As if all those varietals weren't bad enough, wine shoppers now face a fresh source of wine label bewilderment: a short phrase under a mysterious little logo proclaiming that this wine is Certified. Close inspection might reveal that it's actually the grapes or the vineyard that is, say, certified Salmon Safe. Shoppers may be forgiven for thinking “It's pinot, you could pair salmon with that.” But unsafe pairings are another topic. This is the intersection of sustainable wine making and consumer labeling, formerly trafficked only by a few organic vehicles. It's getting much busier, and the subject is now as perplexing and nuanced as the most arcane French wine label.
Many of you would like to support sustainable agriculture, but have no idea what practices you're supporting if you buy a bottle emblazoned with one of these logos, or if you're sacrificing or enhancing your taste experience. Here then, is a primer with a Northwest focus.
We begin with the most familiar: Organic. Simple, right? No synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, fertilizers, or chemical additives. Sometimes.
If a wine says “100% Organic” on the label, it is that simple. It also means the wine has no added sulfites, which are widely used to halt fermentation, and to protect wines from oxidation, bacteria, and spoilage. While that's good if you're allergic to sulfites, it also means cellaring it is risky. Enjoy these wines within a couple of years of release. Some producers use a natural citrate to stabilize the wine, and those could age a little longer. There is no labeling requirement for citrates, so contact the winery for aging information.
“Organic,” means 95 percent of the ingredients are organic, and the other 5 percent weren't available in organic form. Still, the quotation marks do ensure that the wine won't include any added sulfites. "100% Organic" and "Organic" wines bear the USDA organic seal, but keep in mind that organic certification does not address social sustainability or erosion caused by runoff – only the synthetic pesticides in it, which it categorically prohibits.
Northwestern examples of this sort are almost as rare as Sasquatch, but one worth seeking out is Amity Vineyards Eco-Wine Pinot Noir. The 2007 is medium-bodied, featuring cherry and strawberry flavors framed by dusty tannins and earth. Badger Mountain's NSA series is a bit easier to find. Their 2009 Riesling opens with aromas of stone fruit and orange blossom. Tropical fruit joins in on the palate, which finishes crisply.
A wine that is “Made with Organic Grapes” (or “Ingredients”) contains at least 70 organic ingredients, but cannot bear the USDA organic seal. Sulfites can be added up to 100 parts per million. By comparison, non-organic wine harbors sulfites in the 50 to 150 ppm range.
Plenty of these wines are made, and some are easily found, such as Snoqualmie's "Naked" line. Their 2009 Chardonnay sports pear and apple flavors, accented by a bit of spice. Lopez Island Vineyards wines, made with estate-grown fruit, are also in this category. Check out the 2009 Siegerrebe. It leads the tongue by the nose, latching on with aromas of tropical fruit and flower petals, then treating the tongue to more of the same and stone fruit, too. Bright acidity makes it a natural with seafood.
Biodynamic viticulture and enology go beyond organic certification. In biodynamic viticulture no genetically modified organism can be used, and in the vineyard, 10 percent of the land must be set aside for biodiversity. But be careful — biodynamically grown grapes don't necessarily mean biodynamically made wine.
Not only must there be no synthetic additives in biodynamic wine, but added malolactic bacteria are verboten. These bacteria convert the tart malic acid typical of Granny Smith apples, to the softer lactic acid found in dairy products. Often this process can occur naturally, but some of these wild bacteria also produce off-flavors. To avoid this, winemakers often inoculate the wine with a cultured type that is known not to do that. Only wild yeast can be used, and 97 percent of the grapes used must be biodynamically produced. Sulfites, however, are allowed in the same amounts as wines “made with organic grapes.” Certification is handled by Demeter.
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