Folks in the wine world, by virtue of their constant focus and reliance on the land, do think this way. Winemakers doing it right don’t build their business model around the current vintage, but on the coming years’ opportunities to reinvest in their land, and often in their people and surrounding lands and communities.
Here is a look at what’s happening in the organic winemaking world, with particular spotlight on one producer going the extra mile.
At its most basic, Organic winemaking in the US and abroad is about purity of product. Limits and prohibitions on synthetic additives in the field and the glass very positively affect soil health and provide the consumer a level of quality assurance.
That’s the idea. And frankly, it’s an easy idea to get behind in a world of freewheeling resource abuse. In practice, however, the “purity of product” of it all can get a little wonky. In the case of the USDA, organic winemaking rules aren’t all that distinct from organic produce regulations. But wine is not produce. Have you ever had a vintage grape? No. That’s called a raisin, and if “aged” more than a year, it’s called a gross raisin .
Wine is a living magic trick. The tenuous, vibrating balance of fruit, acid, and even more ethereal elements singing in your favorite bottle are myriad, unique, and very tricky to keep in balance.
Enter the dreaded sulfite! Maligned though they are of late, sulfites are naturally occurring byproducts of winemaking. Levels differ wine to wine, but in terms of “purity,” sulfites are doing the work to preserve the magic in the bottle, whether it’s lively, fresh flavors or developing nuances over years.
While many sources clump all wines in the “high sulfite” beverage category, this stat is heavily skewed by additive-abusing large producers. Most well-made wines in the US top out at 100-150 ppm sulfite levels, the same as the allowed levels under EU Organic certification. Incidentally, this is also the USDA-approved level for “Made with Organic grapes” labeling, though the insignia is less flashy and WAY less expensive for the winemaker to attain. In truth, “USDA Organic” and “No Sulfites Added” labels can have more to do with marketing than actual quality.
Many excellent and conscientious winemakers have a tenuous relationship with the red tape of organic certification. Converting from conventional to organic farming takes years and lots of investment, and the added burden of certification can be prohibitive to smaller producers.
Even established winemakers sometimes choose to bow out of the bureaucracy. Aldo Vajra was the first to head an organically certified winery in Piedmont in 1971 — a pretty big deal in Italy’s most highly-regarded premium wine region. The GD Vajra label held that certification until 1993, when the expense and strain on a diversifying business and growing family led Aldo and his wife to recuse themselves from recertification. While they did not seek renewal until doubling down on organic-biodynamic in 2019, GD Vajra wines were still produced organically and with great care in the interceding years.
In the meantime, Aldo was able to experiment with the terroir of Piedmont in ways few would consider economical, considering the commanding price of the real estate’s reputation. Who the hell plants Riesling in Barolo country?! Who puts premium Nebbiolo in their Rosso field blend??!!
In a way, the years that GD Vajra wines were not beholden to organic certification allowed for the creativity and intense commune with the Piedmont lands that define the intimate style of GD Vajra wines today. From the uniquely curated Lange Rosso vintages, to powerfully nuanced Vajra Dolcetto, classic violet-laced Barbera, and the avant garde Barolo Albe, the care for the land of Piedmont is paramount and obvious.
In recent years, winemaking at GD Vajra has progressed even further to organic-biodynamic standards. While organic regulations are sometimes considered narrowly focused on product, biodynamic and sustainable wines broaden standards more deeply to the land, ecosystems, and communities in which they are being produced. Tune in later this month for a deeper look at sustainable and biodynamic winemaking, and some stellar examples of those practices.
P.S. Regarding our friend, the raisin: Did you know, dried fruit has around 30 times the amount of sulfites as wine? While you may have heard sulfites cause headaches and hangovers, there is no current science that supports this claim. If you don’t get a hangover from a handful of trail mix or a side of fries, you’re likely good to go with a well-made bottle of vino.