Organic wines are coming of age and Northwest wineries now are producing some excellent choices. Labeling, unfortunately, remains confusing. Our wine writer lists six top organic wines, and explains the differences between the major categories of organic wines, including "organic," "made with organic grapes" and "biodynamic."
Intellectually, I want to embrace organic wines and welcome them to my dinner table. But as a wine writer, for the longest time I resisted talking about them because they weren’t as flavorful or complex as conventional counterparts. Plus, the rules for organic labeling were so confusing I couldn’t tell what I was getting in a bottle.
But with an increasing number of organic vineyards reaching maturity, organic wines are coming of age, offering a viable alternative to consumers who seek foods without additives or synthetic chemicals.
That includes Washington and Oregon wines, for those who wish to support local farmers and leave a smaller carbon footprint. Though the Northwest organic-wine industry is tiny compared to epicenter California’s, it’s producing some noteworthy choices; I’ve listed six top picks.
Bonus: Although there’s a perception that, much like organic foods, organic wines cost more, my choices put that myth to rest.
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Confusing labeling, unfortunately, remains — with a dizzying array of designations (see chart.) But the biggest and arguably most important two are the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s: “organic wine” with no added sulfites allowed; and “made with organic grapes” with added sulfites allowed.
Sulfites, salts of sulfurous acid, which stabilize and preserve wine, also occur naturally in winemaking but are controversial for possibly triggering headaches, sniffles and allergic reactions in sensitive individuals.
(Worth noting: Wines without sulfites added won’t age well and are meant to be consumed once they are opened.)
Here’s a closer look at what’s happening in our region.
Washington hops on
Our state’s oldest and largest organic producer, Badger Mountain Vineyards, began in 1986, when Bill Powers’ vineyards were accidentally dusted with 2,4-D, a powerful weed killer used by wheat farmers in the Columbia Valley.
The four-year-old vines took two years to recover, and their near destruction prompted Powers and his son and the winemaker, Greg, to make the transition to organic farming.
By 1990 Badger Mountain became the state’s first vineyard to be certified organic under USDA guidelines. Today it offers a well-crafted line of no-sulfite organic wines, including riesling, chardonnay, merlot, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, port and bag-in-the-box blends under the label “pure wines.”
More recently, in 2004, Snoqualmie Vineyards, whose parent company is Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, introduced its “Naked” and “Nearly Naked” lines. Swayed by my respect for longtime winemaker Joy Andersen more than their “made with organically grown grapes” labeling, I tried the wines and enjoyed them.
Oregon’s biodynamic boom
While Washington has only recently made the move, for upward of 25 years a good number of Oregon winemakers have quietly practiced sustainable viticulture. Oregon wineries tend to be smaller and family-run, more along the model of European operations where organic farming is widely practiced.
But even for Oregon winemakers, meeting the USDA’s labeling standards can be difficult, according to Steven Baker, spokesman for King Estate Winery near Eugene, Ore., where all 1,033 acres are certified organic. Baker explains that “we could label our wines as being made from organically grown grapes. However, that would tie our hands if we ever needed to intervene in the winery with the use of such benign compounds as copper … So our label simply says sustainably grown, even though the grapes are all organic.”
Increasingly, winegrowers in Oregon are moving toward “biodynamic” agriculture, which manages farms as self-sufficient, healthy ecosystems and includes performing farming practices according to sun, moon and planetary cycles. Some see it as über-organic, others as woo-woo.
All 100-plus acres of vineyards at A to Z Wineworks, Oregon’s largest winemaker, will be certified biodynamic by 2010, says Nadine Lew, viticulturist and vineyard liaison.
In McMinnville, Ore., Moe and Flora Momtazi, originally from Iran, and their 25-year-old daughter and winemaker Tahmiene Momtazi, operate certified-biodynamic Maysara Winery. In 1998, the Momtazis planted their first 13 acres on a wheat field that had lain fallow for 30 years.
“After nine years, you can see it,” Tahmiene Momtazi says. “Clean, pure soil leads to a biodiversity of animals. We have rainbow trout, lambs, Texas longhorns, cows, white-headed ducks and butterflies I’ve never seen anywhere else.
“The vineyard and soil are happy. If the soil isn’t happy, you won’t have good agriculture.”
It feels good to know that the wine we drink with dinner can have a beneficial impact on the planet. And now that some outstanding organic wines from our region are on the menu, I’m even happier to raise a glass.
Braiden Rex-Johnson is author of seven books, including “Pacific Northwest Wining & Dining” (Wiley, 2007), and food-and-wine-pairing columnist for Wine Press Northwest magazine. Her Web site: www.NorthwestWiningandDining.com