It's become easier and easier to opt for organic wine of late, with more choices and more availability, but when it comes to this choice, are we making it for flavor or ethics? In other words, does organic wine actually taste better, or does it just feel better, you know, as a conscious consumer?
A recent scientific paper attempted to take an objective look at this very subjective question, and the results prove surprising.
Todd Smith, wine director for San Francisco’s DOSA South Indian Restaurants, explains that many take a far more opinion-based approach in evaluating organic wines. “I believe that people taste in a wine what they want to taste in that wine – that is, the power of suggestion is obvious to me,” he says.
The paper, authored by Magali A. Delmas, Olivier Gergaud, and Jinghui Lim, attempts to move beyond these subjective criteria via a thorough approach in exploring whether eco-certified wine -- a category they defined as comprising both biodynamic and organic wine -- is actually better than conventional wine when it comes to flavor.
The study used data from three leading wine publications (Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, and Wine Spectator) to assess the quality of over 70,000 different Californian wines produced between 1998 and 2009.
The study sought to determine whether the price premium afforded to organic and biodynamic wines reflected a true, qualitative difference or not. The wine market is an ideal milieu for this sort of study, as wine publications, such as those used by the authors, regularly offer reviews across the board of the current offerings, allowing control of a range of characteristics including vintage, varietal, and region.
Are Organic Wines Better?
The short answer? Yes.
The study showed that being eco-certified increased the score of a wine by .46 points on average, when scored on a 100-point scale. The data also showed that small wineries were more likely to produce better wine, as were later adopters of the eco-certification, showing that developments in biodynamic and organic wine were creating even better bottles.
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While the statistics were relatively easy to analyze, the reasoning behind this evaluation was a bit tougher to explore.
“I sure as hell do believe that organic, and certainly biodynamic, wines have an x-factor that is hard to fully describe, but I enjoy trying," says Smith.
There were a few common characteristics associated with organic wine; the study authors noted that some of the most commonly used words associated with eco-certified wines in these wine publications included acid, butter, peat, ferment, richer, herb, and rocky.
“These qualities might resonate with winemakers who say that wines without chemicals can better express the flavors of ‘terroir,’” write the authors.
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This reflects what Smith says about the wines tasting much closer to the earth. “I do sense a particular vibrancy in many of them," he says. "Esoterically, they seem to have a life force about them that is pure. I don’t know, greater depth of fruit and perhaps a unity of that and earth. When I drink organic and biodynamic wine, I really feel connection. That this is the true blood of that land."
Perhaps the true reason that organic wines are better than conventional wines is a combination of these scientific characteristics and a different quality. Smith admits that often it is "difficult to fully detect" the difference between conventional and organic wines, particularly when most of the wines he encounters are from small producers.
"That said, I can tell when a wine is loaded with chemicals -- and there are many, many more in consumer wine that most anybody that I speak with ever knows," he says. "It’s horrifying and is very present in cheap, corner store wine in the U.S. as well as many acclaimed producers across Europe. That said, I have correctly called out wines that were grown and made organically/biodynamically, but it isn’t always just about taste difference, right?"
A combination, then, of the knowledge of the chemicals, pesticides, and synthetic sulfites used in conventional wines -- Smith says many contain up to 80, many of which are allergens -- and this intangible "betterness" of organic wines, a closeness to the earth, an evocation of terroir -- makes organic wines the better choice.
Which Organic Wines to Drink?
According to the authors of the study, organic wines still have a bad rep in some circles: two-thirds of California winemakers who achieve eco-certification expressly choose not to include the certification on labeling, as there is a “general sentiment that eco-labeled wines are of lower quality,” the authors write.
It seems, then, that organic wines are better, but our perception of them isn't improving with time.
If you haven't taken the organic plunge yet for fear of encountering sub-par wines at outrageous prices, it's time to change your mind. Smith has a few suggestions, hailing from both Old and New Worlds, that might help:
- Alsatian Cave de Ribeauville, whose wines "are alive and bouncing with minerals -- time-crushed scrubdown of the mountain, as I see it."
- Milton in Gisbourne, New Zealand, whose "Te Arai" biodynamic vineyard offers "full intervention with flaura and fauna and insects and celestial/lunar cycles (...) The wine smells of wild bush honey and gardenia and ripe pear, but the acids make this wine not just stand up, but dance."
- Biodynamic Ferrington Vineyard in Mendocino, whose vineyard is also home to a chicken farm and to organic gardens, and whose Gewurztraminer "is bright and spicy and just shimmers."
- Bob Lindquist of Qupé Cellars in Santa Barbara. "His 2010 (if you can find it!) “Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard” Grenache is super light on its feet and elegant and bursts with ripe raspberry and fresh mountain herbs and is picking up roasted cardamom and star anise as it becomes what it was meant to be."
- The biodynamic "La Roque" Malbec from Fabien Jouves in Cahors, who "cranks French punk rock and howls at the moon at the corners of his vineyards while under a full moon---all to chase away bad spirits and allow only the right influences of all types" in the wine "tastes of the brooding dark plum blood of that hilly place and is unforgettable."
And if that's not enough, we have a few organic wines of our own to suggest.
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