John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for April 14th: Setting the record straight on Sustainable/Organic/Biodynamic wine; Top Ten Smart Buys

John Szabo, MS

What is Eco-Friendly Wine?   April 14th sees another batch of wines hit LCBO Vintages shelves, with a spotlight on Argentina and “Top-Quality, Eco-friendly wines”. The former theme features a largely lackluster range of oaky and over ripe malbecs and cabernets, with an exception or two, while the latter theme drew my attention for its ambiguity. What does ‘eco-friendly’ mean today? Between the various designations of sustainable, organic, biodynamic, fair trade, natural and whatever else I’ve missed, I thought I’d check into some details, and give you the benefit of informed consumption.

Top Ten Smart Buys

Hamilton Russell ChardonnayBut first, some highlights from the top ten smart buys. While I usually try to keep selections under $25, every so often a wine in the ‘premium’ price segment attracts attention for its super premium quality, making it a smart buy. Such is the case with the 2010 Hamilton Russell Chardonnay, South Africa ($31.95). For those who have been following South Africa’s wine scene, this won’t be a surprise. Tim Hamilton Russell first purchased the property back in 1975, after a dedicated search for the right cool climate site. He fell upon the then unknown Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, one of the southernmost vineyard regions in the Cape winelands, almost within sight of the old fishing village of Hermanus and the meeting point of the Indian, Southern and Atlantic Oceans.

Tim’s son Anthony, who took over in 1991, has since narrowed the range of grapes to just pinot noir and chardonnay, grown on 52 hectares of stony, clay-rich, shale-derived soil. The results have been consistently fine wine, always among South Africa’s most elegant expressions. The 2010 is a wine of real class, seamlessly blending new world density and richness with old world crispness and vibrancy, hemmed in by subtle wood treatment. In future vintages, a part of this wine will be fermented in small clay amphorae, fired by a local potter, after several years of experimentation with positive results. More to look forward too.

Featherstone Canadian Oak ChardonnayCoto De Imaz ReservaCloser to home and worth a look is the 2010 Featherstone Canadian Oak Chardonnay, Niagara Peninsula ($21.95). Sustainably farmed (more on this later), wild yeast-fermented and aged in Canadian oak (grown along the Grand River in Brantford. Ontario), this is one of the finest releases from the estate. It has a widely appealing, creamy texture and perfectly ripe orchard fruit flavours, alongside nicely integrated wood.

Over to red and the 2005 Coto de Imaz Reserva, Rioja ($19.95), a fully mature treat from Spain’s most historic table wine region, where they kindly do all of the ageing for you. The silky texture will beguile as you enjoy a wonderful range of red berry, brown spice, vanilla and toasted coconut flavours.

Carinae Reserva MalbecTamaya Reserva Malbec/Cabernet Sauvignon/SyrahStill in the Spanish idiom but sourced in the former colonies are two excellent sub-$16 reds: 2009 Tamaya Reserva, Limarì Valley ($15.95) and the 2009 Carinae Reserva Malbec, Mendoza ($15.95). I’ve written plenty of positive things about Chile’s Limarì Valley in general and Viña Tamaya in particular, founded by René Merino in 1999, (who’s also currently president of the Wines of Chile trade association). So there was little surprise but plenty of pleasure from another fine release. Tamaya specializes in blends, and this malbec-cab-syrah cuvee is a model of purity, with the hallmark florality and minerality of the region and juicy, dangerously drinkable appeal.

Across the Andes in Mendoza, at about the same time as Merino was planting his first vines in the Limarì, Brigitte and Philippe Subra arrived from France. Five years later they launched their dream project, Carinae Viñedos and Bodega, having acquired several parcels of old vine malbec, the youngest of which are around 85 years old, in prime Mendoza vineyard areas. The old vine richness and concentration comes across in this exceptional value, the smartest buy of the Argentine feature in my view.

Eco-Friendly Definitions

As you suspected, varying definitions co-exist in the world of eco-friendly wine, part of the larger green washing movement sweeping across many industries. Some of the designations are quantifiable and certifiable, others are about as clear as unfined, unfiltered wine. I’m not suggesting that it’s all a sinister world of sleight-of-hand and subterfuge to get people to buy more and spend more on wine, though that’s certainly part of it. But the net result is consumer confusion.

Sadly, the scope of the subject is worthy of a dissertation, not a wine e-report, so I can’t possibly cover it all, but here is a list of some common designations and a hint at what they mean to you, your fellow citizens, and the planet.

Sustainable Wine: there is no legal definition of sustainability in the wine industry, though the common points considered in several different codes are the three “E”s: environment, economic viability and equality (among workers/community). Several countries and regional associations, and even individual companies, are in the process of defining, or have already defined, the details of their own sustainability code.

For example, the Wines of Chile Sustainability Code was developed “specifically for the Chilean wine industry to set standards and provide a tool for measuring various sustainable practices throughout the entire winemaking value chain and comprises a set of initiatives and projects that aim to guide the industry toward sustainability. The Code addresses the wine sector’s needs for practices with respect to the environment, social responsibility, and economic viability associated practices in three areas – Vineyard, Winery, and Community, and provides a Checklist of control points to be evaluated per area and a Manual with recommendations for each control point”.

While the details in the planning and implementation vary significantly from one code to another, other countries/regions with sustainability codes include New Zealand (Sustainable Winegrowers New Zealand (SWNZ)), California (Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing (CCSW) and South Africa (Sustainable Wine South Africa (SWSA)).

Fair Trade Wine: according to Fair Trade Canada, there are currently Fair Trade Certified wine producer organizations in South Africa, Argentina, and Chile. The standards in order to gain certification include:

• Salaries must be equal to or higher than the regional average or minimum wage in effect.
• A Joint Body of workers, advisors and management is responsible for managing the Fair Trade Premium.
• Forced labour and child labour of children under 15 years old is prohibited. Children aged 15 and above are protected from work that compromises their health or education.
• Workers have freedom of association and collective agreements, including the right to establish or join an independent union, elect advisors and design their own programs.
• Health and safety measures must be established.

Organic Wine: dozens of agencies around the world offer certification for organic products. Most agree on the broad stokes: no chemical pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers. But wine is a little trickier to regulate than, say, a simple fruit, since grapes are grown but then also processed. The grape growing part is easy enough, but there is much discussion as to what constitutes organic winemaking practices, particularly around the use of sulphur dioxide as a preservative.

In Canada as of June 30, 2009, all sellers of goods bearing an organic claim have to provide proof of certification, but not just from any agency. It has to be from an organization whose standards meet the Canadian organic standards, or a standard officially recognised as equivalent by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). But at this time, the only other standard recognized is that of the National Organic Program Standard of the USDA. This means that if certified organically grown (made) wine from a foreign producer wishes to bear an organic claim in Canada, it must be re-certified by either the CFIA or the USDA. So get ready to see more white stickers on wines at the LCBO, blocking out the disallowed organic mention on the labels of wines from foreign producers who don’t want to pay twice for certification. Confused yet?

Biodynamic Wine: unlike the widely applied term organic, the term Biodynamic is a trademark held by a single entity: Demeter Association. Though in France, Biodivin also certifies wine grown following the same principals. In either case, in addition to meeting the general standards of organic certification, biodynamic winegrowing extends to include crop diversification and the consideration of lunar, solar and stellar patterns as well as terrestrial influences on biological organisms. According to Demeter International, “biodiversity and ecosystem preservation, soil husbandry, livestock integration, prohibition of genetically engineered organisms and viewing the farm as a living “holistic organism” are required for certification. Another key component of biodynamic farming is the use of composts and preparations designed to enhance microbial life, aid fertilization and stimulate the vine’s natural immune system.

Eco-friendly Wine: undefined.

Natural Wine: undefined.

Good Wine: yours to define!

From the April 14, 2012 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
All Reviews

John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier