Good Spirits > A Toast to Organic

Until a few years ago, the organic wine selection was dismal, with Frey being the only brand available labeled as organic. Frey is still around and is still disappointing (at least it’s consistent). But now, spurred by the growing demand for healthier foods and beverages, dozens of wine and spirit producers are touting products made from organically grown ingredients. Overdue, perhaps, but also confusing.

The term “organic” has become a mainstream marketing buzzword, but federal and state standards govern how it can be used. Many variants exist, such as “sustainable,” “biodynamic” and, the worst catch phrase of all time, “natural.” Sustainable farming means growing crops without causing serious harm to the land’s ecosystem, a pretty broad definition. Biodynamic philosophy treats the farm as a self-contained spiritual and physical entity in harmony with the planets. Biodynamic farming eschews chemicals and was a forerunner of the organic agriculture movement. The term “natural” has no legal definition and gives no insight on how a product is made.

Many U.S. wine producers, such as California’s Benziger Winery, are shifting operations to sustainable or biodynamic farming. It’s a gradual process and takes a few years to complete the transition. But even though a wine’s label can say its grapes were grown organically, that doesn’t ensure that sulpher dioxide (sulfites) or other chemicals aren’t added to the wine once the grapes are crushed. Most chemicals are applied to the soil or vines while grapes are growing, so organic grapes are somewhat purer than conventional grapes.

Better yet if a label says both the grapes and wine were produced following organic practices. This means sulfites either weren’t used to clean barrels or to preserve the wine, or that only minimal amounts were added. Sulfites occur naturally during fermentation, but organically made wines (not just the grapes) usually contain lower levels, compared with conventional wines. Benziger, for example, adds sulfites, but only to 60 parts per million (ppm), instead of the industry standard of 100 ppm.

Some producers have been farming grapes and making wines for years using organic methods, but without stating it on their labels. Among the first was Coturri Winery in Glen Ellen, California. If wines listed their ingredients, Coturri wines would simply read, “Contains 100 percent grapes.” Sure, wine from one vintage may taste slightly different than other vintages, but that’s a true expression of the grapes. This idea scares many winemakers, who don’t have the skill or inclination to grow top-notch grapes.

Instead, these winemakers rely on additives and chemicals to bring out the “best” in their wines. Wine should express the quality of its grapes, as well as its soil and environment, also known as terroir. If all these factors are good, there’s no need to manipulate the wine. All Coturri wines are excellent and are available at New Hampshire’s state liquor stores.

Lolonis is another California winery making exceptional wines. All their grapes are grown organically, though the wines are processed conventionally. Their Ladybug red and white wines are delicious, reasonably priced (less than $14 retail) and also available at New Hampshire state’s liquor stores.

For those who like other alcoholic beverages, Square One and Rain are two smooth-tasting and organic American vodkas; Juniper Green is a terrific-tasting English-made organic gin. Vermontbased Wolaver’s makes a line of fabuloustasting organic ales. These spirits are sold in New Hampshire’s state liquor stores. Wolaver’s is sold throughout the state.

Ryan Miller, co-owner of Blue Trout Grill in Keene, sells both Ladybug wines. “We wanted to make sure we had some organic offerings because a lot of our customers happen to be organic,” Miller says, noting that during summer, 50 percent of the restaurant’s produce comes from his organic garden. Blue Trout also stocks Wolaver’s and Rogue organic ales.