Exploring Organic and Biodynamic Wines

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Pam 2011

Pam

 

EXPLORING ORGANIC and BIODYNAMIC WINES:  Living in the Organic Petri Dish . . .

By:  Pamela Dennis, retired management consultant and Priscilla Pritchard, principal, Tango Strategy 

 

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Priscilla

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We are in Boulder, Colorado… known for clean air, 300+ days of sunshine, and healthy living, it is also known as a veritable incubator for new organic product development and the home to one of the Top 10 Whole Foods stores in the nation.Organic bio-diverse 8

Organic truly is king in just about everything except . . . you guessed it . . . wine!

Why weren’t we and our organic-living and wine-loving friends extoling the virtues of organic or biodynamic wines?

Our quest began; to educate ourselves about these unique and mystifying libations.

Definitions:

Organic Wine: 100% Organic” wines are made from 100% certified organic ingredients, are grown and processed without fertilizers, pesticides, or other synthetic compounds, and contain no added sulfites. Producers follow specific regulations and pay to use the USDA Organic seal plus the words 100% Organic on their label. “Organic” wines are made with 95% organic ingredients and contain no added sulfites. They too can display the USDA Organic seal but not the additional wording. There are also wines labeled “Made with Organic Grapes” thus content must be 70% organic and sulfites may be added. They may not carry the USDA Organic seal. As with organic food, the labeling scheme can be very confusing to consumers!Organic bio-diverse 5

 

Biodynamic Wine: Grown according to a holistic approach promoted by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. He believed that there is inter-connectedness between the soil, plants, animals and astrological elements. (e.g. there is a ritual requiring a bull’s horn to be filled with manure and planted in the soil at a certain point in the lunar cycle.) Biodynamic wines must also adhere to an array of sustainability practices. Biodynamic wines may contain sulfites up to 100 parts per million. These may qualify to display the Demeter logo on their label to indicate they are bio-dynamically produced.

Old world-New world, what’s changed?

The old world wineries of Europe are the foundation for organic and bio-dynamic wine production now labeled “green” or “sustainable”. Traditionally the old and new worlds were distinguished by style and philosophy. Old World winemaking emphasized region and terroir along with the role of Mother Nature. New World winemaking emphasized the character of the fruit and employed science and technology to ‘control’ Mother Nature and the soil to iron out any ‘terroir’ and climate variations.

The lines are hazier now between Old World and New when it comes to certified organic and bio-dynamic wine making.

For example these bio-dynamic practices were clearly in evidence for generations in Europe:

Cover crops — planted to enrich the soil and support biodiversity.

Co-habitation – of crops and farm animals to contribute nutrients to the soil, so synthetic fertilizers are not needed.

Composting – e.g. with leftover grape skins, seeds and stems from the winemaking to more naturally feed the vines.

Natural sources of water — using mother nature or captured water from wine making process vs. large-scale irrigation.

There are skeptics, however. Luc Charlier, a doctor-turned-winegrower in the Roussillon, regards bio-dynamic growing theories as a “load of baloney.” But, Dr. Jamie Goode in his book “Wine Science,” adopts a balanced approach. “… as wine-growers adopt bio-dynamics, they are entering into a philosophical system that acts as a framework to help them maintain a careful approach in the vineyard.”

Even those who adopt the philosophy see it as difficult to completely embrace. “It’s just like homeopathy or osteopathy; you either believe or you don’t,” says Pierre Vincent, of Domaine de la Vougeraie.

The Blind Tasting:

We gathered twelve friends (organic food lovers, wine lovers but not wine experts) for a blind tasting with two goals in mind:

Organic bio-diverse 31) how would we rate wines not knowing whether they were organic or not;

2) have some fun determining whether we could really discern the taste of an organic from a conventional wine.

We enlisted Kevin Down as our tasting guide from our local wine merchant, Liquor Mart. With Kevin we chose four varietals – two whites and two reds – opting for an organic and conventional in each set. To add interest we chose two Old World and two New World. For each varietal pair we matched the year, region and retail price as closely as possible. The eight wines are listed here in the order we tasted them:

 

 

 

 • Patianna Sauvignon Blanc 2010 — Hanna Sauvignon Blanc 2010

• Cascina degli Ulivi Gavi 2010 — Fontannafredda Gavi 2010

• Sass Pinot Noir 2010 — Willamette Valley Winery Pinot Noir Whole Berry Cluster 2010

• Iuli Rossore Barbera 2008 — Tavijn Barbera 2008

 

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Our KISS ratings included nose and taste and asked “organic–yes or no?” and guess the varietal.

Before the tasting we enjoyed a beautiful organic Prosecco (Alice) and followed the tasting with additional organic wines to accompany delicious tapas, pumpkin lasagna, and cheeses.

 

Tasting Results:

Distinguishing i.e. guessing –organic/bio-dynamic from conventional: 60% of us correctly identified the organic from the conventional half of the time; only one person distinguished all pairs correctly and one person was 100% incorrect (our lips are sealed!)

Highest rated wines: #1= 2008 Iuli Rossore Barbera (Piedmont, organic $23.99) #2= 2010 Patianna Sauvignon Blanc Mendocino (organic $15.99) #3= 2010 Fontannafredda Gavi (Piedmont, conventional $25.99)

Varietal guesswork: This group of wine drinkers knows a Sauv Blanc and Pinot when they taste them! Almost everyone correctly named these varietals. Only two people recognized the Barbera and no one identified the Gavi.

Hasty but tasty conclusions: The taste outweighs the label. A famous food researcher said ‘the tongue trumps the brain’. People seem to agree that they buy what they enjoy drinking (or have fond memories of drinking) regardless of the label. They were surprised that so many of the wines they most enjoyed were organic proving that ‘incorrect facts’ having long half-lives.

Here are a few of the comments after the wines were identified:

“I care about taste, and then I care about how they make wines i.e. taking care of the earth”

“If it’s organic I expect it to cost more so it better be good!” (This may indicate expectations for organic wines are finally coming into line with those for organic food!)

“Things (i.e. taste) being equal, I’d rather choose organic if it’s gentler on my body.”

Our favorite summation:   “This is a test we are going to have to take over and over again until we get it right!”

What sellers say about marketing these wines:

One of the most fascinating aspects of our exploration was discovering the paradox in marketing and pricing organics. It defies logic!

A recent UCLA study reviewed the wine ratings from Wine Spectator for over 13,400 wines from almost 1500 California wineries with vintages from 1998 to 2005 covering more than 30 varietals and 25 appellations. They tabulated the number of wines made with grapes that had been third party certified as organically grown. The researchers sorted the wines by whether the wineries chose to display certification on their label.Organic bio-diverse 12

They found certification and organic labels for wines under $25 had no impact on pricing. Organic wines over $25, however, which did NOT carry an eco-label, commanded a 13% higher price than conventional wines of the same varietal, appellation and year.

When they looked at ratings by Wine Spectator of organics’ vs. conventional wines, organics were on average one point higher than their conventional rivals (probably not of statistical significance but rather the near equal ratings suggest parity). These comparison ratings endured even on eco-labeled wines.

The very surprising finding is the highly rated and eco-labeled wines commanded a 7% lower price than highly rated conventionally produced wines! The average price for a labeled and rated organic was $37.65 compared to a no-label rated organic average price of $40.54.

 

What explains this?   We heard and read several reasons, but three prevailed;

First, the 70’s and 80’s “Hippies” reputation of organics amazingly still lingers driving price down.

Second, winemakers prefer their higher priced organic wines be shelved with like-varietals rather than segregated into an ‘organic’ section; hence they don’t eco-label. In the UCLA study, Delmas suggested an underlying consumer rationale: “Consumers buy organically grown food because they think it is going to improve their health. That motivation doesn’t go a long way with wine. If consumers want to drink something healthy, they’ll reach for wheat grass, not an alcoholic beverage.” Our local wine shop manager said it this way, “…organic food advocates expect to pay more for their tomatoes at the Boulder Farmers’ Market but they expect organic wine to be cheap.”

Third, many winemakers produce organics and bio-dynamic wines “because it is the right thing to do for the earth” and not for any label advantage. Thank goodness for altruism because this paradox seems to prove the adage “No good deed goes unpunished.”

What critics say:
Opinions vary as to whether you can differentiate between organic and conventional wines of the same “quality”. While Fortune Magazine conducted a tasting and found:  “Out of ten pairs of wines, only one of the conventionally made wines was judged superior to its biodynamic counterpart.”   

 A blind tasting tournament held by Young Winos of LA in March 2012 claimed “certain Young Winos expressed a pronounced dislike for wines labeled “organic” (and/or “biodynamic”), and have stated their belief that such wines typically exhibit a particular flavor — sometimes politely described as “dirty and earthy,” other times less politely described using choice four-letter words.”

And finally, Doug Frost, a Master of Wine and Master Sommelier quipped, “The biodynamic movement seems like a latent ’60s acid-trip-inspired lunacy–until you taste the wines.”

 

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