What does "green" really mean? Nothing, I fear. The word has been co-opted by some of the brownest industries on Earth. Take the auto sector. I enjoy a smooth ride as much as the next guy, but the concept of a green fuel-powered personal car is ludicrous, unless we're talking about paint colour. Think of the junk pumped out of ore mines, steel mills and factories.
Yes, it's Earth Day next week and even the wine columnist gets to pontificate. I draw attention to vehicles because they are used heavily in wine production and distribution. As with cars, there is no such thing as a green wine, no matter what a growing number of self-serving wineries tell us.
Glass bottles and the liquid inside are heavy. The trucks and ships that get the stuff to our door burn fossil fuels and pump out greenhouse gases. Unless you drink local, you're warming the planet every time you sip a cool pinot grigio.
But here's a happy truth about wine that can't be said about even a 100-kilometre-per-gallon hybrid. Its production process is pretty benign. Over the course of the growing season, vine leaves consume much, in some cases virtually all, the carbon dioxide expelled by the winemaking stages, including fermentation. And when it comes to high-quality stuff made at smaller estates, the trend is toward fewer pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. It's not just hip to be organic. It's getting to be a sign of smart, quality-oriented winemaking. And as with organic tomatoes, wines made from organic grapes tend to taste better. That's because winemakers have learned they tend to get better fruit in the long haul from healthy, self-sustaining vineyards.
Visit many vineyards today and you'll see wild grasses growing between vine rows, an ancient practice to help soil retain nutrition, encouraging vine stamina and natural biodiversity. I love the irony: using weeds to curb chemicals. Progressive vineyards today are the opposite of golf courses.
In many New World vineyards, notably Chile and Australia, the summer climate is also so dry that there's no need for fungicides.
The welcome news for green-leaning wine consumers is that the choice of organic wines is growing rapidly. Vintages stores in Ontario have just released a selection of well-priced "eco-friendly" wines that are either fully organic or made from organically farmed grapes.
The big difference between the two categories is that the latter can contain added sulphur, an antiseptic that kills spoilage organisms and prevents wine from oxidizing and becoming flat-tasting.
Incidentally, the fear of sulphur is vastly overblown. Some people are mildly allergic to high levels and might sneeze a bit and turn slightly red in the face. But the sulphur levels in wine are generally benign (you'd do better to steer clear of dried apricots, which are sulphur hand grenades). Those infamous sulphite warnings on wine labels are there for a specific audience. Approximately 5 per cent of asthmatics are severely allergic and could actually die from too much sulphur. Incidentally, you'll even see those warnings on fully organic wines. That's because all wine contains some sulphur, a natural sbyproduct of fermentation.
If you live in Ontario and have an interest in organic wine, do yourself a favour, look for Roche Bastide Côtes du Rhône 2007 ($12.95, product No. 155523). A full-bodied, earthy red from southern France, it's perfectly ripe and balanced, with fresh dark-skinned-fruit intermingled with classic southern-Rhône notes of licorice, wild herbs and black pepper. Superb value.
Also from the warm Rhône Valley, home to many organic French producers, comes Domaine des Carabiniers Côtes du Rhône 2007 ($15.95, No. 156323). Sweet red fruits lead the way in this full-bodied red, which subtly gave me the impression of raspberries on vanilla ice cream and mint-sprig garnish, but in a dry way. Like the wine above, it would match well with lots of hearty meat dishes - especially lamb, beef and game.
It's hard to find good affordable Chianti any more, let alone organic Chianti. Both qualities merge in L'Antico di Burchino Vignan Casanova Tenuta di Burchino Chianti 2007 ($14.95, No. 160457). From trendy western Tuscany, south of Pisa, this medium-bodied red hints at sour red berries and rocky earth, with a moderate tannic grip.
Alsatian producer Marcel Deiss is, in my book, one of the more compelling adherents to the biodynamic movement, an extreme offshoot of organic viticulture. Biodynamic freaks have raised eyebrows, mine included, with their slavish adherence to lunar cycles, belief in extraterrestrial energy forces and the practice of fermenting manure in a buried cow horn. But you can't argue with success when it does happen. Not all biodynamic wines are great, but most of Deiss's are. Marcel Deiss Pinot d'Alsace 2004 ($17.95, No. 165365) is one of his more modest bottlings (his much more expensive premier cru and grand cru wines are hard to find). It's a medium full-bodied white, based mainly on pinot blanc, that could handle some hearty fare. Almost off-dry, it's plump with creamy peach and lychee and notes of ginger and spice. Think of mushroom-heavy preparations, cheeses, liver pâtés, even spicy Asian dishes.
Not strictly organic but farmed according to impressive sustainable practices is Tinhorn Creek Cabernet Franc 2007 ($17.99 in B.C. through www.tinhorn.com; to be released in Ontario on July 24 at $19.95). Grapes for this full-bodied red from the Okanagan winery grow in a desert climate and get minimal spraying with fungicides or pesticides. This would make a terrific partner for burgers on the grill. Sweet and soft-textured at first, with succulent fruit and a hint of herbs, it finishes dry, with notes of cedar, tobacco and vanilla.
In closing, here are some organic or mostly organic producers to seek out: Malivoire, Frogpond Farm and Southbrook from Niagara; Summerhill and Working Horse in British Columbia; Benziger and Bonterra from California; Cono Sur and Tarapaca Natura from Chile; Jean Bousquet and Santa Julia from Argentina; and Chapoutier and Zind-Humbrecht in France.