Can you taste organic?
Is the organic wine glass half empty, or is it half full? To some extent, the answer depends on who's looking.
On the one hand, the folks at the Organic Trade Association recently reported, with apparent delight, that U.S. sales of certified organic wines and wines made with organic grapes reached $80 million last year, a 28 percent increase over the previous year and nearly double the sales of organic wines in 2003.
On the other hand, more cynical observers might point out that $80 million in sales barely shows up on the national radar, representing just over 1 percent of the $7 <i>billion</i> that thirsty U.S. consumers spent on wine overall last year.
Even at our local Whole Foods, a temple to all things organic and natural, "earth-friendly" wines fill only one relatively small section of shelving in the wine shop, the lion's share being taken by fine but conventionally produced wines.
Like organic foods, which accounted for about 2.5 percent of the nation's $550 billion in overall food sales in 2004, organic wine is a small but fast-growing industry segment, said to be increasing at the rate of 15 to 20 percent annually.
Under recent regulatory changes in the U.S., the European Union and other countries, most organic foods and beverages are more tightly controlled by regulation than they have been in the past, offering consumers somewhat more assurance that "organic" on the label actually <i>means</i> something.
Under new regulations, wines sold in the U.S. with "organic" on the label must meet the criteria for one of three specific categories:<UL>
<LI><B>100 percent organic</B> Everything that goes into or touches the wine, from grapes to yeast to processing ingredients, must come from organic sources.</LI>
<LI><B>Organic</B>: Wines bearing this label must be made from certified organic grapes at a winery that has earned organic certification. No sulfites may be added (although these wines will still contain some sulfites as a natural byproduct of fermentation). Non-organic ingredients including tartaric acid and commercial yeast may be used.</LI>
<LI><B>Made with organic grapes</B>: These wines also must be made from certified organic grapes at a certified winery. Sulfites may be added in the form of sulfur dioxide, a natural preservative; however, total sulfites must remain below 100 parts per million. (For comparison, all wines containing more than 10 parts per million must bear a warning label. Wines made in the U.S. may contain as much as 350 parts per million, although this high level is rarely seen in practice.)</LI></UL>
Does the organic difference show up in the taste of wine in your glass?
As a fairly avid (but far from exclusive) consumer of organic and natural foods and beverages, I've been following organic wines with some interest for years and tend to support the producers who make them because I admire their commitment to a natural approach to farming that avoids the use of industrial pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.
In my experience, many of the producers who choose this more difficult path tend to show the same commitment to quality as they do to treading lightly on the earth with their agricultural practices. But I think it's fair to point out that the fine-wine industry in general - in contrast with some larger agribusiness sectors - tends toward natural agriculture simply because industrial techniques aren't well suited for the production of great wines.
If you're an advocate of organic farming, it makes sense for you to support natural producers. But if the evidence is in the glass, I have yet to be convinced that you can detect an organic wine product by tasting the wine.
For today's tasting, let's review a fine red wine of Provence from Mas de Gourgonnier, a producer whose wines I've been following for years. Owned by brothers Luc and Fred Cartier, Mas de Gourgonnier makes all-organic wines from vineyards that never see chemical fertilizers, weed-killers or artificial insecticides. They make a red, white and rosé as well as somewhat more pricey "reserve" wines. But I keep coming back to the basic red for good value, year in and year out.
No, I can't necessarily taste "organic" in the bottle, but I love the wine, an earthy, rustic, sturdy but well-balanced blend of Grenache, Carignan and Syrah and - only for the U.S. export market - a splash of Cabernet Sauvignon.
<table border="0" align="right" width="170"><tr><td><img src="http://www.wineloverspage.com/graphics1/gour1104.jpg" border="1" align="right"></td></tr></table>Mas de Gourgonnier 2003 Les Baux de Provence ($12.99)
This is a very dark reddish-purple wine, almost black, shading to clear garnet at the edge. Fresh, ripe cherry-berry aromas, raspberries and black cherries, add an earthy, discreet and not unpleasant whiff of the barnyard that I find typical of Gourgonnier. Flavors are consistent with the nose, juicy and fresh. Full but nicely balanced for a 2003, rustic but not over-the-top, relatively modest alcohol at 12.5%. U.S. importer: Vintner Select, Mason, Ohio, and other regional importers. (Nov. 4, 2006)
<B>FOOD MATCH:</b> Matching earthy with earthy, it was a perfect companion with prosciutto-wrapped bites of dark chicken meat with a tiny dab of duck <i>foie gras</i> mousse; for something a little less <i>outré</i>, try it with fried chicken livers or braunschweiger. Or for that matter, any red meat or sharp cheese.
<B>VALUE:</B> No complaints at this price in the lower teens.
<B>WHEN TO DRINK:</B> Drinking beautifully now, but with its fine balance and good structure, I see no reason it couldn't be cellared for a few years under good storage conditions. Note also that this vintage has been kicking around for a year or so - I sampled the 2002 two years ago this month - so the 2004 should already be in distribution.
<B>Mas de Gourgonnier</B> = "<I>Mahss duh Goor-gone-yay</I>"
<B>Les Baux de Provence</B> = "<I>Lay Bow duh Pro-vawnss</I>"
The winery's Web address, http://www.gourgonnier.com/, forwards to an E-commerce page with limited information about the winery in French and English.
<B>FIND THIS WINE ONLINE:</B>
The winery's E-commerce site delivers only within France. Click to view its English-language pages.
Look up vendors and check prices for Mas de Gourgonnier on Wine-Searcher.com.