So you’re on board with organic wines. You’ve kicked the pesticides and the nasty, cheating, trifled-with wines that value marketing over manure. As a planet inhabitant, you’re now part of the solution.
Don’t get too comfy, though. We’ve got more digging to do.
You’ve likely heard the term terroir before. Perhaps you’ve debated it over a wine-stained tablecloth yourself. An idea we’ve been led to believe is so French we don’t even get an English translation of the concept, terroir is tough to define in any language.
For some wine folk, terroir means a sense of place — the way that a Provencal rosé’s notes of sea spray can transport you to the Mediterranean, or how the distinct earthiness of Chateaunuf-du-Pape just gives off this aura of big ol’ rocks clacking together.
Tres romantique, but not the whole story. The idea of soil directly contributing flavor to a finished wine may be long-debunked, but soil is absolutely where the story starts. Working away beneath all our favorite vineyards’ limestone, granite, basalt, etc. are the terroir-delivering bacteria and microfauna that act like enzymes to deliver grape vines what they need to live, as well as the goodies that express as flavor complexity — and terroir — in a finished wine.
This is also what we’re really talking about when we weigh the benefits of different mindful winemaking practices. Synthetic pesticides, the main bane of organic cultivation, kill not only problem pests, but waste all the beneficial and essential microorganisms that make the terroir magic happen.
In this way, organic farming can be considered a solid first step. But some farming techniques take it to the next level.
Klinker Brick Winery
Like the name suggests, the main focus of sustainable farming is ensuring we don’t farm ourselves out of the resources which make cultivation, and all life, possible. As with organic rules, synthetic -icides and fertilizers are prohibited, but there are also limits on water and energy use, strict measures on carbon impact, standards for ethical care of native wildlife, and compensation and care for the many people behind the wines. The vineyard is less considered as a crop, more as a biome, and its whole health is of concern to the winemaker, not just the fruit.
As far as certification goes, sustainability organizations function more as ongoing and self-regulated bodies of farmers. One example is Lodi, one of the oldest wine growing regions in California, whose sustainable winemaking standards fall under the “Lodi Rules.”
The Felton family, sixth-generation Lodi farmers, apply these practices under their Lodi Rules certification at Klinker Brick Winery. Implementing dry farming for the majority of their holdings, they plant native cover crops around their property, even between vines, to help regenerate soil, support pollinators, and collect maximum rainwater.
These standards produce wines of palpable care and quality, only the best fruit making it to the glass. To taste Lodi terroir at its best, try their powerful, dark-fruited Lodi Cabernet with notes of clove and dark cherry all the way into a robust but finessed finish; the classic Old Vine Zinfandel with juicy red cherry and smoky pepper; and the extra special Old Ghost Zinfandel with elegant red fruit acid lifting serious concentration of spice, dark chocolate, tobacco and complex herbal notes.
If sustainable practices seem a bit buttoned-up, get ready for a Wild Thing. While Olivier Magny dubs biodynamics “super organic,” Jancis Robinson puts it bluntly: “It sounds completely crazy but results in some pretty exciting wine — and notably healthy-looking vineyards.” No one can really tell you why biodynamic fertilizer works best in the horn of a steer, or why it’s best to harvest on a “fruit day,” but it’s pretty hard to argue with the reliably delicious results.
Without getting too esoteric, the main goal of biodynamic practices is to generate as much fertility in the vineyard as possible. As with sustainable farming, this doesn’t just concern the vines, but all the various organisms sharing the land. Particular emphasis is put on soil health, preparing seasonal nutrient restorations and specially formulated composts, usually from local or on-site sources. Animals are supported and utilized to the great benefit of vineyards, not only replacing the need for machines in many cases, but also cutting down on fossil fuels and other chemical presences.
In his recent essay, young winery owner Pascal Brooks does a lovely job detailing how these standards work their practical magic at his Brooks Winery in Willamette Valley, Oregon. While biodynamic winemaking might be the most laborious love of the methods we’ve looked at, Pascal mentions up front that quality and affordability of wine is in tandem with their emphasis on land and community. Taste Brooks wines made at the highest standards of sustainability and attainability.
The Brooks Runaway Red Pinot Noir, though it’s their entry-level bottling, expresses heaps of complexity with cranberry, rhubarb, and red cherry as well as green herbs, citrus zest, earthy mushroom, and quintessential Willamette cola. The Brooks Janus Pinot Noir seems to vibrate with Willamette character — exultant red cherry, dried strawberry, mushroom, dried leaves, and heady rose petals, finished with elegant and persistent tannins and a mélange of herbal notes.
Magny, Olivier. Into Wine. New Orleans, LA, Gourmand Horizons, 2013