The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

A Natural Dilemma

The on-going narrative of natural wines

The wine buying community has recently been gravitating towards wines that are made in a more “natural” way.  Capitalizing on this trend, producers are trying to produce wines with as little chemical intervention as possible—and then there are producers who talk the natural talk, but don’t walk the natural walk. Wine drinkers may notice a clear uptick in words like “natural,” “organic,” and “biodynamic,” but they might not really know what these words mean. I wanted to take the time to clear up the mystery and, in doing so, provide some clarity to your wine buying.

“Natural” means “being in accordance with or determined by nature.” Knowing the definition of the word makes hearing this expression in describing a product rubs me like coarse sandpaper because it’s so often a word deployed as a marketing strategy. For example, the word often appears on olive oil jars in the phrase “Made from 100% Natural Olives.” I wonder, doesn’t olive oil have to come from “natural” olives?  What is an artificial olive? Not to sound too much like the late, great George Carlin, but it’s a phrase whose inanity brings to mind the concept of preheating an oven.

Wine labeling presents a mystery similar to “natural” olive oil. There is no certification for “natural” wine. Some producers use the term, perhaps, to distinguish themselves from those employing organic or biodynamic winemaking methods. And yet, if wine is made from grapes (or, for that matter, any other fruit), then it is natural. While it’s true that some producers add yeast, flavorings or other additives to their wine when they make it, it’s also true that these practices don’t make the wine, well, artificial. As long as the yeasts, flavorings or additives were derived from naturally occurring compounds—and pretty much everything is—it’s natural. The term, then, is pretty empty except for being a sign that the producer of the product wants to capitalize on your love for nature.

The word “organic” literally means “of, relating to, or derived from living organisms” or “of, relating to, or containing carbon compounds.” But while the definition of “natural” led us to a clear understanding of the term, if not the marketing practice, the definition of “organic” kind of leads us down the garden path, though the practice is clearer. Organic farming, the practice of growing plants or animals without chemical intervention, does have clear, legal standards. In terms of wine, organic farming generally means that the grapes were farmed without the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. However, there are different standards in different countries, or in different states in the US, for what makes agricultural practices organic. This means that you don’t always exactly know what you’re getting.

One major bugaboo over organic wines is the idea of sulfites. While in America, added sulfites are not allowed in organically made wine, that’s not true everywhere. Even so being organic doesn’t mean a wine won’t be free of sulfites. Sulfites occur naturally in wine, and you can’t forget that the addition of sulfites might be allowed under some other country’s laws.

“Biodynamic” takes organic one step further: it’s “a method of organic farming that treats farms as unified and individual organisms, emphasizing balancing the holistic development and interrelationship of the soil, plants, animals as a closed, self-nourishing system.” Based on the philosophical principals laid down by Rudolf Steiner, biodynamic practices are pretty complicated in practice and are not unlike relying on astrology to plan your future.

Making a multilevel commitment to the natural world, biodynamic winemakers (and other farmers) look to the moon and stars for cues of when to plant, fertilize, and harvest. Among other practices, bull horns are stuffed with flowers, herbs, manure and rocks, which are then planted somewhere in the vineyard. Whatever the voodoo, it does make for tasty wine. However, I tend to believe that the quality of wine could be attributed to the passion of the winemaker and the attention to detail that goes into biodynamic farming, rather than the mysterious practices. It’s strange, mystical and inscrutable but I am all for it.

It’s true that both organic and biodynamic wines cost more than wine from producers who don’t use these practices. Wine, like all other consumer products, is a commodity. Higher demand for a particular kind of wine will create higher costs—especially in organic wines because organic methods cause reduced yields. Instead of having a crop of 15,000 kilos with the use of traditional techniques, you may now have a crop of 9,500 kilos. On the other hand, these reduced yields also make wine taste better because the grapes have a higher concentration of flavors. It’s win in taste, if lose in money. But then, as the saying goes, you get what you pay for.

Here’s the bottom line. Sustainable and “green” agricultural practices make a lot of sense, whether you’re talking vegetables, meat or wine. I’ll buy wines made by organic or biodynamic producers not because I want to be healthy but because they taste good and because I like to support the green movement. But above all, beyond the use of organic methods or biodynamic methods or even conventional practices, I believe that winemakers should try to produce the best possible wines in the cleanest and most environmentally responsible way.

Wine should both taste good and keep the earth happy. After all, it’s natural.

Wine Without Judgment

Find what you love and forget the snobbery

Last night I was reading Allen Meadows’ article “Why I Love Pinot” in the March edition of Decanter Magazine. I must confess that I too love Pinot above all other grapes. Through my journeys in the wine world I have come to appreciate its spellbinding flavor profile, its alluring aromatics, and its fickle nature. However much I appreciate this grape, I am also acutely aware that there are many different palates.

Meadows’ suggests a link between Pinot and an evolved palate. He observers, “Most Pinot enthusiasts cut their wine drinking teeth on other varieties for the first five to 10 years. By the end of this training, they have become relatively sophisticated in their tastes, understand what they like and generally know their way around a wine store. More prosaically, this is also often the point when young wine lovers can begin to more comfortably afford their evolving tastes.”

Meadows isn’t alone in this observation; many people champion the notion that only the educated palate appreciates Pinot. However, I feel that’s a considerably elitist perspective. And yet, if we take the idea of an educated palate out of the wine equation, we’re left with the questions of how we find that juice we love and why it is we love it. Maybe it’s as simple as personal preference, as individual as an individual, and as idiosyncratic as you or me.

I may be one of the lone wolves in the wine aficionado forest, but I think the primary consideration is to remove the judgmental component from the discussion. Wine has been plagued by snobs who judge others on their levels of appreciation. This judgment then creates distance and exclusivity. I have always felt that wine is an inclusive joy and not an exclusive domain. Therefore, my goal has always been to help people find what they truly love—and not to tell them what they should like or look down on them when they don’t like it.

We all have different tastes. Some will suggest that it is a function of where you grew up and how you grew up that will shape your affinity. However, I have two brothers who also love wine and we have very distinct preferences. So three men that were raised in the same house by the same people in the same era have formed their own individual preferences. I can only conclude that our appreciation is as individual as our DNA—or as distinct and unrepeatable as our experiences.

I suggest that each aficionado continues to taste with an open mind. Curiosity has been infinitely more rewarding to me in my wine experiences than judgment. I can only hope that other people pursue that which makes them happy and have the spirit to want to share that joy with people they love, and maybe even some they don’t.

Celtics & Veleta Tempranillo

Hoop dreams and a wine diary

Last night was game five of the first-round series Boston Celtics vs. Miami Heat, with the Celtics up 3-1 in the series. I’m from Boston, and therefore I’m a devout fan of the Celtics. I wanted to make this night special. While it would have been great to actually be in Boston and feel the vibes of the proud and stubborn Boston fans, I knew that a bottle of wine in my small apartment in New York City would have to do. I chose the 2002 Bodega Dominio Buenavista Veleta Tempranillo, which was recently in one of our Cellar Selections offerings that featured Spanish wines.

A blend of 90% Tempranillo, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 5% Merlot, this vintage can only be found in New York City at our store and some of the top restaurants in the area. I didn’t get the chance to try it at the blind tasting at IWM, so I definitely wanted to bring a bottle home. And after tasting it, I agree with my colleagues that it is a great value because the depth of flavor and balance made it taste more like a $50 bottle, rather than a $30 bottle.

It was really interesting to try a Tempranillo based wine that had some age on it. I have only previously had young Tempranillos that shone with forward bright fruits, but this aged one displays much earthier characteristics. If I were to compare it to an Italian wine, I’d say that it tasted similar to a funky Brunello. When my boyfriend took a big sniff into his glass, he exclaimed, “It smells like fertilizer!” I certainly agree that there was a barnyard quality to it, but I think it was well balanced with some dark dried fruit flavors. Overall, I thought it had such interesting flavor profiles and complexity for its price and would definitely get it again.

But, really, the wine was just the backdrop to the basketball. As I was sipping, the wine in the bottle was dwindling. But by the fourth quarter so was the Miami Heat! Ray Allen knocked down four out of five 3-pointers in the second half alone making his 3-point shooting percentage 54% for the series! Celtics won by 10 to move on to the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals to face the Cavs.

Keep your fingers crossed for me for that series and feel free to suggest another bottle for me to try during the series opener on Saturday!

The Serendipity of Brunello di Montalcino

From its sporadic start to today’s boom

Brunello di Montalcino has recently received a bevy of media attention, in addition to some unprecedented recognition from the wine world. In part, this media frenzy has circulated around the scandal known as “Brunellogate,” the use of unauthorized grapes by some unscrupulous producers. But it also stems from the reviews that the ’04, ’05 and ’06 Brunellos have received, which are stellar.

Given Brunello’s recent spate of press, I thought it might be a good time to look at this wine a little more closely. Sangiovese Grosso, a superior clone of Sangiovese, produces Brunello di Montalcino, one of Italy’s most lovely and prestigious red wines. The towns of Montalcino enjoy warmer, drier air than other regions of Chianti, and the open, surrounding countryside offers both ideal ventilation and cool nights. And these characteristics allow Brunello, or in English the “little dark one” because of the grape’s brown hue, to fully ripen and produce the wine’s fuller, richer taste.

Brunello has a serendipitous, even scattershot history. Though Ferruccio Biondi-Santi produced the first Brunello vintage in 1888, the wine really had a halting, sporadic start. There were only four vintages—1888, 1891, 1925, and 1945—declared in the first 57 years of production, and by 1960, there were only eleven total producers. So by the time the region had its boom of vineyard restoration in the 1970s and 1980s, the wine’s rarity had led to both higher prices and a veil of mystery and prestige.

But Brunello’s more recent history is what might spark slightly heated discussions around a wine lover’s table. As production has increased over the last few decades, Brunello’s traditional winemaking process has changed quite a bit. Traditionally, and as late as 1989, Brunello had a minimum cask ageing of 42 months, in addition to bottle ageing. But the cask ageing regulations have been almost halved in the last decade and now stand at 24 months. This lower ageing minimum mixed with Brunello’s popularity has fed an increase in the use of barriques (small oak barrels), which results in the more standardized, uniform taste that traditionalists frown upon.

So where does this leave all of us, in terms of selecting a bottle of Brunello? A wine, we should remember, can be modern in its ageing process and still retain its traditional sense of place, or the characteristics it draws from its particular soil and climate. You can take the wine out of Montalcino, but you can’t take the Montalcino out of the wine.

With over 230 Brunello producers today, the region requires that you need to know not only the region, but also the producer. Whatever your preferred style may be, without question you have options, and they’re worth exploring. However, I tend to the traditionalists, so some of my favorite producers still remain unchanged. I’ll try other Brunellos, but my heart will always belong to Biondi-Santi and Soldera.

Sweet Successes in Wine and Food Pairing

Riesling works its magic

As I sat pondering the subject of my next post for Inside IWM, I began to realize that for me a hands-on experience is always the best teacher.  Therefore, I am planning an interactive approach to my wine journey, and as I write here, I’ll be incorporating what I would like to call a “Wine and Dine Journal.” Not only will I look at wine on its own, but also I’d like to experiment with my own pairing curiosities—and perhaps dispelling some wine myths along the way.

This past weekend was a perfect time for me to conduct my first food and wine pairing experiment.  The difficult task of choosing a wine for Indian food fell to me when a few of my friends and I had made dinner plans to visit a BYO Indian restaurant.  After doing a little research on the website “Matching Food and Wine with Fiona Beckett” and discussing the topic with a few of my coworkers, I realized that pairing a wine with Indian cuisine was going to be quite a challenge because of the food’s varying degrees of spicy and sweet.  In addition, looking to the actual culture of India wouldn’t provide any help, for Indian traditions don’t feature wine.

After much back and forth, my co-worker Kerry Jo and I decided on a bottle of 2007 Joh. Jos. Prüm Riesling Kabinett.  I myself had never previously tried this wine, but Kerry Jo assured me it would be delicious, though she was also curious to see how it would pair with an Indian meal.

For my entrée I ordered chicken that had been marinated in some mild chilies, herbs and spices.  Although the chicken wasn’t “burn your mouth” spicy, it certainly had a bit of a kick.  To my delight, the German Riesling we had chosen went wonderfully with it.  I enjoy a sweetness to my wine, so the Riesling was quite the treat.  It tasted delicious on its own, it cut the spiciness from the sauce, and its sweetness didn’t overpower the spice.

Overall, I would consider this pairing quite the success.  Even a few of my white wine skeptic friends were pleasantly surprised and gently converted.  I look forward to more successful moments like this one, but I also welcome the challenges that this journey will take me. Hands-on learning, after all, teaches through both its sweet successes and its horrendous failures.

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