Get out your vegetable-tanned ponchos and Sativa hemp shopping bags, we're going organic today. Not because Earth Day is coming up (April 22). Not because pesticides are bad for us. Rather, because wine made from organically grown grapes is better tasting than its given credit for, and it should be given credit.
A few weeks ago I penned a piece about a research study that posed the intriguing question: Does organic wine taste better? The scientific answer: Yes. The findings renewed my curiosity as well as that of several readers, who wrote in asking for specific recommendations.
Let's recap. The study, led by management professor Magali Delmas at the University of California, Los Angeles, focused on a database of 74,148 wine reviews written mainly by three highly regarded U.S. critics, Robert M. Parker Jr., James Laube and Steve Heimoff. Wines among those reviews that had been sourced from pesticide-free, eco-certified vineyards received scores that were, on average, 0.46 percentage points higher on the 100-point rating scale.
It might seem a slim margin but it was significant in statistical terms. And it underscored the view of many winemakers that naturally tended soil is good not only for the health of vineyard workers and the environment but also for grape flavour.
I have heard the passionate sermons from such organic champions as winemaker Ann Sperling of Southbrook Vineyards and owner Moray Tawse at Tawse Winery, both in Niagara. I have heard it from the Aubert de Villaine, co-owner of iconic Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy, which doesn't need (or want) to promote its organic practices to sell its wines. I tip my hat to the excellent organic cuvées of Bruce Ewert at L'Acadie Vineyards in Nova Scotia and Ezra Cipes and Eric von Krosigk at Summerhill Pyramid Winery in British Columbia. But, frankly, none of the talk had persuaded me that organic wine is inherently better tasting than any wine grown with reasonable respect for the land. Most conscientious and exacting small producers today tend to use synthetic chemicals only sparingly anyway.
But I suspect that, if you're like most people who buy organically grown wine, you do so not mainly out of concern for flavour or even for the environment. You do it for your body based on the assumption that pesticides are harmful and may even be causing your wine-related headaches. (I wouldn't bet on that last part, but that's a topic I've covered in previous columns.)
The wines below represent a cross-section of prices. Some have, in fact, been treated with a tiny amount of sulphur dioxide, an antiseptic and antioxidant common to most wines produced with organically grown grapes. They may not represent the ultimate organic viticulture (you'd have to fork out more than $30,000 for a bottle of 1990 Romanée-Conti to experience that). But to me these seem right for the money, and worthy of your hemp shopping bag.
Clos Henri Sauvignon Blanc 2013, New Zealand
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $28.95
This is the New Zealand outpost of French firm Henri Bourgeois of Sancerre in the Loire Valley, which says a lot. Sancerre remains the lodestar for great sauvignon blanc. What a gem here. It was dry farmed, with no irrigation, and planted to high density to tame vigour and focus energy on the fruit rather than the leaf canopy. Ripe, drippy, peach-like fruit finds counterpoints in fresh grass and stony minerality. Perfect for oysters or light vegetable-based dishes. Lively with acidity but not at all harsh. Available at the above price in Ontario, $33.99 in Nova Scotia.
Paxton MV Shiraz 2014, Australia
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $19.95
Marvellous for the money. Paxton's MV Shiraz comes across as more French than classically Australian, with a satisfyingly dry texture, hint of scorched asphalt and big bite of white pepper to support the rich, dense fruit and licorice characters. Treat it to grilled lamb for a sublime pairing. Available at the above price in Ontario, various prices in Alberta.
Emiliana Coyam 2012, Chile
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $29.95
One of Chile's leaders in organic viticulture, Emiliana crafts this flagship red from an unusual mix of syrah, carmenere, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, mourvèdre and malbec. Rich and succulent, it oozes cherry, cassis and strawberry flavours along with lively mint and spice. Handsomely structured, it comes across as a mix of Napa and Bordeaux. Perfect for steak. Available at the above price in Ontario, $27.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $30.06 in Manitoba, $35.79 in Nova Scotia.
Tawse Estate Vineyards Chardonnay 2012, Ontario
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $37.95
A deftly oaked chardonnay that manages to stay bright and clean. From the excellent summer of 2012, it shows ripe tropical, melon and apple fruit enhanced by subtle spice and a whisper of vanilla butter. Polished and precise. Organic as well as biodynamic. Available direct from the Niagara winery, tawsewinery.ca.
Momo Sauvignon Blanc 2014, New Zealand
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $19.95
Cinematographer Michael Seresin set up one of the world's most impressive organic wine estates in his native New Zealand. This white comes from his relatively affordable Momo range, produced partly from his own vineyards and partly from contract growers. It's Sancerre times two, intensity-wise, with bright grapefruit and lemon zest notes against a razor-crisp backdrop, with wonderful flinty-mineral edge. Available at the above price in Ontario, $19.99 in Nova Scotia.
Yalumba Organic Viognier 2015, Australia
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $17.95
Yalumba was an Australian pioneer with viognier, first planting this once-rare and now-fashionable white grape in 1980. Today it makes some of the best examples outside France's Condrieu district, including a top bottling called Virgilius. They've captured the grape's best qualities in this certified organic offering. Full-bodied, silky and luscious, it hints at apricot, orange and almond along with ginger and spices. Winemaker Heather Fraser eschews fining with animal proteins (a common practice in the wine world), so this is billed as vegan-friendly, too. A brilliant match for Indian curries. Available in Ontario. Readers in British Columbia and Alberta might want to try the comparably priced Yalumba Organic Chardonnay, though I have yet to sample it.
Frascole Chianti Rufina 2012, Italy
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $17.95
If you like your reds very, very dry, give this medium-full Italian a whirl. It's sangiovese sandpaper, in a good way, with dried-cherry and strawberry fruit, hints of licorice, herbs and leafy underbrush, moving to a salty finish that's balanced by juicy and – to my nose – slightly volatile acidity. Affordable organic chianti – how nice. Available in Ontario.
Southbrook Connect Organic White 2014, Ontario
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $15.95
Southbrook has become the flag-bearer for organic and biodynamic grape farming in Niagara under the capable hands and pioneering vision of winemaking director Ann Sperling. This cheerful, entry-level white – the most widely available certified-organic VQA wine in Ontario – is medium-bodied, dry, fruity and vibrant. A harmonious blend of vidal, chardonnay, riesling and sauvignon blanc, it shows a musky aromatic quality along with stone fruit, citrus zest and, to me, a fetching whisper of grass and dried hay. Nice for Asian dishes and for springtime in general. Available at select LCBO stores in Ontario and direct from the winery, southbrook.com, $19.95 in Quebec.
Jean Leon 3055 Merlot Petit Verdot 2014, Spain
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $18.95
Full, smooth and youthfully fresh, with sweet jammy plum in an easy-drinking, lightly oaked style. Available in Ontario.
Miguel Torres Las Mulas Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Chile
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $12.95
Medium bodied and very dry, with juicy cherry and currant fruit, a minty-green herbal quality, hint of smoke and a tangy quality that might fairly be called minerally. Bracing and Bordeaux-like. Nice for the money. Available at the above price in Ontario, various prices in Alberta.