My lovely new intern, Glenny Cameron, works some at a local wine store and is keenly interested in sustainability. I asked her to write up something about what we drink–beyond grapes–when we open a bottle of wine. Conventional grapes are an intensely sprayed crop. But somehow even people who eat organic food neglect to drink organic wine. It may be an oversight, or maybe it’s because organic wine has long had a stigma of not being too tasty. Luckily this reputation is now undeserved.
When buying wine, do you think about how the producer has treated the vines? The soil? What about what has been added to the wine to make it taste more like conventional wine? There are so many mainstream producers that are fussing with their grapes by using toxic pesticides, aromatic yeasts, and too many sulfites. Did you know that historically some winemakers have used egg whites, milk, or blood as finings to improve their wine’s clarity? Or that some vintners add an elixir called Mega Purple (discussed in depth by Wines & Vines) to enhance their wine’s taste and color?
Wine is a very confusing subject, made more perplexing because U.S. wine labels are not required to list any additives but sulfites, which are necessary to preserve the wine. Unfortunately, the labels do not specifiy the amount of sulfites, which can be extremely high in some conventional wines. To choose the best wines for the health of your body and the environment, I suggest looking to organic, sustainable, natural, and biodynamic wines.
In this excerpt from The Conscious Kitchen I write more in depth about natural wines.
Natural winemakers try to avoid additives as much as possible, and certainly never use anything synthetic. Sulfites are the additives that most wine drinkers are aware of (they’re the only one listed on bottles), but there are actually two hundred additives that can be used in wine. Many conventional winemakers use lab-produced yeasts to aid fermentation because their overuse of sulfites kills off not only bacteria but also natural yeast. They also rely on additives like sugars and acids to adjust the flavor of grapes that don’t taste like they’re supposed to anymore, thanks to years of pesticide use. Natural winemakers grow their vines in healthier, spray-free soil and therefore have healthier grapes that require fewer additives, and less of any one. “Natural is about making quality choices, lowering yields, and hand picking in small containers instead of machine harvest,” says Jenny Lefcourt, cofounder of Jenny & Francois Selections. She and her partner import to many states, from Oregon to North Dakota to Kentucky. I have tasted most of what they bring to New York – and even visited one of the winemakers in France – and the wines are quite a bit different from what I’m used to. They are for the most part very much alive – over the course of drinking a bottle they open up and taste surprisingly different. Our (current) house red is a Jenny & Francois selection, Chateau Haut Lavigne Cotes de Duras 2006. I was amused to realize that our winemaker, like our CSA farmer, is a woman: Nadia Lusseau. Bonus: It’s about twelve dollars a bottle. Natural (or organic or biodynamic or sustainable) wine doesn’t necessarily mean more expensive.
More from Glenny: For a comprehensive take on these issues straight from a vintner, check out Robert Sinskey’s open letter on his website. This Napa winemaker is committed to treating his land with devotion and care. He believes in biodynamic farming techniques–the land should be improved with farming, and that every aspect of the vineyard is integrated in a healthy circle of life. This attention to nature has yielded thoughtful, delicious, and sublime wines. His ’07 Merlot tastes of plums and smooth chocolate, perfect for a winter’s meal. For lighter fare, Sinskey’s ‘ 09 Pinot Gris is fabulously floral and vibrant. Its soft pear and apple flavors pair beautifully with minted snap peas from the Greenmarket.
At La Clarine Farm in Somerset, California, they aspire to the “do-nothing farming” technique. No tilling, no fertilizers, no pesticides, and no weeding. The goal is to let the natural balances of the land do the work. Less is more. Without much intervention the farm should produce healthy, vital, and robust fruit, which in turn will create lively wines. Their ’09 Syrah is hauntingly wonderful – complex and interesting, it tastes of sage and thyme, tobacco and cloves.
To find natural wines in your neighborhood, ask for them at your local wine shop. More often than not, if they do sell any organic, biodynamic, or natural wines, they will be thrilled to guide you through them. The more you know, the better purchases you’ll make. And what could be a better evening tipple than a glass of wine you can feel good about? Who says you can’t have two? Cheers!
And cheers to you, Glenny, for writing this up–I love it. And kudos for working in the word tipple–fantastic!