Ferrari Brut for each of the three awards they hand out.

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