Let's start with the premise that you probably care about what you ingest, and you probably care about the environment. There are a lot of interlaced terms that are used to describe environmentally-conscious farming, wine additives and winemaking techniques.
Let's start with organic farming.
It's hard to find anything wrong with the concept of organic farming. Artificial pesticides and herbicides are often broad-band killers that stifle biodiversity and balance on a farm, and which can in some cases have yet unknown negative effects on animal (including human) health and the environment (e.g. DDT). Before WWII, most all farming was organic, but in recent decades large-scale farms have often turned to pesticides and herbicides to simply farming and make it more efficient. Growing produce without those modern crutches can require more effort and attention, even more expense, but it also is easier on the environment.
Under current US law, "organic wines" must be made from organically grown grapes, but also have no added sulfites. "Wine made from organically grown grapes" can have sulfites added as a preservative. This distinction doesn't exist in Europe, or most of the rest of the sophisticated world, but a small group of organic wine producers have succeeded in promoting this outdated rule for so-called organic wines. It's a tragedy, really, and it only succeeds in dragging down the whole organic category.
|Veronique Raskin attempting to explain complicated labeling standards in France and the U.S.|
Beyond those confusing categories, there are also are the 'biodynamic' growers who follow many of the same no artificial peticides or fertilizer practices, farming organically, but with additional rules per the prescriptions of the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. They have chosen a sexier term that incorporates organic farming with arguably more eccentric practices aimed at creating a sustainable terrarium-like farm environment - a laudable goal in many ways. And at least they're certified by a third party organization, Demeter. Biodynamic wines can also contain a modest amount of added sulfites, and that's probably a good thing. As an important footnote, some growers claim to follow biodynamic principles, but don't seek third-party certification. I guess you can either believe them or not.
Lately 'natural' wines have been hip. Natural winemakers generally employ some mish-mash of the above techniques, but the term is entirely unregulated and rightly viewed with a bit of skepticism. The general principle of making 'natural' wines seems to be a matter of intervening in the winemaking process as little as possible, minimizing the addition of commercial yeasts and added sulfites. Again, those that make wines without adding stabilizing sulfites are often making unstable, faulty wines that don't travel well. Wine without a bit of added sulfur is notoriously unstable and prone to being tainted by wild yeast and bacteria. The 'natural' wine category is particularly perplexing and fraught with contradictions As may experienced winegrowers will tell you, a non-intervention vineard quickly becomes a jungle, and a non-intervention fermentation quickly turns to vinegar. Great wines are not made without intention or effort, and that's a fact.
For more complication, look to Europe, where the term 'vin biologique' or 'bio' for short, generally means organically grown grape wines. Some are certified.
The battle for many organic grape growers and organic wine proponents has been to differentiate themselves from those who feel that the addition of a modest amount of sulfites makes the wines somehow not organic. Sulfur is an organic mineral, albeit somewhat bio-toxic, that is added to wine in small amounts to kill stray bacteria, stabilize color and otherwise act as a mild preservative. Sulfites occur naturally in anything fermented, from beer, to bread to wine.
Another important note. If you get headaches when you drink red wine, the problem is probably not the sulfites in the wine. Commercial white wines generally have more added sulfites to protect them from oxidation and keep their color bright. It may be the histamines or tannins in red wines that are giving you headaches. Or maybe you're just hung over. Moderate amounts of added sulfites only assure that the wine will be shelf-stable, and shouldn't give you any concern unless you are unusually sensitive to sulfites.
Veronique Raskin and Organic Wine Company
For decades Veronique Raskin has been selling a portfolio of French organically grown grape wines. It started when her grandfather decided to convert his Saint Chinian, Languedoc estate, Chateau Bousquette, to organic farming methods. Veronique Raskin decided to assemble a portfolio of like-minded estates and sell their wines in the States. Chateau Bousquette remains a flagship of the otherwise consistently strong portfolio.
Raskin is quite a character in her own right. The walls of her San Rafael home are decked with spiritual references, from Madonnas to Buddhas. There are sage smudges in the bathroom and Tony Robbins DVDs in the hallway. She's a passionate advocate of wine made from organically grown grapes that also have some added sulfites for stability. She also has good taste in wine. When I tasted wines from domaines she represents at the recent 2013 Millesime Bio, I found myself thinking that she had definitely picked the cream of the crop, and I firmly believe she's fighting the right fight.
I recently sat down to taste some of the wines in her organic portfolio, and I found most of them to be very good. Some are exceptional, and most are good values. She currently has distributors in two states outside California: "Wisconsin and Colorado, but the big guys started buying up the small guys and they’re not particularly interested in people like me." says Raskin."Direct to consumer is good for me. Better educated consumers who want their wines to be good. Our clients are very interesting people." For a tastemaker like Raskin, direct-to-consumer marketing is a great option these days.
"You’ll find that all of the wines we’ve chosen are food wines. Decent wines. To me that’s a huge complement. When I say I try to be a DECENT human being, it’s a modest statement, but to call someone a decent human being is a real compliment," says Raskin, explaining her choices as we sit down to rifle through some wines, mostly from the south of France, the Languedoc and Rhone, with a couple of selections from Bordeaux.
"I am all set for you young man, which is not a condescending expression, but an appreciative expression, right? Ok, so… ta da!"
And the tasting begins (all wines are made from organically grown grapes with added sulfites):
2009 La Maroutte Syrah Vin de Pays d’Oc ($12) Modest, not too ambitious with red currant, plum and a subtle cedar note. Fresh and very lightly-oaked, a good value. Score: 85
2008 Chateau Bousquette Saint Chinian ($15) Spicy nose of coriander, garrigue herbs, and black raspberry fruit in equal proportions. Nicely focused, with a peppery finish. Nimble, fresh and fruity. A complete, elegant wine with a great sense of place. Score: 89
2011 Domaine des Cèdres Cotes du Rhone Rouge ($15) Bottled at the domaine and made from certified organic grapes. A very steady, loyalty-inspiring kind of wine. Nice Grenache character up front, with raspberry and plum fruit, just the right amount of spice: pepper, ground coriander and cinnamon. Good acidity, easily better than average for the category/price. Has a lovely freshness to it. Score: 88
2008 Chateau Laubarit Bordeaux Rouge ($17) A straight ahead, fruit driven Bordeaux blend, but not overripe, with ripe red cherry, red currant, and cedar seasoned with just a kiss of oak. Very solid for the price. Not easy to get a better Bordeaux for under $20. Score: 87
Chateau Moulin de Peyronin Cuvee de Capucine Bordeaux ($20) A bit riper, with bold red currant, plum, black cherry, cola and toast notes plus a hint of vanilla. It could use a bit more time, really. Slightly austere tannins, but still a complex Bordeaux for the price. Score: 88
Wines tasted elsewhere (at my home):
2008 Chateau Veronique Coteaux du Languedoc ($16) A blend of Carignane, Grenache and Syrah.
A bit shrill at first, but when you consider the amount of Carignane in the blend, it all makes sense, low alcohol and on the lighter side with red fruit, limestone, pepper notes coming through, lithe, elegant and sound. It would be easy to adjust the blend to make a slightly sexier wine. The finish is crisp, maybe a bit short. Score: 87
2009 Chateau Bousquette Prestige Saint Chinian ($25) A blend of Syrah, Grenache, Carignane and Mourvedre. Lovely nose of violet, white pepper, blueberry, raspberry, bay leaf, and lavender, just skipping about in the way the best Languedoc wines do, all with ample generosity in the mouth and not a touch overripe. Best of the bunch. Score: 91