Organic wines aren’t merely good for your health and the environment, they might be better in the glass too
By Ted McIntyre
Do organic wines taste better than non-organic wines? All things being equal, the answer is yes, according to a joint American-French study that scoured through 74,148 reviews of a decade of California vintages from three leading wine rating publications (Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator).
Entitled “Does Organic Wine Taste Better? An Analysis of Experts’ Ratings,” the study, released in January, concludes that “the adoption of wine eco-certification has a statistically significant and positive effect on wine ratings”— an average of 0.46 points higher, in fact. That may not seem like a big number, but as these sorts of studies go, it’s more than noteworthy.
“These results are interesting because they contradict the general sentiment that eco-labelled wines are of lower quality—the reason that two-thirds of California wineries that adopt eco-certification do not put the eco-label on their bottles,” the paper notes.
Frogpond Winery owner Jens Gemmrich, who purchased his 10-acre farm seven kilometres north of Niagara-on-the-Lake in 2001 (he rents an additional 20 acres in the region), had to overcome that stigma when his winery became the first in Ontario to be certified organic in 2004. “At the beginning, it was a hindrance; people didn’t even want to taste organic wines because they thought it couldn’t be that good,” Gemmrich notes.
So why aren’t there more organic wineries today? “In farming and wineries, things move slowly,” says the charismatic Gemmrich, a winemaker by training who emigrated from Germany 20 years ago. “It’s a three-year transition just to get certified, and people worry they won’t be able to deal (organically) with some issues that come along. I don’t see a problem, though. I deal with the same problems any other winery does. You just have to approach it differently. The analogy I use is that if you wake up every morning with a headache, you pop a Tylenol. That’s regular farming. If I wake up with a headache every morning, I ask myself, ‘Why do I have a headache? What can I do to avoid that problem?’ So you have to be pro-active—and sometimes very patient.”
But how do consumers know if a product that says “organic” on the label really is organic? In Ontario, the LCBO’s Quality Assurance department ensures that all products it sells that are labelled with an organic claim actually comply with the Canadian Organic Regulations. That’s a two-step process. The LCBO first requests and reviews the organic certificate for the particular product to confirm that it complies, but it also tests the product to guarantee it meets the Canadian organic limits for approved additives and preservatives (including sulphites), in addition to checking that no pesticide residues are present.
The organic process leads to stronger, healthier vines and a tastier product, suggests Gemmrich. For just as human immune systems can become more vulnerable to disease after forming an increasing reliance on antibiotics, so too can chemically treated grape vines. For that reason, Gemmrich believes his vines are more disease-tolerant than non-organic varieties in the region. And healthier too. “I’m a strong believer that an organic product is a better product,” he says. “You get more vitamins and nutritional value. I’m also a strong believer in showing the fruit I grow instead of the wood, so I use steel drums instead of any French-style barrels in all my wines.”
Celebrated Napa Valley winemaker John Williams, owner of Frog’s Leap Winery (no relation to Frogpond), also believes certification results in better wines. “Organic growing is the only path of grape growing that leads to optimum quality and expression of the land in wine,” Williams notes.
You won’t find a stronger proponent of that position than Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Southbrook Vineyards, certified organic but also biodynamic, meaning they take a holistic approach to winemaking. While organic farming methods eliminate growth hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, etc., for the purpose of benefitting human health and wildlife habitats, biodynamic farming sees a vineyard as a healthy and self-sufficient ecosystem, including harvesting according to phases of the moon, and integrating plant and animal production. (As fate would have it, Southbrook’s 2005 purchase agreement was actually signed on Winter Solstice!)
The plan for owners Marilyn and Bill Redelmeier (a third-generation farmer himself) was always to go biodynamic, explains Paul DeCampo, Southbrook’s Director of Marketing and Sales. Having brought Ann Sperling, a former Ontario Winemaker of the Year, on board as Director of Winemaking and Viticulture, the group put in place a plan to naturally enrich the soil and surrounding environment.
“On the insect-control side, we’re not able to reduce damage to zero, but we can reduce it to a manageable range through the enhanced biodiversity on the farm,” says DeCampo. “The berry moth, for example, is something people spray for, but there’s an organic control—pheromones that flood the vineyard with the scent of females in heat so that the moths have a hard time finding the females that are actually there. By creating habitats for predatory insects and birds, we have actually reduced (the moths) to point that don’t even need the pheromone disruptors anymore.”
Utilizing biodynamic sprays that populate the surface of the leaves with other healthy biological activity that will resist fungus is just part of the program, DeCampo adds. “The most important biodiversity for any distinctive wines comes from within the soil,” he says. “By not using chemicals like Roundup, we’re not killing the microscopic plants in the soil. By not using synthetic fungicides, we’re not killing the microscopic fungi in the soil. And by not using pesticides, we’re not killing the microscopic insect life. It’s that lively microbiology that intimately connects each vine to the soil and allows it to take up the native mineral quality and therefore express that sense of place in a more complete manner.”
The process appears to be working. Southbrook’s 2013 Small Lot Cab Franc “201” (see review below) was one of the 12 wines selected for this year’s Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence in Ontario Wines, while its 2013 Estate Grown Small Lot Cab Sauv took Best Cabernet Sauvignon honours at the 2016 Ontario Wine Awards—impressive given that the runner-up was a 2012 vintage, a decidedly better year for Bordeaux-style reds in the province. “To me,” says DeCampo, “it shows that our methods and site can overcome that vintage variation.”
Gemmrich is similarly passionate about fostering a balanced ecosystem, with his farm featuring a variety of plants, birds and animals, including bug-eating guinea fowl.
And why the name Frogpond?
“There’s a frog pond right there,” Gemmrich indicates, pointing at a property map. “Frogs are very sensitive to toxins in the environment. So if you have frogs on the farm, you’re doing something right.”
Here’s a look at wines from a trio of Ontario’s top organic wine producers, as well as a couple international offerings.
|Southbrook 2013 “201” Organic Cabernet Franc ($39.95) — One of the 12 labels selected for this year’s Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence in Ontario Wines, this vintage puts a punctuation mark on one of the grapes that Ontario does best. One of its estate-grown small-lot wines, and therefore a great expression of what the local terroir can produce, it’s an 85% Cab Franc and 15% Cabernet Sauv blend, the latter helping to provide a little structure and smooth out the robust Cab Franc edges. Bottled 14 months ago, this hand-harvested delight experienced a four-week indigenous fermentation in a stainless steel tank prior to pressing, with some 18 months in French oak barrels. Although it already bears the complexity of a quality Old World wine, another three to eight years cellaring will refine it even more, the winemaker assures. For now, enjoy the bouquet of tobacco, cedar, currants and black cherry, and superb lingering finish. While the 201 is only available at Southbrook, like most Ontario wineries, Southbrook will ship it to your door.|
|Southbrook 2014 Organic White ($15.95) — Sometimes the distinctive flavours of different grapes are lost in blends, but here’s what happens when the final product exceeds the sum of its parts. This eclectic, well-structured concoction of 58% Vidal, 21% Chardonnay, 12% Riesling and 9% Sauvignon Blanc—sourced predominantly from other organic grape growers in the region contracted by Southbrook—opens with rich tangy citrus, melon and grassy notes, followed by a well-balanced acidity and a flavourful, refreshing finish. Great value, particularly given that it’s the most widely available VQA organic wine in the province!|
|Frogpond 2013 Cabernet Franc ($18) — Having spent a year in a stainless steel drum—Frogpond doesn’t use oak barrels—the flavours are all the property of the fermented grapes. A soft, smouldering bonfire and deep dark cherry and raspberry quickly reveal themselves in this well-balanced Cab Franc, the depth of which is revealed the further you get into the glass. Featuring a little less spice and riper fruits than most Niagara Cab Francs, it offers lovely value for a rich red that will complement a nice steak or pasta dishes.|
|Frogpond 2014 Organic Vidal ($14) — While there’s a great connection to the rich soil of Frogpond Farm in the earthy notes of this Vidal, there’s also a lovely aroma of wildflowers, red grapefruit and even lemon merengue that prevail on the nose, with a little pear lingering on the tongue. Nothing extraordinary but quite smooth and crisp and a fine, affordable sipping wine that’s flexible enough to pair with a variety of foods, including seafood and chicken.|
|Tawse 2013 Quarry Road Organic Pinot Noir ($34.95) — The fifth vintage from the Quarry Road Vineyard, this Pinot Noir spent 16 months in French oak barrels; 30% of which were new. Another 10% were aged in new ‘medium plus toast’ barrels to encourage the fruitiness of the wine to come through and to round out the strong tannins. While reviews for this Pinot, sourced from Tawse’s organic/biodynamic Vinemount Ridge, have been generally off the charts—with its luxurious nose of wood chips, rose petals and rich cranberry giving way to nice length at the finish, I found the combination of smoky notes and tannins atop the palate to be fighting the fruit a bit too much for my liking. I’d love to revisit this one after a couple more years of cellaring.|
|Tawse 2014 Quarry Road Organic Riesling ($24.95) —Harvested from the eight-year-old vines of Tawse’s certified organic and biodynamic Quarry Road Estate vineyard, this aromatic, pale-straw-coloured Riesling grabs you with its fresh sour Granny Smith apple nose with hints of lime skin and a minerality suggestive of its native clay/limestone soil. It’s impressively structured and silky smooth to the finish, but with that refreshing, zesty acidity of classic Niagara Riesling. The team of Paul Pender (Director of Viticulture and Winemaking) and winemaker Rene Van Ede notes that this sublime 2014 effort pairs well “with seafood and poultry and can even handle a little heat,” but I found the full-on heat of Thai food to also be an exceptional match.|
|Finca Torremilanos Los Cantos Tempranillo 2013 ($19.95) —Deep garnet red with purple edges, there’s the traditional Spanish Tempranillo bite here despite the 5% merlot blend, with leathery tannins, dark berries and the earthy depth of old vines pretty apparent. That said, it’s a little tobacco-y and bitter on the finish for me. It might settle with more time in the bottle, but not particularly good value for the price.|
|Yalumba Organic Shiraz 2014 ($19.95) — Offering plum and dark chocolate raspberry notes on the nose, this nicely structured, jammy Shiraz coats the tongue. The plum carries through on the palate. Despite its youth, a mellow finish disguises some of the traditionally sharp peppery notes of traditional shirazes. Should cellar really well.|