Eco-Friendly Wines for the Holidays

By Eileen Weber

Champagnes from Henri's Reserve on ice before a dinner party. Notice the wire cages securely fastened for safety. You never know when a cork my blow.

I hate to break it to you, but Thanksgiving is this Thursday. I know, it snuck up on me too. (Didn’t we just have Halloween?) So for all those last-minute shoppers like me preparing for Turkey Day or thinking ahead to the jolly holidays, consider picking up a few organic, biodynamic, or sustainable wines.

But what do any of those terms really mean?

Organic wines are grown from certified organic grapes and contain no sulfites other than what naturally occurs during the fermentation process. Biodynamic is organic farming, but takes it one step further to include things like lunar cycles as well as soil enrichment and considers the whole farming process to be one big interconnected eco-system. It is often termed “spiritual science” or “holistic agriculture.”

“Once you’re biodynamic, you’re [sustainable and organic] as well,” said Mark Abrahamson, co-owner of Mo’s Wines and Spirits on Post Road in Fairfield. “Biodynamic is organic on steroids.”

Sustainable farming, however, is more about being environmentally responsible. Sustainable farmers typically use organic practices, but may not be biodynamic. And while they may use organic practices, they may not necessarily be certified organic by the USDA because the process is so costly. Sustainable farms also consider things like water conservation or renewable resources as part of their business model.

So how do you choose between them?

When it comes to organic wines, I have had some that can only be described as outrageously hideous. And frankly, that’s being kind. One in particular actually smelled like cat urine when the bottle was opened. It’s that kind of experience that gives organic wines a stigma.

“Sometimes you get off-putting elements because you’re not adding things [like additional sulfites] to change the character,” said William Miller, owner of Harry’s Wine & Liquor Market, also on Post Road in Fairfield. “It depends on the vintage or the grapes in that harvest.”

By the same token, I have also had organic wines that were downright delectable. Renee Allen, Executive Director of the Wine Institute of New England in Guilford, said she would rather drink organic or biodynamic wines. “Personally, I prefer wines that are made with organically or biodynamically grown grapes but that have some sulfites added during the winemaking process,” she said. “A gifted winemaker can create an excellent wine while still keeping the sulfite level low.“

She went on to say that the issue of sulfites is a hotly debated one. Some wine drinkers have a bad reaction to added sulfites, like headaches, feeling flushed, accelerated heartbeat and nausea or even dizziness.

The vineyard at Oregon's Brick House in July, long before the three Burgundian varietals they grow organically and bioynamically are ripe for harvesting. photo c/o Analiese Paik

“The consumer’s reason for drinking organic wine will ultimately govern their choice,” said Allen. “If one chooses to support the environment by drinking wines from vineyards that practice organic, biodynamic or sustainable farming methods, they will have a fairly large pool of quality wines from which to select. However, if one chooses only to drink wines that are labeled 100% organic, then their choices will be more limited, although there are many good ones to be had.”

Mark Abrahamson mentioned that a lot of his customers don’t care about how a wine is grown; they want to know how great it tastes. But for those that do, there are some regions that are mainly organic like Oregon.

William Miller agreed with Abrahamson that Oregon was a key area in the U.S. that produces organic wines because of the typical lifestyle. According to the Oregon Wine Board, over a quarter of the vineyards in the state are organic, biodynamic, or sustainable. “They are the ones preaching organic farming,” said Miller. “That’s why Oregon has some of the best wines.”

Abrahamson also likes such California labels as Bonterra and Benziger. But in California, it’s a little tougher to be organic. The vineyards tend to be close together. So if one farm is organic but the other farm isn’t, that’s a problem. Pesticide spray blows in the wind. There’s always runoff. If chemicals are being used next door, you can bet your land is affected by it too.

For wines that come from Europe, they are more likely to be organic even though they may not be advertised as such. Because European vineyards are hundreds of years old passing from generation to generation, the organic farming practices of yesterday are still practiced today. But they don’t make a big deal about it because that’s how it’s always been done. To them, it’s not organic farming; it’s just farming.

Larmandier-Bernier is well-known for taking a hands off approach to producing top quality, premier cru Champages, this one from 100% Chardonnay grapes (Blanc de Blancs). Available from Henri's Reserve.

However, there are some European wines that promote the organic label, particularly in France. Ruth Frantz, founder and owner of Henri’s Reserve, has a boutique line of family-owned champagnes. Some of them are organic or biodynamic. Labels like Fleury, Larmandier-Bernier, and Jacquesson are all organic, or in the case of Larmandier biodynamic as well.

But not all champagnes are alike. Frantz said that many consumers think of champagne as a category, like soda or milkshakes. But champagnes are wines made from different grapes—chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier—so their flavor profiles are different based on the combinations used. A blanc de blanc champagne made from chardonnay grapes will taste lighter while blanc de noir made from pinot noir with taste richer and “toastier.” Add pinot meunier, and you’ve got a brightness and acidity that can balance out the other two.

One champagne style that has been gaining in popularity is rosé. Gone are the days of Cold Duck. Rosés are crisp and balanced and most often dry (no perceptible sweetness) in style, making them perfect for the dinner table. And as far as Frantz is concerned, it’s a great addition to any Thanksgiving celebration. “Rosés are highly versatile,” she said. “Their flavor profile is more dimensional. In terms of pairing, they have more pinot noir so they hold up to a lot of things we eat that are pink or red.”

Brick House Vineyards is open by appointment only so plan ahead when visiting Oregona's Dundee Hills. Photo c/o Analiese Paik

But whether you want an environmentally conscious wine that pairs well with your food or one that encompasses your personal beliefs, there should be an easier way to sift through the options.

Miller made the point that there should be a standard labeling system, much like in France with the AOC, or the Appelation d’Origine Contrôlée. The AOC determines strict standards that agricultural products must follow in order to obtain the label. While we have an organic label, we don’t have one for biodynamic or sustainable products. It makes it really hard for the consumer to find those products easily, especially with wine.  “Benziger really pushed to get a symbol for sustainable,” he said of the “S” stamp in the corner of the bottle’s back label. “But it’s harder to get a definition. Until there are symbols, it will be harder for the industry to grow.”

For the consumer, it comes down to intelligent research. Put the time into finding those vineyards that farm responsibly. Or, just ask your wine merchants. It’s their job to know which wines are organic, biodynamic, or sustainable. And, more importantly, it’s their job to know which of those wines are good ones to recommend.

“Because consumers have become more aware of the benefits of natural or ‘green’ wines, there is greater demand for them,” said Allen. “Excellent green wines are now being produced all over the world.”

Here are some suggestions for organic, biodynamic, and sustainable wines these wine experts have made for us to explore:

Australia

Cullen Wines

California

Benziger Family Winery

Bliss Family Vineyards

Bonterra Organic Vineyards

Coturri Winery

Kunde Family Estate

Michel-Schlumberger

Chile

Cono Sur Vineyards & Winery

Connecticut

Sunset Meadow Vineyards

France

Chateau Tanesse

Domaine Pierre Frick

Fleury (champagne)

Larmandier-Bernier (champagne)

Jacquesson (champagne)

Italy

Sesti

Oregon

Brick House Wines

Brooks Winery

The Carlton Winemakers Studio

Cooper Mountain Vineyards

King Estate Winery

Patricia Green Cellars

Stoller Family Estate

South Africa

Stellar Organics

Uruguay

Bodegas Carrau

Washington

Badger Mountain Vineyard

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