Sustainable Living: Organic and Biodynamic Wines
Grape-harvesting season is coming to New York soon and before we know it, we’ll have the newest collections on the shelves with only a small percentage being labeled organic. This is partially because there is still a lot of confusion over organic wines since certification and labeling requirements are unclear to even some of the most knowledgeable wine drinkers. However, just because a wine is not labeled organic does not mean it isn’t made using organic farming and winemaking. Some winemakers choose not to label their wine organic because the perception of organic wine is not always a positive one.
By US law, a wine called 100% organic is as pure as it gets; both the growing of the grapes and their conversion to wine has been certified by the USDA. This means that grapes are grown without synthetic fertilizers and in a manner that protects the environment and preserves the soil; that other agricultural ingredients in the wine, such as yeast, have also been certified as organic; and that any non-agricultural ingredients specifically mentioned on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances can’t exceed 5% of the total product. Lastly, sulfites can’t be added since sulfur dioxide, SO2, isn’t an agricultural product and so can’t actually be certified organic. A wine can be labeled “organic” even if it is only 90%—but only if those sulfite concentrations are low. A vineyard can only label its grapes organic once it has completed three growing seasons without using chemical pesticides or fertilizers.
While grapes grown without the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides can be certified organic, wines made from these organic grapes cannot always be labeled organic if their sulfites exceed certain concentrations. Wine without sulfites is not always looked upon favorably by wine experts since wines are commonly prized (and priced) based on their vintage. For preservation purposes, winemakers typically add more sulfites to the naturally occurring amounts that arise during fermentation in order to increase the shelf life and preserve a wine’s flavor profile.
Biodynamic wines, on the other hand, are allowed added sulfites, and come from vineyards that view the soil, plants, animals, and humans as a “holistic living organism,” meaning that the entire farm must be self-sustained and closely attended by the farmer. This is according to Demeter, a membership/trade association of certified Biodynamic® farms, vineyards, wineries, dairies, food processors, traders, and distributors, that sets the gold standard for such certification. Biodynamic certification not only prohibits pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and chemical fertilizers, it also focuses on biodiversity, water conservation, green manure, and composting.
Here is a taste of some of my favorite eco-friendly wines and wine-sellers. When you select organic or biodynamic wines, you are supporting agricultural practices that are not only safe for the environment, but safer for you as well. The more our wallets support organic practices, the more winemakers will step up to produce and label their products, which I appreciate just as much as non-organic wines.
Chambers Street Wines
148 Chambers St., Manhattan (between Greenwich Street and W. Broadway)
Right around the corner from my home, Chambers Street Wines is the recipient of the Slow Food NYC Snail of Approval. Chambers Street Wines opened in June 2001 on the idea that New York might support a shop that indulged the owners’ love for naturally made wines from small, artisanal producers. There are very few brand names here. Partners David Lillie and Jamie Wolff say they choose wines that express their origins, the talent and commitment of the growers and winemakers, and the inherent quality of the vintage. They also say every wine they stock has been tasted, re-tasted, and debated.
Passage de la Fleur
573 Vanderbilt Ave, Brooklyn (between Dean and Pacific)
Somewhat new to Prospect Heights (it opened in 2013) is this wine shop founded by Philippe Essomé, known as Fifi, who owns the Ten Bells wine bar on the Lower East Side. Like the bar, Fifi’s shop stocks only organic and biodynamic wines. He says he looks for wines vinified with indigenous yeast, without chaptalization or enzymes, minimal to no filtration, and little or no sulfites. Basically, he says, they want as little intervention as possible.
McLaren Vale, South Australia
McLaren Vale, internationally known for its wine (namely Shiraz, but also Grenache and Cabernet), is home to the family-owned Paxton Vineyards, which has a reputation for consistently creating biodynamic wines of superior quality. It was founded in 1979 by David Paxton, one of Australia’s most highly respected viticulturalists. His son, winemaker Michael Paxton, maintains the vineyard’s reputation by using natural preparations and composts to bring the soil and the vine into balance. You can get your hands on Paxton wine at these New York retailers. But if you make your way to southern Australia any time soon, I encourage you to enjoy a glass of Paxton wine on its unique property. Dotted with historic buildings among landscaped grounds, it offers commanding views of the Valley and Hills. An old shearing shed that was part of the original 1850s sheep property called “Landcross Farm” houses Paxton’s “Cellar Door Sales.” An old blacksmith shop is used for in-house production and storage of most of the vineyard’s biodynamic preparations. And the adjacent herb garden provides the raw materials for these homeopathic compost preparations.
Rhône region, Southeast France
The wines classified as Châteauneuf-du-Pape are produced from grapes grown in a village bearing the same name in southeastern France, as well as in portions of the four adjoining communities. These vineyards, which cover an area of a little over 12 miles, are farmed organically or biodynamically. In fact, the region’s abundant sunshine and frequent wind (called le mistral) are said to preclude the need for treating the vines and fields with herbicides or pesticides. According to Food & Wine magazine, these organic wines themselves are equally pure, their flavors rarely masked by aging in new oak.
Shinn Estates Vineyards and Farmhouse
2000 Oregon Road, Mattituck, NY
Shinn Estate’s founders, Barbara Shinn and David Page, are native midwesterners who met in San Francisco in 1988 and moved to NYC in the early ‘90s to open the restaurant institution, Home, one of the East Coast’s first farm-to-table restaurants. In 1998, they purchased the historic Tuthill homestead on the North Fork of Long Island to build a winery and B&B which has since been named a top American wine destination by Gayot, Fodors, U.S. News Travel, Food & Wine, and Bon Appetit. Shinn Estates is the first East Coast winery to be solely powered by alternative energy. Viticulturist Barbara grows the grapes utilizing holistic farming techniques, and vintner and distiller David works with winemaker Patrick Caserta to steward the wines (and spirits) from vine to glass. Make it a point this fall to visit the tasting patio which was built in the spring of 2013.