I don’t typically seek out organic wineries. But often when I find wines that I like, I discover they came from an organic or biodynamic vineyard. Growers who farm “naturally” not only care about the environment, but they feel it makes a better wine.
So my process is this: I find wines that I like. I look for wines with balance, length, complexity and character, all of which is hard to find in just one wine. I also look for wines that are unique, that don’t taste like every other wine out there.
For a wine to be unique, it needs to reflect the personality of the vineyard. Organic and biodynamic growers believe they get a greater expression of terroir than traditional growers. Terroir is often described as a “sense of place.” The variables in a vine’s environment – climate and soil in particular – contribute to the flavors and character of the wine. It is why a Chardonnay from a cold climate like Chablis in France makes your mouth pucker with acidity, while a Chardonnay from the warm Napa Valley can be rich and buttery.
There are three types of natural farming:
1) Sustainable – environmentally friendly farming that limits the use of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides but doesn’t eliminate them completely.
2) Organic – no pesticides or herbicides in the vineyard with a distinction made between “organic wine” and wine “made using organically grown grapes.”
Organic wines cannot have sulfur added in the winery. Sulfur is a preservative and naturally occurs in the vineyard. For more information on sulfites in wine, read this. I prefer the “organically grown grapes” option, as a lack of preservatives can lead to problems with the wine.
3) Biodynamic – a more extreme version of organic that views the vineyard as a holistic, self-sustaining ecosystem (it’s common to introduce sheep or other livestock, beneficial insects, composting and homeopathic solutions).
Not all the growers that practice natural methods get certified. For some, it’s just how they want to farm. They don’t need to prove anything; they are in it for the results. For others, particularly those who farm in moister areas prone to mildew, there might not be a natural solution to their problems. So rather than risk losing a crop in a difficult year, they reserve the option of spraying.
I do respect those that have gone the distance in getting certified, but what is more important to me is their underlying philosophy: make the best wine possible with the least impact on the environment. Ideally, the person making the wine is actively involved in the vineyard. They farm on a small scale so they can pay attention to the needs of the vines and develop healthy solutions that don’t rely on chemical shortcuts. They want the personality of the vineyard to shine through.
Of course, just because a wine is made or grown naturally doesn’t mean the quality is guaranteed. I still taste a lot of “natural” wines I don’t like. But when the grower’s philosophy is based on the principles I believe in, there is a pretty good chance I’ll like their wine. And really, that’s what it’s all about!