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Making sense of wine terminology in the 'new age'

This week, Vin helps us better understand labels on wines we might find on store shelves
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More and more, certain terms are cropping up in the labelling of wines. While they all imply something good, it might be time to explore the terminology to understand as best we can what it is saying. 

Words such as Natural, Sustainable, Vegan, Organic and Biodynamic are becoming particularly more prevalent today. 

When it comes to wine, there can be a fair bit of cross-over in these terms, but each in its turn can have specific differences. Various growing areas frequently have their own specific regulations to which a winery must adhere in order to ‘officially’ label its wines as organic, vegan, biodynamic or sustainable. ‘Natural’, however is more elusive: such wines usually have a great deal in common with those in the other categories mentioned.  

The Oxford Companion to Wine tells us that generally these wines are made by small producers, and the grapes are hand-picked from sustainable, organic or biodynamic vineyards. The wines ferment spontaneously on native yeasts, with no additives introduced in the fermentation process. After fermentation, there may be no fining or filtering before bottling and little or no sulfites are added.  

Wine Folly suggests that in terms of ‘Taste’ we should think of Natural wines as wines ‘unplugged’, coming across as having a cloudy appearance and being “funkier, gamier, yeastier.” 

If wines are “sulfite-free”, they can be more susceptible to spoilage, so storage can be critical. Wine Folly suggests that you drink them within a year of purchase unless they contain sulfites, that they be stored in a cool place –cellar or fridge – and that they be kept away from light.  

In the vineyards, the grapes for natural wines usually are grown using organic practices. In particular, this means no spraying with synthetic chemical pesticides and herbicides.  

Does it make a difference? In my own experience, it does. I was once able in California to taste grapes grown on one side of a road that were grown organically against grapes on the other side which were not. Not knowing which was which in advance, it became clear that the organic grapes were recognizably tastier. 

The certification for Organic practices varies from country to country, region to region; for example, in the United States, no sulfites are allowed in organic wines. In Canada, they can be used judiciously, such that an organic wine will likely contain far less than a regularly produced wine. 

Vegan wines may be organic, but organic wines are not necessarily vegan. Fining is the process of removing impurities in a wine. Such agents can include egg white, gelatin, milk protein or a fish derivative. These obviously wouldn’t be suitable for a vegan wine. Alternatives include bentonite clay, pea protein or a synthetic polymer.  

Depending on how strict a vegan’s criteria, wines sealed with beeswax or using conglomerate corks employing milk-based glues could also fail to meet the standard. It is a complicated world. 

Biodynamics hold organics to an even higher rigidity. Based on the theories introduced in 1924 by an Austrian, Rudolf Steiner, it affirms the interrelationship of soil fertility, plant growth and livestock care, but also introduces some spiritual or even mystical perspectives. For example, manure is to be placed in cow horns which are then buried. At the appropriate time according to lunar cycles, the horns are disinterred and the manure made into a slurry to be sprayed on the vines for fertilization. Other activities in the growing cycle are also carried out according to these standards. 

Strange as it may seem, some highly respected and successful vineyards follow these practices, including Chapoutier in southern France. There is one story of how, in a poor season, Chapoutier produced very fine wine… except for the row of vines adjacent to a neighbouring property which followed conventional practices… without much success that year. 

And then there is Sustainability, which combines farming and winemaking practices with overall concern for the environment and for social justice.  

Wikipedia gives this summary:  

“Key overall issues that come up in sustainable wine include social concerns such as worker income, health, conditions, diversity, and gender equality. Environmental issues covered by sustainable wine range from wildlife habitat, pest management, topsoil health. The question of composting in vineyards spans both soil health and 'zero waste'. Responsible water use in sustainable wine addresses both minimizing water use through techniques such as drip agriculture to wastewater management, particularly in vineyards that use chemicals and are not organic. Sustainability in the field has also come to encompass packaging to minimize the weight of bottles, maximize use of recycled glass in bottles, and explore more environmentally friendly packaging such as boxes. Renewable energy, energy efficiency, and improvements in infrastructure such as capturing and recycling CO2 from alcoholic fermentation also play a role in sustainable wine.” 

There are many certifying bodies for Organic, Biodynamic, and Sustainable practices, with expectations varying somewhat depending on the wine-producing region. To qualify, wineries undergo regular inspections and checks to ensure they are complying. Some prefer not to submit to that rigour, but still do all that they can to be good stewards of the land, good employers, and good winemakers. 

Gerard Bertrand, a very popular French producer whose wines are almost always on our shelves, is committed to organic and biodynamic practices but does not carry any symbols on its labels to demonstrate this fact.  

Others may carry the logo of the certifying body, such as that of Demeter for biodynamic wine. 

In response to this, heightened concern for the environment, one company, Grain de Sail, has actually begun to ship wine across the Atlantic in its 80-foot schooner.18,000 bottles of organic and biodynamic wine were transported back in May on a 25-day journey from France to New York. The return voyage carried coffee and cocoa from the Dominican Republic.  

In all, the voyage to North America and back took 3 months but used only150 litres of diesel fuel. A regular cargo ship – which admittedly carries far greater cargo – can burn up to 200 tons of fuel daily.  

Be it natural, organic, sustainable or biodynamic, the goal is to create better wine, and fundamentally a better world. 

From the Sept. 10 Vintages release, you can find a number of wines that fit these criteria. 

Laya 2020, $16.95, which is an impressive Vegan Spanish red. There is ample body and very smooth impact with good dark red fruit. It is a blend of Garnacha (Grenache) and Monastrell (Mourvedre). Harmonious and elegant, it deservedly scored 90+ with robertparker.com. Like all the others below, it is still currently available at the Great Northern road store, and can also be ordered online. Spend $50 and the shipping is free to the store and usually quite prompt. Easy-peasy. 

For fans of Rioja, the Heras Cordon Vendimia Seleccionada Crianza 2018, $23.95, is also Vegan. “Dense, spicy and smooth with chocolatey oak, fine tannins and lots of tangy dark fruit” – 92 timatkin.com

Altano Organic 2019, $16.95, from Portugal, is “ripe and richly textured…The black fruits shine through the mineral texture and tannic structure.” 89 –Wine Enthusiast.  This wine is just coming into its own and should be given a chance to breathe. 

Chateau Vrai Caillou 2018, $14.95, is another Organic red. Vintages explains, “this estate has belonged to the Pommier family since 1863. A stunning value, this wine is grown on vines aged 30-50 years. Expect an intriguingly complex red blend showing plum, cherry, raspberry, forest and meaty notes, and pour with beef, bison or mushroom burgers” Price aside, the other attractive detail is the age of the vines. Generally the older the vine, the better the fruit.  

Benaiga Natural Wine Carignan 2021, $17.95 is not only natural but also Vegan and sustainable. Fermented in stainless steel for freshness, the wine carries ripe red and dark berry fruit along with some cocoa. Soft tannins and good intensity and depth are both evident. 

Michel Gassier Embruns de Viognier 2021, $19.95, from France’s Languedoc, has a “very peachy and floral viognier nose, then [is] juicy and lively on the medium-bodied palate. Not so complex, but very nicely balanced and rather refreshing” - 90, James Suckling. Organically grown grapes. 

McManis Chardonnay 2020, $20.95 from the tiny River Junction wine region south of Lodi in California is labelled sustainable. Definitely Californian, it carries impressions of pear and tropical fruit with hints of buttered popcorn and oak. 

Pelee Island Lola Cabernet Franc Rosé 2021, $16.95, is Vegan and sustainable from Ontario’s Essex region outside Windsor. Vintages tells us we are told to expect “upfront tangy strawberry, cherry, raspberry and citrus notes” in a wine that is “juicy, bright, aromatic and long.” 

Sept. 24 Release 

Hmm. I understood that the LCBO was returning to two Vintages releases a month. While that may be so, things aren’t quite back to normal. The September 24 release has only two-thirds the number of items on it compared with the September 10 release. As well, about a third of the wines mentioned are only available on-line or in Flagship stores located primarily in Toronto.  

Still, we can manage with what’s coming our way.  

White 

Cave de Beblenheim Heimberger Réserve Particulière Pinot Blanc 2020, $15.95, from the Alsace, earned gold at the Concours des Vins Macon 2021, Vintages tells us to look for “mineral notes in addition to crunchy orchard fruit.”   

Kew Marsanne/Viognier 2018$19.95, from the Beamsville Bench in Niagara has a palate that is “dense and structural, with honeyed fruit balanced by vibrant acidity.” – 90, winealign.com. 

Cave Spring Estate Chardonnay Musqué 2020, $19.95, is another wine from the Beamsville Bench that offers something distinctive. The Musqué clone stands out from other chardonnays. This aromatic wine “has 16 h of skin contact - it's the only Chardonnay clone that takes skin contact well. 40 per cent neutral oak, 60 per cent stainless steel. This is powerful and taut with fine spicy notes as well as flavours of table grapes and lemon with some orange peel and mandarin. This is really pretty. Score - 92. (Jamie Goode, wineanorak.com.) 

Red  

Marqués de Toro Mencia 2020, $13.95, is an old-vine red from Spain. It will get even better with time, but now carries impressions of dark fruit, pepper, chocolate and wild herb. 91 – Guia Penin –the top Spanish wine guide. 

Domaine Forca Real Schistes Côtes du Roussillon-Villages 2018, $16.95, is, “a concentrated and graceful red, offering ripe currant and cherry coulis notes intertwined with rose petal, mineral and anise accents. Details of garrigue, baking spice and brooding mineral create depth through the finish.” – 91 Wine Spectator 

Domaine de La Madone Le Perréon Beaujolais-Villages 2020, $17.95, is “medium to full-bodied, ample and succulent, with supple tannins and an enveloping core of juicy fruit, it's refreshing and gourmand.” – 92 robertparker.com 

 Wakefield Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2019, $19.95, is a gorgeous wine from Australia’s Clare Valley. It was at the top of the heap at the 2021 World Value Wine Challenge. It is “a robust Cabernet that brings herbal nuance, savory meatiness, and dense fruit to the table.” – 94tastings.com.   

Il Molino di Grace Chianti Classico 2016, $21.95 “is a gorgeous, precise wine loaded with personality. Medium in body and nuanced, the 2016 stands out for its perfumed aromatics and fine, sculpted personality. Silky tannins and bright acids add to the wine's vibrancy and overall appeal.” – 92 vinous.com

There are new developments concerning Marc Pistor of Fogolar wines. Marynissen Estates in Niagara has announced its partnership with Collab Wine and Beverage and the Vintegrated Group to establish a premier, retail-focused, custom-crush production and go-to-market operation. 

Marc explains, “My team and I are very grateful for the trust and commitment of Marynissen's ownership and management in this endeavour. This is the opportunity, infrastructure, and support we need to launch the Collab project, and start a new era of custom winemaking in Ontario.”  

It is an exciting and promising development for Marc and his associates, and we wish them many more great things to come. 

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