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Organic Wine: What to Buy, What to Avoid

Which wines labeled as organic are really worth a look?
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red wine in a wineglass on a white background.
red wine in a wineglass on a white background.

"Do you offer organic wine?" It's a question I hear frequently while on the wine trail.

Wine retailers, once cautious about the idea are suddenly eager to stock organic wine. A smattering of selections has burgeoned in recent years, crowding store displays. Once on the fringe, brands featuring words like nature, earth and the prefix "eco" now edge closer to the wine mainstream as consumer interest intensifies. But the simple question remains: which wines labeled as organic are really worth a look?

Not many, it turns out. Wine brands marketed as organic are seldom worth bringing home again. It's unusual to find a drinkable red -- with Organic splashed across the front label -- which begs another taste.

For supporters of organic consumption, there's a bright side; one you'll find useful if you support some notion of organic farming and expect well-made wine to boot.

The far more exciting end of organic viticulture is the juice made from organically farmed grapes -- from France, Italy and Spain, as well as from domestic producers -- where organic may be barely noticeable on labels. It's wine sold on the merits of taste and authenticity first. Validating these wines requires reading fine print, or decoding unfamiliar symbols. Quite a few estates feature organic production without fanfare or gaudy marketing campaigns. The challenge is finding them.

In the 1980s, the fledging category began to appear in stores, with wines from California among the first examples available in mass distribution. Initially the concept raised a murmur of excitement, in part because organics were considered healthier options than conventional versions. People bought organic wine as they did food, mostly to avoid a perceived surplus of chemical herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers and other additives thought to be common in conventionally made wine. From the outset, however, customers encountered unstable, highly variable bottles. Many of the wines were hard to identify from the varietals listed on the labels. Opening the early organic bottles was like spinning a roulette wheel -- one bottle stinky and cloudy, another one browning, dull, others grapey but odd examples. Moreover, the wines were expensive for the times. Organic wine seemed more an experiment than a reliable new category. Consumers had every right to worry about chemical additives in winemaking, but it remained that bottles had to taste as good, or better than conventional versions.

Wine buyers expect pleasurable flavors and aromas in the glass. There's not much fun in marginal wine, sipped as if it's medicine. Merely tolerating a glass to load up on a substances like Resveratrol isn't why most folks partake. Most consumers don't support off-flavors, or under-ripe qualities in organic food. Expensive, flavorless tomatoes won't work even if from organic gardens and dried out oranges mar the recipe even when they're from a beautiful, biodynamic grove. The same expectation of high quality holds true for wine, no matter the organic origin.

When organics first hit the scene, information on vineyard practices wasn't readily available. Whatever compelled organic and biodynamic farming -- personal philosophy, the preservation of land and soil, the taste and healthfulness of what we consumed -- had not yet been revealed to the masses, except for notes on a few back labels.

Today, consumers can consult knowledgeable tradespeople, or do their own detective work. Winemakers in Europe have been slow to make noise in the American wine press, but a growing community of producers acknowledge using organic practices as they can; some are in the midst of converting from conventional to organic farming; a few others, including famous estates such as Chateau Pontet Canet in Bordeaux, farm using both organic and biodynamic principles. Through the Internet and wine press, tools and information now help clarify who around the globe is making wine with organic grapes, and why. Wine country visits accent the differences between non-organic and organic viticulture. Driving wine country is where you'll still witness a thick cloud of fog trailing a tractor on a vineyard row, but where you also listen to vignerons speak to healthier vines and of the minimalization of chemical treatments. An important estate such as Domain Fondreche in France's Cotes du Ventoux is an example of wine from a place where the owners proudly articulate their approach, and where the wines are benchmarks for organic Grenache and Syrah.

Because of the lack of information, promotion and consumer clarity about rules governing organic viticulture, organic wines can still be overlooked on shelves. Ecocert, a French organic certification organization organized in 1991, uses an icon of the same name on labels to represent organic authenticity. Consumers accustomed to the term organic may shy away from Ecocert wines if there's perceived ambiguity about the term. Responding to consumer demand, wineries are clarifying their own definitions of organic farming on websites and stating the term -- if organic certification has been attained -- on the bottles. This usually means complying with state, country, or industry standards to be able to use the term. Complicating the quest for label clarity is that organic standards can vary from country to country.

As for the popular organic brands; what will happen to them? This category will continue to flow through retail outlets and into the cellars of curious wine drinkers. Brands will come and go, but the wineries committed to healthy soil and vines absent the overuse of fungicides, herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers will thrive. The obligation of consumers is to find and support the conscientious farmers and winemakers making excellent wine.

Remember this basic wine caveat, and strongly apply it to organics: what's in the glass should bring pleasure for the taste, not for the medicine or the fashion.