In my relatively short career in wine, I have seen the shape and perception of organic wine change quite drastically. First, maybe eight or nine years ago, the assumption was that they were too expensive and generally not all that interesting– at least to everyday consumers walking into my shop. Meanwhile, the industry began to listen up and pay attention to many of the more classic natural producers. Many winemakers from portfolios like Louis Dressner, Rosenthal, Domaine Select, Eric Solomon, Terry Thiese and Kermit Lynch shared a commonality of generational practices in the vineyard that were organic, biodynamic and at the very least reflective of lutte raisonee wherein all measures are taken to avoid chemical intervention unless absolutely necessary due to destructive vintage conditions. Now, it is becoming quite common to hear that a winery has ‘gone green’, but does this always equate to better quality?
In short, no.
In the last week, I spent 3 days tasting through hundreds of organic and biodynamic wines from producers all over the world at the Millesime Bio in Montpellier, France. Sticking my nose glass after glass of what seemed like endless tables in endless room, it became clear to me: not all organic wines are created equal. It seemed some winemakers purely practice organic for marketing motives, some do it for the love and intimate connection to the land, and some fall somewhere in between the two. Without a doubt, the most focused winemakers stood out— those who genuinely understood the mechanics of sustainable grapegrowing as well as the response to hazard conditions should they arise. Organic practices found them, not the other way around… It just made sense after years of observation and experimentation. The best were often growers who found that if they paid close attention to the balance and health of their vines, the quality and disease resistance improved each year their grapes had a little more independence from chemicals and human interference.
And so, rather than carry on and relay each and every detail of the good, bad and ugly from this festival, it seems better I share the best in show:
Best Wineries I Experienced for the First Time:
- Domaine Chabanon: absolutely riveting wines from the Languedoc. Though the reds comprise their largest production, it is their whites that really stole my heart. The 2010 Trelans (70 Chenin Blanc and 30 Vermentino) had a lot of intensity without the distracting alcohol one might have imagined in the south (only 12.5%). These biodynamic wines just tickle me happy.
- Domaine Le Rocs des Anges: a winemaker who is intensely brilliant and it shows in the beauty and tension of her wines. They feel like none other on the palate. A structure so nervous and yet generous, they remind you of a first date… the ones that make you fall hard.
- Domaine Thillardon: purity and subtlety really mark these goosebump-forming gamays of Chenas. The contours of these wines really paint the tongue– at once fragile and forceful, they are thoughtful wines of a much undervalued region. 2013 Les Boaccards planted on pink granite might have been the one that had me back for more later…
Best of the Old Favorites:
- Larmandier Bernier: God these wines feel so good. The are shapely and sharp, unadulterated expressions of the Cote de Blancs beloved Chardonnay. I feel lucky every time I am in the presence of a bottle. The classic Terre de Vertus was walking a straight line as ever, and the Chemins d’Avize a near ethereal in its song– a truly magnificent little vineyard they have come upon. But my favorite might still be the Vielle Vignes, starting so layered on the palate then stripping itself a piece at a time until it reveals its mineral purity… but do I really have to choose?
- Weininger: Straddling both Austria and Hungary, this winery has a profound sense of terroir, and it is written on these wines. Tasting from each of the plots, you understand the great difference of soils they work from in this area, from the loamy soils of Austria to the microschisty soils and microclimates in Hungary.
- Francois Chidaine: These wines make me feel like I am falling down Alice’s rabbit hole to wonderland. There is paradox at play here at all times, from the delirious freeform to focused angularity, these whites are absolutely perplexing– a riddle I will forever want to solve.
- Alta Alella: Say what? Low alcohol, sulfite free, organic, interesting, elegant, Jura like wines from Spain? Yes please. I am desperate to learn more of this curious winery– specifically the off shoot sulfite free line they are doing separate from their other labels (what they refer to as their Vins Naturals with the birds on the labels). Sadly they put out handfuls (of bottles) at a time, for the production of this unique side brand is so low. If you come across it in New York or Seattle, let me know what you think! Sounds like that is their limited market at the moment.
- Domaine Sainte Croix: Wonderfully refreshing reds made of ancient Carignan vines from Corbieres. They manage to really reflect this regions dense, full fruited character without the rusticity that has turned some off to the style. It is an impressive interpretation I hope to have very soon again… maybe their ‘Magneric’ with a lamb burger!
- Chateau le Puy: Super old school, traditional style from this multigenerational estate on the right bank of Bordeaux. I was reminded of such producers as Musar and Lopez de Heredia– two producers I love to have cross my mind when I smell other wines. These are storied, heritage wines that not only reflect tradition, but the winemaker really never stops thinking of way to take this expression further. From sailing barrels in ships to possibly considering amphora one day, this is a winery that pushes the limits.