Monday, March 19, 2012

Why Organic Wine is a Smart Buy/Pick

Telling a kid to eat something because it’s good for them is usually a good way to make sure it never passes their lips.

At the same time, if you suggest trying something that is good for an adult and/or the environment many will assume it must be tasteless or an inferior product. 

A January trip to Southern France to the Millesime Bio organic wine trade show proved nothing could be further from the truth. Organic wine is a growing movement stifled by regulation, misunderstanding, and greed.

The story begins in the 1980s when wine labeling laws were enacted in 1987 requiring “sulfites added” be printed on wine labels. The organic wine movement started largely in the early 1980s. The two have been linked ever since. Simply put, there is no relationship.

Sulfites are used in wine to fight bacteria or fungi which can occur in the winery or winemaking process. There are all sorts of old housewife tales and stories about the ills of sulfites in food. But the facts are there are hundreds of packaged foods in your kitchen right now which probably contain sulfites. Wineries have to put a label on the bottle that proclaims sulfites, most products do not.

The profiteering and greed started  in the U.S. when some wineries, which had previously worked toward organic standards in the late 1980s and early 90s, realized there was a profit to be made if they insisted organic wine contain no added sulfites. The argument goes that would keep big wineries out of the business.

Wines without added sulfties have a very short shelf life and are often very thin wines. European standards allow mimimum sulfites which makes for better wine that can be aged. By comparison, the U.S. law allows no more than 10 parts per million in sulfites. EU regulations permit 100 ppm. Wines that aren’t organically produce may have up to 350 ppm. So European Union wines must be labeled “made from organic grapes” to be sold in the U.S.

French winemakers claim opponents of changing the U.S. standards are merely protecting market. Most aren’t afraid to name specific wineries and individuals. But they have become frustrated and even dismissive in recent years while suggesting consumers should focus on the benefits of wines made organically. Essentially, the definition of organic wines should be wines that have no chemicals added – no pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides, or other chemicals in the winemaking process.

Such practices are better for the farmer, consumers, and for Mother Earth. The concept enjoys more widespread acceptance in Europe than the U.S.

Theirry Julien, president of Southern France’s organic wine growing association, outlines a progression that happens with organic products.

“You start with baby food then you do bread and pasta,” Julien suggested. “The wine comes toward the end. I’m not at all waging war against other wine growers who produce wine traditionally. The truth is organic wine growers have had trouble supplying organic wine to meet demand.”

He also makes an interesting comparison. European consumers think about what is good for their health while U.S. consumers seem more motivated by what’s good for the environment.

The Millesime Bio featured 587 wineries from 13 different countries. I probably tasted close to 300 wines in a five-day period. I don’t think any average consumer would know they were tasting “organic wines.” While there were a few sub-par bottles, I’d say more than 90 percent of the wines were good to outstanding.

Southern France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region is France’s biggest organic region. The red wines are most often blends of Syrah, Grenache, and Carignan. They are tremendous table wines and great values at prices usually at $10-$20 a bottle.

I wrote a more detailed story for Palate Press – The National Online Wine Magazine on organic wines and the fight over the details. Go to and search organic wine or my name to find that story.

Howard’s Picks: Labels to look for include Italy’s Perlage, Domaine Joly (which will soon be available) or check out The Organic Wine Company online for a wide selection of organic wines.

Checking Out Some Great Value Wines

Where can I find great wine for a great price?

Or, what can I find from the grocery store?

After three years of doing this those are still the most frequently asked questions of this column and my related blog. I try to use the space five or six times a year to give some specific examples.

The Robert Mondavi "Private Selection" label has been one of my favorites lately in this category. You'll find the label almost everywhere. Most Indiana Kroger groceries carry the Mondavi wines.
The most recent offering is the 2010 Robert Mondavi Meritage. The wine is a blend of mostly Cabernet, Merlot, and Malbec. They do add a small amount of Petit Verdot. You could call it a classic Bordeaux blend if that makes more sense. 

The great thing about this wine is its easy drinkability and smooth finish. The grapes come from California's Central Coastal region in the Monterey wine region. The wine has very mild tannins and would be great for experienced and novice wine drinkers.

This is the Mondavi entry level label. I've had the Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot and Chardonnay. The suggested retail price is $11. It's usually available for less. All are great value buys.

I am really developing a taste for different white wines. It's easy to go into any market or liquor store and find a Chardonnay, Riesling, or even a Sauvignon Blanc.

Two of the best I've tasted lately are a bit more exotic but still easy to find in any decent wine shop.
Semillon is a grape known widely in the Bordeaux region of France but it's grown around the world. There are nice Semillon wines coming out of California, if you can find them. Australia's Jenke Semillon (a 2008 vintage) was a great recent find.

It's crisp with a hint of that grassy/lime flavor you get with Sauv Blanc. But Semillon is much smooth and this particular wine had an incredibly smooth finish.

This wine does not require an adventursome spirit. It's easy to drink and for $15-$20 the wine is a tremendous value.

The other white is similar in ways to the Semillon with a smooth drinkable feel on the palate. Morris Maremma Toscana Vermentino is a fabulous bottle of white wine. The Vermentino will be a bit more dry than the Semillon but still perfect alone or with chicken dishes.

Vermentino is known for its Sardinia origins but it's also found in Southern France's Provence and Languedoc-Roussillon regions.

Both of these whites are great choices as sippers, with snacks, or chicken meals. Many folks think of white wine and then fish, but I would recommend something with a bit more acidity than these two for most white fish meals.

Now if you can't find the Jenke or Italian label, just go to a wine shop and ask for a Semillon, Vermentino, or take the shop owner's recommendation.

So you have one easy-to-find supermarket wine with the Mondavi label and two from the something really different category that you should try.

All three wines are easy on the palate and wallet!

Howard W. Hewitt, Crawfordsville, IN., writes about wine every other week for 18 Midwestern Newspapers. You can write him at: