Are Organic Wines Better?
Are organic wines tasting better? Or are they only healthier, being free from chemicals? It’s with that question in mind that I entered France’s Montpellier Exhibition Centre to attend Millésime Bio, the largest wine show dedicated exclusively to certified wines made from biologically grown grapes.
Between 2008 and 2009, bio vineyards grew by 75 per cent in Spain, and 39 per cent in France. A recent survey revealed that 10 per cent of the French vineyard total area will be converted to organic by 2012, in a process that takes three years to complete. Only then can a producer indicate on his bottles that they contain a “wine made from organically grown grapes.” The wine itself cannot be called organic, since there is not yet a set of rules governing organic winemaking. Reaching an agreement on the quantity of sulfites that can be added may be the last roadblock. Other countries, namely the USA and Canada, have their own set of rules.
Why this sudden surge? Many of the producers I’ve talked to justify the move by saying that they have become more conscious of their environment. Others are seeing it as another step in their never-ending quest for better quality. But those reasons are true everywhere, so why is the conversion so much more important in the Old World, at least according to the official numbers?
Over the years, the Old World has lost ground to producers of the New World, who have delivered large quantities of decent wines at a better price. To avoid a gloomy future, they slowly formed a consensus around the idea of regaining market share by improving quality. This has since become a key strategy, and organic certification can be a very effective tactic in that strategy.
Many winemakers from all countries don’t claim to be bio, even if they are. To them, the wine must speak for itself, not a logo on the label. Which brings me back to my original question — are they actually tasting better? My general impression is that there are fewer occurrences of artificial or off-odours, allowing a purer, more precise expression of the fruit. But off-odours are often due to unhealthy grapes, affected by rot or pests, and the use of chemicals is supposed to prevent just that. But chemicals don’t necessarily lead to healthier grapes. Clearly, more attention and care in the vineyard can do just as well, with less impact on the environment as a bonus.
Winemakers that stood out at the show included A & J Beaufort, who makes delicious champagnes from two vineyards, Ambonnay and Polisy. You have to taste them to appreciate how gorgeous they are, packed with complex flavours. The 1996 bottles were really stunning, and hint at what we can expect from more recent vintages. They are available from time to time in Canada, but disappear very fast.
In Pic St-Loup, the Cuvée Bonne Pioche 2009 from Domaine Clavel had rich, beautiful fruit, firm tannins with a tight mouthful. Les Garrigues 2008 in Côteaux du Languedoc La Méjanelle had a somewhat discreet, red fruits nose, but appeared compact and well balanced in the mouth. It should evolve favourably over the next few years.
Sparkling Blanquette de Limoux from Domaine Delmas is worth checking out. The nose is discreet, but it tasted very clean and pure.
The Pinot Noir 2009 Vin de Pays d’Oc from Château de Brau surprised with its crunchy, fresh strawberry nose and modern style. Their 2009 Fer Servadou from Vin de Pays d’Aude had great red fruit and a nice mineral touch typical of the cépage.
Domaine Cazes is a familiar name, famous for their vin doux naturel Muscat de Rivesaltes. They also make dry whites and reds, namely the Canon du Maréchal white 2010 which had a simple (but very clean) citrusy nose and a light palate. The Cuvée Marie-Gabrielle 2009 in Côtes du Roussillon also showed nice red fruits, a full body and a tight finish.
Cuvée Prestige 2007 from Château de Caraguilhes in Corbières-Boutenac had gained complexity in the bottle, showing fine, ripe black fruits and fully integrated oak. A nice round mouthfeel led to a somewhat angular finish.
Domaine des Carabiniers reds in AOC Lirac and Côtes du Rhône showed great freshness and delicious fruit. The producer recently hired a Canadian agent, so expect availability sometime this year.
Last but not least was a nice surprise from Egypt. Jardin du Nil is a dry white made from Vermentino and a little Chardonnay. It had a light and refreshing taste, perfect on a sunny afternoon baking in the desert heat while contemplating the Great Pyramids. They also make a couple of reds and a rosé. Their total production is consumed by local tourists.