Why go organic? Many producers are embracing natural agricultural processes simply to put out tastier and more sustainable wines — ones that appeal to the modern consumer. James Suckling finds the top bottles from the category.
Organic wine is a familiar proposition for growers and wineries who want to farm more efficiently and put out a sustainable product. Although the term “organic” has different legal definitions around the world, there’s one commonality: the fruit source is limited to grapes grown without the use of agrichemicals – including pesticides, insecticides, herbicides and fungicides – or synthetic fertilisers. Only natural fertilisers may be applied, and only natural sprays with primarily copper and sulphur may be used to protect vines from fungus and disease.
At its heart, the organic-wine movement showcases an erudite and natural agricultural process, wherein winemakers aim for a more pristine and ecologically viable way to farm grapes while producing more artisanal, palate-pleasing wines. This agricultural attribute of wine also sheds light on why the fermented grape juice is such a magical liquid, with immense aesthetic value and appeal. After all, very few drinks on this planet are as captivating as wine: it’s capable of holding your interest for several hours at a time, and you can smell and savour it – and even return to it from time to time to compare it with your other favourite pours.
In contrast, heavily industrialised wines are born from formulae usually replicated in large volumes. Although they’re more consistent in style and quality, they’re unlikely to inspire you to explore, to expand your vision or to converse with the soulful liquid inside.
There are other good reasons for winegrowers to go organic. Ecosystems in vineyards become healthier with the adoption of finer, more precise viticultural processes, and grape quality improves, too, with much less intervention necessary. Winemakers often tell us that more fauna has returned to their vineyards since they took up organic farming and decreased chemical spraying; that the soil has become healthier with composting, and that the humus has gradually degraded to help improve the nutrients and structure of the soil.
With technology deeply etched into every aspect of the viti-vini process, wine consumers today often encounter wines that have endured excessive intervention and manipulation. While this doesn’t necessarily translate into lower quality, such processes turn the wines into more commercial and industrialised drinks, lacking any artisanal, aesthetic or environmental appeal. Organic farming, to an extent, fulfils winemakers’ quest to reach a continuum of “authenticity” and “naturalness” in their wines, making it an inviting proposition for them to revive traditional, more natural farming methods before the use of chemicals became the norm.
France – where “Bio” certification (agriculture biologique) is now a widely accepted stamp of approval – has a strong presence on the list, too. Regions such as Alsace, Bordeaux, Loire, Beaujolais and Burgundy are on our radar as top producers of organic wines. In fact, these regions are also notable for taking a step up in the organic stakes and following “biodynamic” practices.
But the meaning of the word “organic” often shifts to reflect country-specific mandates, as well as market realities. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, attaching the label “organic” to wine means that the wine-growing phase and vinification process must both be organic and free of added chemicals, including the addition of sulfites to the wine.
In the European Union, the label “Wine made from organic grapes” is the only one permitted in the “organic” category. This underscores the naturalness of the grape itself, and the addition of sulfites is permitted during the vinification process – similar to the “Made with organic grapes” label in the US.
During the past 12 months, we tasted 1,682 bottles of “organic” wine, more than 1,500 of which received 90 points or more, with 232 attaining scores of at least 95 – our sweet spot for great wine. Although lesser examples of organic wines exist in our tastings, it’s reassuring to see that the threshold of quality is so high. At the top of the list, German vintners are taking their best shot at organic farming and producing incredible wines. Super-consistent producers such as Dönnhoff, Wagner-Stempel and quality-conscious Eva Fricke, just to name a few, are putting an indelible stamp on the country’s organic wines.
The Top Organic Wine Bottles
These six wines labelled “organic” scored a perfect 100 in the jamessuckling.com rating system.
CONTINUUM NAPA VALLEY SAGE MOUNTAIN VINEYARD 2018
Ravishing bouquet of a thousand golden fruits and a staggering interplay of diamond-bright acidity and great succulence. Then, just when you think you’ve processed all that, along comes a monster wave of minerality, which sweeps you off your feet.
DÖNNHOFF RIESLING NAHE NIEDERHÄUSER HERMANNSHÖHLE SPÄTLESE 2019
All of nature’s springtime joy and the epitome of autumnal ripeness somehow combine with summer-morning dew to offer one of the greatest off-dry German wines made in modern times. Breathtaking finish.
EVA FRICKE RIESLING RHEINGAU KRONE TROCKEN 2019
Enormously expressive candied lemon, pineapple and lemon-balm aromas pull you into the extremely concentrated, but seamlessly harmonious palate, which sweeps you away with wave after wave of super-ripe flavours.
EVA FRICKE RIESLING RHEINGAU KRONE TROCKENBEERNAUSLESE 2019
Welcome to heaven, during the most amazing sunset you can imagine. Yet those rich colours are all shades of floral honey. And just when you think it’s safe to go into the water again, the most amazingly brilliant acidity and citrus-mineral freshness lifts you off your feet.
TRIMBACH RIESLING ALSACE CLOS STE. HUNE 2019
The greatest Clos Ste. Hune ever? The beauty and elegance of this youthful Alsace dry riesling masterpiece are breathtaking. Subtle white-peach character, great concentration and such finesse at the extremely long, precise finish.
WAGNER-STEMPEL RIESLING RHEINHESSEN HEERKRETZ GG 2019
Here, you really have to ask yourself how a peach could be more perfect than this. And what makes this dry riesling so amazing is the glacial-water feel to its fresh side.