Earlier this year, this site posted two articles about organic wine. Let’s just say the review was less than thrilling. We tried a variety of wines, more than a few from Bonterra Vineyards. This time, we decided to compare what the U.S. had to offer with what was available from across the Pond.
The authors got together with their respective spouses along with a few of Eileen’s neighbors who had provided their fabulous input on the last go around. (Some of you may recall neighbor Sue Potter proclaiming one to be a “coalminer’s idea of a white wine.” That’s classic stuff, right there.)
Three American and three European wines, two whites and four reds, graced the table. All of them hovered in the $20 range. The American wines were Californian, the European wines from France. À la Bottle Shock, this was certainly not the first time the French had to stand up to California.
As a nice segue, we started where we left off: With a Bonterra white. This time, however, we chose a different grape. Instead of Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay, we chose their 2007 Viognier. Very drinkable with melodic fruit notes and an elegant finish, this wine was a crowd-pleaser and a great start to the evening.
“It’s not thick and oily like some other Viogniers I’ve tried,” said neighbor David Nemiah. “Nice acidity. Hugely citrus.” David’s wife Karen agreed. “I get more grapefruit, too.” James felt the wine’s finale gave it some gusto. “It has a long, sparkly finish that wraps around my tongue.”
Comparing it to the other white we chose, a Domaine Mittnacht Freres 2007 Riesling from Alsace, the Bonterra held up. But, we felt the Riesling was better overall. It had more depth and nuance than the Viognier. (To be fair, we are talking about two different grapes here. That will obviously have an impact on any flavor differences.)
What a pleasant surprise that the Riesling wasn’t too sweet. Sometimes, you’re better off saving the Rieslings for dessert. Sheli Flieger, James’ wife, made the point that Rieslings can be dry and still retain that fruity flavor without going overboard. “There are so many Rieslings that are not sweet,” she said.
Because the fruit balanced with the acidity, there was an opportunity to focus on the Riesling’s character. “The finish is almost an almond one,” said neighbor Sue Potter. James agreed saying he detected the nuttiness in the bouquet. Neighbor Nancy Murphy, a self-proclaimed white wine lover, felt this wine had a mellow, subtle honey flavor with a hint of lemongrass.
Moving on to the reds, we started with a Benziger 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon. It was definitely a typical fruit-forward Californian wine with a short and thin finish. The tannins were strong, bordering on overpowering, leaving a tar-like veneer on the tongue. While drinkable, it left a little bit to be desired from a Cab.
Next up, we swished and swirled our way through the Lolonis 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, the Le Clos De Caveau Vacqueyras 2006 Côte du Rhone, and a Les Baux de Provence 2007 Mas de Gourgonnier.
Of the Lolonis, a Redwood, Calif. wine that is keen on letting you know they don’t use pesticides unless you count the ladybugs, James said the tannins have a good pucker: “And it’s 2005, which is fantastic. A little age can mellow things out a bit.”
Eileen sensed cinnamon and raisin while others noted a little star anise. But some of us weren’t as pleased with its spice. “Color me different,” said Karen Nemiah, “but I’m not fond of this.” To which her husband David replied, “It doesn’t suck.”
With the Vacqueyras Côte du Rhone, we all agreed that it seemed a bit different than what you think you’re going to get out of that style of wine. The nose had some spice as well with even a scent of licorice, but there was a cleaner finish to it. “Makes me think of Rasinettes you can drive home with,” said Sue Potter.
The Mas de Gourgonnier, a staple table wine that any local Provençal would instantly recognize, was rich and dynamic with a rustic finesse. For James, who spent some time living in Provence as a chef, the wine tasted “like home.” For his wife Sheli, it reminded her of earthy French tile and dirty socks. Nancy Murphy wasn’t fond of this red, either. She felt is tasted briny, not unlike a dill pickle. But then again, she thought the first red tasted like dust. If you haven’t already picked up on this, Nancy is not a fan of red wine.
But, James was unwavering. “There’s a hidden flavor, a smoothness,” he said. “The flavors are right under the surface.”
The longer we sat tasting our way through each bottle, the more it became clear that these wines were much better than the ones we had originally tasted months ago. While we were aware of having organic wines, they didn’t taste like organic wines. They just tasted like, well, wines. The kind you’d like to drink with friends. And isn’t that what wine is supposed to taste like?
The other remarkable thing about them was their lack of organic labeling. You had to search for it. Somewhere buried on the back label was a description of their “natural” practices. In fact, there was more information about how organic these wines were on their web sites than on the label. It is perfectly possible for you to pick up these wines, enjoy them, and never know you were drinking an organic wine.
Granted, that’s mainly as a result of how many fiery hoops a vintner has to jump through to have a genuine USDA Organic label. And for the Europeans, it’s almost an ugly stigma to have your wines labeled organic. It’s as if European wine drinkers are the equivalent of the perpetual metal head roadie claiming, “You sold out, man.”
So what’s the bottom line? Organic wines are getting better at not just being organic, but being organic and good. Frankly, it’s about time, don’t you think?
Image courtesy of Harry's Wine & Liquor Market. Labels courtesy of vintners' web sites.