Christmas is a day away, and if there’s one thing that’s more important than shopping for last-minute gifts right now, it’s finding the perfect wine (or case) to help the holidays go down with cheer. And of course, since you have that holiday do-gooder spirit, you’re probably feeling like splurging on organic wine (or biodynamic, or natural, or whatever…) to make sure what’s in your glass isn’t doing the environment any more harm than your non-Christmas tree.
We consulted with Justin Chearno of UVA Wines and Spirits in Brooklyn, New York, to find out how much organic matters when it comes to wine, and most importantly, to get take on which wines we should be drinking between now and the New Year:
What are the major differences between organic, natural, and biodynamic wines? What do those terms actually mean? We assume that organic means no pesticides sprayed on the grapes, and that natural means just crushing the grapes and leaving them be, but it’s probably more complicated than that…
The term “natural wine” is complicated; there’s no standard definition of what it really means. Winemakers, importers and retailers all have vaguely different takes on what it means, but everyone argues over the details. Recently, bloggers have used the term to build a fan base and sing praises of certain wines by calling them “natural,” but I’m sure they’ll turn their backs on the trend as soon as something else becomes popular. Another problem is that conventional wine-makers think the term implies that their wine is somehow un-natural. To me, natural means non-interventionist: no pesticides in the vineyard, no additives of any kind in the cellar (including yeast and enzymes), and little to no use of sulphites at bottling. But most importantly, I think it means the wine has a real connection to the place where it comes from.
The term organic is also difficult, again because different countries have different rules for the label “organic” that involve very expensive government certifications. Organic certification doesn’t just mean a lack of pesticides; all off-the-vineyard work and work in the cellar need to be organic, too. Then, there are also such things as organic pesticides, which complicates matters even further. Most winemakers I’ve spoken to feel that it’s a waste to spend time and money on organic certification just to make consumers feel good, when their families have been working this way for generations.
Biodynamics is a set of principles written by Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian philosopher. Basically, its letting the vines, plants and animals form a self-sustaining system. The process involves a lot of mystical-sounding things, like using the astronomical calendar and burying tinctures and other stuff in the vineyards, but many winemakers I know use biodynamics and all say it’s made a genuine difference for the better.
Are organic, natural, and biodynamic wines healthier than non?
People who believe in natural and biodynamic wines will certainly say yes, and those who don’t will certainly say no.
I can say that I’ve been in vineyards farmed biodynamicaly and the soil was rich and fertile, filled with other thriving plantlife and bees and insects having a good old time, while inches away, rows of vines farmed with pesticides were growing out of gray soil and had yellowed leaves, looking downright dreary. Winemakers who work biodynamically love to show you scenes like that. Of course, I’ve never grown so much as a fern in my life, so I’m no expert on what healthy or unhealthy farms look like…
As far as calories go, that depends a lot more on the ripeness of the grapes and whether or not the wine was chapatalized (the process of adding sugar to wine, which is a lot more common than you would think), than on whether it’s organic or biodynamic.
Are organic, natural, and biodynamic wines truly more eco-friendly or environmentally sensitive?
I’ve been discussing this a lot lately. While there are pages upon pages written about every minute detail of winemaking, you don’t hear a lot about what it takes environmentally to get grapes from the vineyard across the ocean to your local wine shop. I’ve heard people in New York City tell me that getting wine to the east coast from Europe has a lower environmental impact than getting wine here from the west coast, but sometimes I think that’s just to make us all feel better about all the Loire Valley wine we’re drinking.
I like to think that people who farm more consciously would also be more conscious about the environmental impact of what they do, but I haven’t really found a solid answer yet. But I do think that zero carbon footprint winemaking is going to be a big deal in the next few years.
Finally, what are your favorite organic wines (or biodynamic, or natural) for the holidays?
Pre-Christmas wine and cheese gathering with a few friends with bread, cured meats, and olives:
You’re looking for a wine that has the acidity to stand up to things like cured meat and oils, but easy drinking enough that you can hang out with your friends and catch up. My pick is Stefano Bellotti’s Semplicemente Rosso. Warning: This wine is bound to start an argument with your anti-natural wine friends. Not only does it say natural and biodynamic on the front label, but it also says “authentic”! Take that, unnatural wine!
Best organic/natural/biodynamic wine value to give as a gift:
If you’re really looking to splurge, give someone the kind of thing they would seldom get themselves. People too often think of Champagne as a celebration-only beverage, when it should be something everyone is drinking more of. One my current favorites Cedric Bouchard “Cuvee Ursules.” It’s 100% pinot noir, made without dosage (that’s wine-talk for added sugar), it’s laser-focused and absolutely brilliant.
Fish chowder or French onion soup:
I’d usually recommend a white with the chowder and a red with the onion soup, but thanks to the Georgians’ thousands of years of winemaking history, a little-known style called “Orange Wine” works for both. Essentially, it’s white wine fermented on its skins much the way red wine is made. The result is a rich, intense and slightly more viscus wine that drinks more like a red than a white. I’d try and track down a bottle of Frank Cornelissen Munjebel Bianco. Grown on the slopes of Mt. Etna and possibly the most non-interventionist wine out there.
Christmas morning breakfast of eggs, bacon, and cinnamon rolls:
Sparkling wine in the morning always seems like the way to go. A good move here would be Causse Marines “Preambulles”, a cloudy sparkling wine made from the Mauzac grape in Gaillac, France. It’s a dry wine with lots of citrus and green apple going on. This wine goes down very easy, so make sure you have a few bottles in the fridge.
Christmas dinner of roast beef or ham:
Big flavors need big wine. For me the syarh is a great pairing on the holiday table. Dard et Ribo Crozes Hermitage will fit in very well here. Lots of deep, dark silky fruit along with the smoky bacon notes that add complexity.
When you’re sick of your family and just want to get drunk fast:
Gamay! Gamay! Gamay! Few things are as fun to drink as Cru Beaujolais. I’d gladly glug down a bottle of Jean Paul Dubost’s Moulin a Vent out in the garage pretending to take out the trash while my aunt tells that Christmas story for the 800th time…
Best (sparkling) wines to mix into cocktails:
Castellroig Cava. It’s naturally-made wine from Spain with none of that nasty sweetness you usually see in sparklers under $20.
Post-Christmas White Elephant party with appetizers and finger foods:
Pépière Muscadt from Marc Olliver. There really are very few white wines in the under $15 world that can hold a candle to muscadet (not to be confused with Muscat, a sweet wine). this one is all limestone and citrus fruit, just great stuff.
New Year’s Eve with cheese and/or chocolate fondue:
I’ll go out there and suggest Jacques Puffeney “Cuvee Sacha,” a white wine from the Jura region of France. Most Sauvignin (dont confuse it with Sauvignon) from the Jura are traditionally made in an oxidative style (think dry sherry) but this one blends in a little chardonnay to bring it back down to earth. Extra dry and nutty with the acidity is takes to pair with molten cheese.
New Year’s Day Hoppin’ John party:
Chateau Tire Pé “Diem” is a wine from Bordeaux that goes to show that you can make natural wine in the backyard of some of the manipulated wine on the planet. A blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot it has guts and the acidity to pair very nicely with the ham.