by Eileen Weber
About two weeks ago, my neighbors and I got together to drink a few organic wines. There were nine eager wine tasters in my kitchen, including one who works in the wine industry. None of us walked away feeling like we’d tasted anything remarkable.
I wrote about it a few days later. I got a response from representatives of two different labels we tried. One reaction came across as a bit defensive. The other offered a challenge: Try some of our other wines and see if you change your mind. That challenge came from Jim Caudill, a public relations specialist for Brown-Forman Corporation, a wine group that includes the organic label Bonterra Vineyards.
I must say, I admired his spunk. O.K., then. You’re on. Show me the money!
Last week, Caudill shipped me three Bonterra wines: A Sauvignon Blanc 2007, a 2006 Zinfandel, and their 2004 McNab, a blend of 60% Merlot, 26% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 14% Petite Syrah.
We tried all three. I also picked up three other organic wines that were similar for comparison. In my opinion, however, none of the other wines are worth writing about.
One Chardonnay was described by my neighbor, Sue Potter, as smoky, “like a coal miner’s idea of a white wine.” In particular, there was a Cabernet Sauvignon that had the distinct smell of cat pee. It smelled even worse as it began to open up. Not surprisingly, those wines will remain undiscussed in this article.
So, let’s focus on the Bonterra wines. The last time, we tried the 2006 Sauvignon Blanc. It had notes of citrus and herbs with a clean finish. But the finish wasn’t a crisp clean so much as it was more like cleaning fluid.
“The Bonterra Sauvignon Blanc you tried was made (in that vintage) in a style that resembles New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs. Frankly, people love it or hate it,” said Caudill in an e-mail. “We've moderated it a bit, and we're about to enter the 2008 vintage so I would even suggest giving that one another try…This wine has usually been described as having a lot of pizzaz”
We all agreed the 2007 was better than the 2006. “It’s universally pleasing,” said my neighbor, Karen Nemiah, “I’m enoying this much more.”
We found the 2007 to be citrusy as well with a bit more grapefruit. It was dry, a touch grassy, and had a hint of a floral nose. But, the nose bothered me. I detected little to no bouquet in the 2006. So, I was encouraged by the fact that the 2007 had any nose at all. But, it still wasn’t much of one. Caudill suggested that perhaps the wine was too cold. When wines are too chilled, any nuance in the bouquet gets lost. Unfortunately, we still felt the same about the bouquet even after it had been sitting out for a while.
Part of what makes organic wines organic is no added sulfites. While sulfites may naturally occur in the fermentation process, no sulfur dioxide—typically the wine’s preservative—was part of the wine-making process.
According to a December 2007 article on Salon.com, “Although organic-wine makers now use microfilters to get rid of bacteria and give their wines a longer shelf life, some wine experts say organic wines aren't stable and change flavor within months of being bottled.”
We all wondered aloud if the reason we hadn’t liked the 2006 Sauvignon Blanc was not because 2007 was a better vintage, but perhaps the 2006 had already started to turn.
We followed the Sauvignon Blanc with the Zinfandel 2006. It had a lovely blueberry hue with a candy nose. We sensed a bit of caramel, syrup, and what Karen’s husband, Dave, described as a slight tang of hay. But the sweet-tartness rolled into a medicinal finish. It also lacked the spicy kick that other Zins usually have. I like a Zin to have spice and was disappointed not to detect as much.
We moved on to The McNab, Bonterra’s “flagship biodynamic” wine. With biodynamic wines, the grapes are grown 100% organically, but with an eye toward timing the farming and harvesting of them with the stars and the planets. The vineyard is seen as a whole organism—the vines, the soil underneath, as well as the methods used to grow them.
With a blend of Merlot, Cab and Syrah, I admit it was fruit-forward boasting pleasant cherry. But the finish was weak and lacked depth. However, a second try by my neighbor, Jill Rabideau, tasted “a little smoother and better than the first time around.”
When it comes to biodynamic wines, like The McNab label, there are some who swear the fruit is livelier and almost dances on the palate. In the Salon.com article, Marnie Old, assistant dean of wine studies at New York's French Culinary Institute, was quoted as saying that regardless of how wines are certified, those made from pesticide-free grapes have more flavor that is pure, interesting, and unique.
"Everything you do to that ingredient, the grape, is reflected in the final product. It's sort of like you can taste the fingerprint of the wine,” she said. “As you start climbing into the ranks of premium wine there's a distinctiveness of the flavor."
My biggest issue with organic wines is the lack of depth in comparison to non-organic wines. I really wanted to be proven wrong here. I wanted to taste some remarkable wines that knocked my socks off. Instead, I found drinkable wines that are just…fine. Nothing more and, in some cases, a whole lot less. They were fruity, but one-dimensional.
Of the organic wines, the Bonterra label carried the better of the bunch. The McNab, in particular, stood out. But comparing organic to non-organic, they just don’t measure up and I feel like they should. That may be, in fact, why the organic wines have such a stigma.
So, why then, should I pick an organic wine over a non-organic one? They aren’t better. Some, like Bonterra, are decent and pleasantly drinkable. Others shouldn’t be considered wine but liquid torture in a glass. The organic vines may be tended to in a more sustainable and responsible way. For that, I applaud the organic wine movement. But while the grapes might be happier, I’m not.
I would still like to thank Mr. Caudill for the chance to taste the Bonterra wines. Our little wine group may not have fallen in love with them, but we definitely had fun trying.