Category Archives: Wine Education

WINE (noun): the alcoholic fermented juice of fresh grapes used as a beverage

Source: Merriam-Webster

Are Organic Wines really Organic?

As wine consumers, we have learned to ask a lot of questions about what we are drinking. What exactly is in this bottle? Are pesticides or herbicides sprayed on the grapes used to make this wine? Is anything added into the wine in the winery? Are any organisms or the environment harmed to make this? The laws that govern sustainable wine growing and processing can actually be quite tricky. We need to understand how to ask our questions before we can understand the answers.

Biodynamic Vineyards at Zind-Humbrecht in Alsace, France

What is sustainable farming?

Wine Spectator gives a thorough definition of sustainable as it relates to the production of wine.

Sustainability refers to a range of practices that are not only ecologically sound, but also economically viable and socially responsible. (Sustainable farmers may farm largely organically or biodynamically but have flexibility to choose what works best for their individual property; they may also focus on energy and water conservation, use of renewable resources and other issues.) Some third-party agencies offer sustainability certifications, and many regional industry associations are working on developing clearer standards.”

 The sustainable label is useful; it tells the consumer which wines are made with ecological, economical, and social principles in mind. Its limitation is that it is locally defined and therefore varies regionally.

What is organic wine?

“Organic” is a system of farming and food processing, as well as a label. In the USA, organic is regulated by the National Organic Program (NOP) of the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA). These entities ensure uniform and reliable standards.

By definition, organic farming and food processing integrates cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster the cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering are not allowed. Products from outside of the cycle are used minimally.

Oragnic farming promotes soil health with a mix of specific plants growing between the vineyard rows, Grgich Hills, Napa Valley, CA.

The USDA NOP allows for two categories of finished wine:

1 – wine made from organic grapes with the addition of sulfites during the winemaking process. Sulfites are allowed in small amounts (less than 100 mg/L (ppm); this wine cannot be labeled as “organic” but can mention the use of organic grapes.

2 – wine made from organic grapes with no added sulfites. This wine can be labled as “organic.”

But is 100 mg/L a lot? And does no “added” sulfites mean that there are no sulfites at all in the finished wine? To give perspective on these numbers, understand that natural yeasts, which are present on healthy grape skins, produce trace amounts of sulfites, usually around 15mg/L and often up to 20mg/L. Since 1988, in the USA, all wines containing more than 10mg/L must state, “contains sulfites” on the label. That means that just about every wine produced and imported—whether it be organic, made with organic grapes, or conventionally produced—will say this, which doesn’t help the consumer much.

If you are sulfite sensitive, or the levels are of concern to you, it is important to realize the limits behind the labels. In the USA, these apply to all wine produced, as well as imported.

By law the USA allows sulfite levels of up to 350 mg/L in any conventionally produced finished wine. Finished wine made from organically produced grapes is allowed to contain only up to 100 mg/L of sulfites. Wine labeled as organic cannot have any added sulfites, though it still may have a small amount since they occur naturally (probably 10-20 mg/L).

There are also about 70 groups of products allowed as additions (and not required to be listed on labels) in the conventional wine making process in the USA, Europe Union (EU), Australia, and Japan. But these products are restricted from organic wines according to the National List.

Two issues further complicate the organic label. For one, any foreign company exporting wines to the USA for selling and marketing as organic wine must comply with the USA standards. However, the EU and other wine producing countries have different laws and standards than we have in the USA on the quantity of allowable sulfites in finished organic wines.

In the EU, allowable sulfite levels depend on the type of wine being made. In organic wine, sulfite levels must be at least 30-50 mg/L lower than their conventional equivalent. The EU allows only 150 mg/L of sulfites in finished conventional red wines, which means that red wine labeled as organic in the EU is allowed to have about 100 mg/L of sulfites in the finished product. For conventional white wines in the EU, 200 mg/L is the sulfite limit; 150 mg/L is the limit for organic white wines. For conventional sweet wines, the legal limit in the EU is a sulfite level of 450 mg/L and for organic sweet wines that level depends on the sugar levels in the finished wine.

In the USA, any wine labeled as organic is not allowed to have any added sulfites, resulting in usually less than 20 mg/L. While the USA certianly requires a lower level of sulfites in its organic wines compared to the EU, remember that we also allow a much higher level of sulfites in our conventional table wines. The EU also does not have a distinct category for wines made only from organically grown grapes like we have in the USA.

The second issue that complicates the understanding of organic wines is the non-labeling of some wines that are indeed organic, or nearly organic. Some of these are neither certified nor labeled as such because many producers—whether in the USA or abroad—do not want to deal with the bureaucracy or fees associated with the certification process. If the producer exports to the US, they may not want to be halted by the USA organic certification process when they just want to sell their wine. So they skip it.

So what about biodynamic wines?

Biodynamic wines use a form of agriculture very similar to organic farming, and winery methods similar to those required for organic winemaking, but which include various concepts from the ideas of Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925). Steiner’s farming methods treat soil fertility, plant growth, plant products, livestock care, and livestock products as ecologically interrelated. Biodynamic agriculture uses compost and manure for fertilization, natural herb and mineral supplements for field sprays, and prohibits the use of anything artificial on the farm. It treats the entire vineyard as an interrelated part of a self-sufficient farm and considers the influence of weather, air pressure, seasons, and movements of the moon and planets on the rythms of the farm. The term “biodynamic” refers to both the agricultural methods used to grow the vines, as well as winery processing.

Natural winemaking at a certified biodynamic winery, Zind-Humbrecht, Alsace, France.

Biodynamic wines run into similar labeling and conceptual problems as organic wines. Demeter is the brand for products labeled as biodynamic. While International Demeter ensures a comprehensive certification process and strict compliance, it is important to realize that there are different Demeter certification organizations in every country and often several within each country.

Furthermore, biodynamic farming reaches farther back in history than the Demeter certification and Steiner. Historically, before any chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and mechanizations were available, farmers had to understand the natural interconnectedness of all living things on a farm. To this day many winegrowers, especially in Europe, still practice biodynamic philosophies on their farms and see no point in spending time and money for Demeter to brand and certify them as biodynamic.

Biodynamic farming uses sheep to cut the grass between rows, Manincor Estate, Alto Adige, Italy.

Wine.com categorizes all wines—biodynamic, organic, and sustainably farmed—into an overall “Green” category. You can rest assured that anything that we’ve put a green leaf next to has been produced in an ecologically responsible manner with the environment and our health in mind.

If you have a specific allergy or concern, our Green category is great place to start your wine search. After locating wines you are interested in, contact our recommendations team for more information or the producer to find out more on their production details.

Here are some examples of different “Green” wines we carry to help you get started.

Biodynamic producers

King Estate Signature Pinot noir
Grgich Hills Cabernet-Sauvignon
Zind-Humbrecht-Calcaire-Gewurztraminer
Kamen Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
Chateau Pontet-Canet Pauillac
Manincor “Mason” Pinot Nero

Producers who use biodynamic practices; produce some wines organically

Tikal-Natural-Organic-Red-Blend

Producers who use sustainable practices; produce some wines organically

Yalumba Organic Viognier

Organically grown grapes with minimal to zero winery intervention

Mauro Veglio Barolo Arborina
Frog’s Leap Zinfandel

 

The Albariños of Rias Baixas

Many regions throughout the world are known for a particular specialty—gastronomic or otherwise—but some more than others have the ability to conjure up vivid sensory memories. One such region is northwestern Spain’s Rías Baixas. To the uninitiated, this may just look like a confusingly-spelled set of words. But to those who have visited or tasted the wines and cuisine of this region, the phrase “Rías Baixas” is enough to make the mouth water, evoking the sensation of salinity in many different forms: a refreshing glass of white wine, a briny seafood meal, or the crisp, fresh air of a picturesque oceanside vista.

The wines of Rías Baixas owe much of their personality to the geography and terroir of the lush, verdant region. Situated along the Atlantic Coast, the relatively modern DO (established in the 1980s) is unique within Spain for its focus on white grapes, which thrive in this relatively cool, damp corner of the country. The name “Rías Baixas” (pronounced “re-ass by-shuss”) comes from Galician—”rías” is the word for the sharp estuaries that cut in to the “baixas,” or the lower-altitude region of southern Galicia. These narrow, finger-like bodies of water that stretch inland from the Atlantic Ocean contain a mix of fresh and salt water, making them an ideal home to an incredibly diverse array of delicious maritime creatures that make up the cuisine of the region. Hard granite soils combined with mineral-rich alluvial top soils provide optimal growing conditions for top quality white wine production.

The other key component of this region is its star grape variety: Albariño. While other varieties are permitted, Albariño makes up the vast majority of plantings, and with good reason. It has the ability to produce distinctive wines that maintain their unique varietal character in a wide range of styles, owing both to the diversity of the five different sub-zones and to winemaking decisions such as maceration length,  the use of wild yeast, barrel fermentation and aging, malolactic fermentation, and lees contact.

Texturally, Albariño typically falls somewhere between a Sauvignon Blanc and a Chardonnay, while flavor-wise, floral perfume, zesty citrus, stone fruit, and minerality are ubiquitous. In the warmer sub-regions of Rías Baixas, ripe melon and peach flavors dominate, while bottlings from cooler climes are often marked by lean acidity as well as grapefruit and lemon notes. An undercurrent of salinity runs through most examples, making them an unparalleled pairing with the region’s plentiful seafood offerings. The Albariño grape is so integral to the style of the wine produced in Rías Baixas that the name of the variety is printed on every bottle—a practice rarely seen elsewhere in Spain (or most of Europe, for that matter).

Thanks to the adaptability of Albariño and its friendly, near-universal appeal, the Rías Baixas DO has something to offer just about every white wine drinker. These wines can be enjoyed year-round, but are especially delightful during the spring and summer, when warm, sunny weather calls for a crisp, refreshing beverage. They sing when paired with any kind of marine life—particularly oysters or scallops—but are equally fantastic on their own. If you can’t make it to Spain for a vacation this year, a bottle of Rías Baixas Albariño just might be the next best thing.

Some of our favorites include:

Granbazan Etiqueta Ambar Albariño 2015
Bright yellow stone fruits come to the forefront here in this complex example, with notes of marzipan, rose, spice, and citrus pith. The palate is round and fleshy, but vibrant acidity keeps it light and freshing.

Condes de Albarei Albariño 2015
This is all about the floral side of Albariño, with a lovely perfume and high flavor intensity on the palate. The luscious texture brings to mind peaches and cream.

Martin Codax Albariño 2015
A great entry-level option—the price is right, and the fruit is ripe and mouthfilling. The flavor profile is simple and straightforward, with plenty of fresh apple and pineapple as well as some nutty character.

Valminor Rias Baixas Albariño 2014
Stone fruit and grapefruit shine in this flavorful bottling, with hints of dried herbs and spice on the long finish. Searing acidity means that this one may not be for beginners, but makes it an excellent complement to grilled fish, lobster, or crab.

Pazo de San Mauro Albariño 2015
This is a big Albariño, with a rich creamy texture and notes of baking spice and marzipan alongside yellow peach and nectarine.  If you’re looking to make the transition from red to white wine for summer, this would be a good place to start!

When Does Vintage Matter Most?

What is Vintage Anyway?

A wine’s vintage is simply the calendar year that the grapes were grown and harvested. Neatly tagged on bottle labels, the vintage year represents one clue, among many, as to what’s going on inside of a particular bottle. Think of a wine’s vintage year as its birth year, and while we may associate certain events from a given year personally, producers tend to recall tricky weather patterns from a demanding year first and foremost. A wine’s vintage is a collective mirror of the weather patterns, vineyard management and state of the vine in each growing season, with climate conditions typically playing the biggest role in determining what kind of crop rolls through the cellar doors at harvest.

Location, Location, Location – Where Geography and Climate Collides

If vintage reflects a region’s weather patterns in a given year, then what makes a vintage good or bad? It often boils down to sunshine. Similar to “good” or “bad” vacation weather, the best vintages have plenty of dry, warm, sunny days with cooler, sweater-themed evenings. It’s these sunny, happy weather days that give grapes the best chance of reaching full maturity and optimum ripeness levels. These cheery growing seasons carrying sunny days and cool nights are the vintage years that typically garner the best ratings. If a region is bogged down by constant clouds and rain in a growing season, then the grapes are less likely to fully ripen, may be more prone to rot and disease, and tend to deliver skewed sugar and acidity levels if soggy conditions persist through harvest. These are the years where winemakers must work their magic in the cellar to keep the final wines intact. Keep in mind, certain grape varieties crave specific climates. Riesling prefers the cooler climes of Germany’s more northerly latitudes where acidity levels remain quite high. While, Cabernet Sauvignon’s roots dig deep in sunny, warm soils, and these thick-skinned grapes tend to thrive in California’s long, historically warm growing season.

Goldilocks and the Three Grapes:

  • Under-ripe grapes – Typically coming from cooler climates, these under ripened grapes lean towards lighter styles of wine and vinify into lower levels of alcohol while carrying less pronounced fruit character.
  • Over-ripe grapes – It’s possible that a vine may suffer from too much sun, too much heat and the dire result is a cluster of grapes that become raisined in color, character and taste. Excessive summer heat can stunt growth and development significantly reducing quality levels and yields
  • Well-ripened, mature grapes – These grapes are perfectly poised to produce wines that show balance in terms of sugar, acid, tannins and carry their fruit and aromatic character particularly well.

When Vintage Matters Most

  1. Crazy Climates: Vintage matters most in winegrowing regions with the least consistent weather patterns. In general, many of Europe’s more northerly winegrowing regions (France, Germany, Austria, Northern Italy, Northwest Spain) are subject to more meteorology madness than the New World’s sun-drenched surroundings. From late spring frost, where entire vineyards can be taken out before bud break begins to severe hail knocking buds off the vine before they have a chance to set fruit, to excessive rainfall near harvest, which dilutes innate sugar and acidity levels, wicked weather can quickly take its toll on the vine. Ironically, France the iconic birthplace of modern wine is home to some of the least predictable runs of weather. Bordeaux, located 30 miles southeast from the harried Atlantic coastline, is notorious for battling all sorts of weather-induced mayhem, especially as the fall harvest draws near. Likewise, Burgundy’s bud break is often the target of regional spring hailstorms that wipe out flowers before the fruit ever has a chance to set.
  1. Collecting Wine: Vintage matters most when collectors are buying wine to age. The best vintages create wines that carry high levels of tannin and acidity, both are must-have preservatives when considering the age-worthiness of a wine. That’s why high-end reds from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany, Piedmont, Rioja, the Douro and New World regions like California, Washington, Australia, Argentina and Chile from the best vintage years have the greatest aging potential. In the case of white wines, Germany’s high end Rieslings, Champagne’s vintage bubbly, along with premium white wines from the likes of the Loire Valley, Alsace, Alto Adige and Burgundy all pin their aging potential on the quality of the vintage.

When Vintage Matters Least

  1. Consistent Climate Zones – International winegrowing regions with calm, consistent, warm weather packed with plenty of sunshine tend to produce wines that are also consistent themselves, with little vintage variation from year to year.
  2. Budget Bottles – High volume, commercial wines shoot for consistency year in and year out. Vintage variation is significantly reduced by the careful management of a wine’s key structural components like pH levels, alcohol, total acidity, and levels of residual sugar.

A Word on Non-vintage Wines

Non-vintage (N.V.) wines are essentially a blend of various vintages and won’t carry a specific vintage year on the bottle label. Examples include many sparkling wine and Champagne bottles, several fortified wines like non-vintage Port, Sherry and Madeira along with some inexpensive high volume still wines.

Current Vintages to Know (and love): The last several years have produced high quality fruit for many New World regions. Australia and New Zealand carried out 2015 with smaller yields and exceptional quality, and the Old World icons of Bordeaux and Burgundy packed a strong regional run for the last six years.

Australia 2012-2015

Beaujolais 2014

Bordeaux 2009-2015

Burgundy 2009-2015

California 2012-2015

Oregon 2012-2015

Rhone 2012; 2015

Sicily and Sardinia 2014

Tuscany 2007-2013; 2015

Washington 2012-2014

For current vintage ratings check out:

The Wine Enthusiast Vintage Chart

Robert Parker’s Vintage Chart

The Bottom Line

Keep in mind, vintage years serve as an initial indicator, a happy, helpful guideline when scouting for wines. There are very few vintages that could qualify as so poor as in it’s worth avoiding the year as a whole. In fact, producer reputation, vineyard vigilance, and winemaker interventions can often balance and carefully redeem rough weather conditions.

 

 

 

Garnacha is the New Black

In a way, a wine cellar is kind of like a wardrobe. You have your sparkly Champagne for special occasions, your comfortable Cabernet for when you need something familiar and reliable, and that dusty old bottle in the back that no longer fits your taste but you just can’t bring yourself to throw away. You might favor one color over all others, or perhaps you have a balanced mix. Maybe you have a favorite brand, or a particular appreciation for fine Italian craftsmanship. Whatever your wardrobe or cellar preferences, it is important to have a few versatile pieces that can work for any occasion.

Garnacha, a grape variety native to Spain and known as Grenache in France and elsewhere, may be just the thing you need to round out your wine rack—but don’t call it basic. Garnacha can be found in red, white and rosé varieties, and can range from dry but fruity table wines to jammy, sweet dessert wines that bear a close resemblance to Port. Continue reading Garnacha is the New Black

A Balanced Bookshelf: Recommended Reading for Every Wine Lover

Every wine lover, from the novice drinker to the seasoned professional, knows that the world of wine can be an intimidating one. Between regions, grape varieties, science, history, and more, there is a never-ending world of knowledge to be uncovered. Though it may seem overwhelming at times, learning about wine can be an exciting and fulfilling lifelong pursuit. Fortunately, there is a wealth of reading material out there to shed light on the universe of vines, grapes, and wines, and the people responsible for bringing them to your glass. In today’s fast-paced world of digital media, most people rely on blogs and online publications for information—but there’s nothing like a great book to enhance one’s understanding of a subject, whether it is a broad survey or a deep dive into a specific topic. We have curated a list of some of our favorite books about wine, with something for everyone, whatever your specific interests may be. Continue reading A Balanced Bookshelf: Recommended Reading for Every Wine Lover