Holiday Green WINE Guide 2011

Thanksgiving has come and gone and the holiday season is officially upon us. This year, why not put some teeth in the toast “to your health” and pour some green wines for your celebrations? Organic, biodynamic and sustainably farmed wines are great choices for our health and the health of our planet – definitely reasons to celebrate. Below is a list of sixteen of our favorite sparklers, whites, reds and dessert wines in a range of prices.

Wine pouring from bottle

Here's to your health!


Champagnes and Sparklers:

Sparkling wines are a wonderful choice to begin any celebration. The bubbles are beautiful and festive and the high acidity helps refresh the palate between bites, making them the perfect companions to assorted canapés. I prefer my bubbly with oysters or cheese, but it goes equally well with sushi, salty foods and fatty foods.

Champagne Fleury Rosé Brut NV, France ($52) – the first and largest biodynamic producer in France, this estate grows pinot noir almost exclusively, producing some wonderful rosé champagnes.

NV Larmandier-Bernier Premier Cru Vertus, France ($39) – biodynamic champagne made with 100% Premier Cru grapes, including a small amount of pinot noir in this otherwise chardonnay dominant area.

Can Vendrell Cava Brut Reserva, Spain ($25) – organically grown grapes with hints of apple, pear and almonds. Made in the style of champagne.

Altana Rosato Frizzante Perlage, Italy ($15) – a pretty sparkler made from 100% cabernet sauvignon organically grown grapes.


Still Wines:

Bonterra Vineyards Rosé 2009, Mendocino County, California ($17) – a dry, fruity blend of grenache, zinfandel and sangiovese from this organic estate. Enjoy it with crudités, cheese or poultry.

Montinore Estate Borealis 2010 Willamette Valley, Oregon ($16) – a biodynamically farmed blend of müller-thurgau, riesling, pinot gris, and gewürztraminer that makes the perfect aperitif before a holiday meal. It also pairs beautifully with Asian dishes.

Cullen Kevin John Chardonnay, Margaret River, Western Australia 2007 ($62) – another luscious wine from a biodynamic king of chardonnay. This giant would feel right at home in the company of lobster bisque or a rich cream sauce.

Clos de la Coulee de Serrant 2009, France ($85)– Nicolas Joly, one of today’s leading proponents of biodynamic viticulture, has created a luxurious chenin blanc wine from Savennières in the Loire Valley. Rich, creamy and slightly sweet, this would pair well with a gamey bird.

Robert Sinsky Pinot Noir 2009, Los Carneros ($38) – fruit forward and food friendly, this biodynamic silken pinot noir would pair beautifully with holiday ham or salmon.

Domaine Jean Bousquet Malbec 2010, Tupungato, Mendoza ($13) – organic grapes are used to produce this dark and spicy wine with flavors of plums and chocolate. Perfect for pairing with meats and sauces.

Bodegas Luzon “Luzon” Jumilla 2009, Spain ($8) – wonderful example of monastrell for the price and organic, too. The perfect accompaniment to grilled pork or herb roasted meats.

Jean-Michel Stephan Cote-Rotie 2009, France ($65) – listed on Wine Spectator’s top 100 of 2011, this natural wine is 90% syrah and 10% viognier. Pairing this with a holiday prime rib would make even the Grinch smile.

Beckmen Vineyards Purisima Mountain Vineyard Grenache 2008, Santa Ynez Valley ($48) – a standout biodynamic estate creating gorgeous Rhone style wines. Bolstered with a modicum of syrah, this blend would be a beautiful bottle to pair with lamb. May I suggest pomegranate mint sauce?


Dessert Wines:

Sunset Meadow Vineyards Midnight Ice Vidal Blanc Ice Wine, Goshen, CT ($50) – end your meal with a burst of tropical flavors such as lychee, mango and passion fruit with this delicately sweet nectar produced at a sustainably farmed Connecticut winery. Try it with Spanish flan or crème brulee.

Kaori Umeshu Plum Sake Chugoku, Yamaguchi ($36) – infused with organic plums, this plum wine releases beautiful aromas of fruit. Slightly acidic and sweet and perfect served over ice. Vanilla cake or Bananas Foster would show this wine off nicely.

Port Finest Reserve Casal dos Jordoes, Portugal ($32)– a few years ago you would have been hard pressed to find more than one organic port. Now there are several to choose from. Made with organic distilled spirits as well as organic grapes, this port is unfined, unfiltered, and vegan. A decadent end to any meal, sip with a fig, cheese and walnut tart or anything chocolate.

Organic Wines Were For The Birds

Last month, Audubon Greenwich hosted a farm-to-table wine dinner that was a celebration of organic, biodynamic and sustainably produced food and wine. Chef Marc Alvarez of Bedford Hills, NY created a dizzying array of delectable appetizers, followed by a 3-course gourmet meal. The reception appetizers and three courses were paired with wine by Wine Institute of New England. For those guests who are curious to know a little more about what they drank that night, and for all others who seek to learn about organic, biodynamic and sustainably farmed wines, I have decided to write up my notes from the evening. Cheers!

For the reception, Chef Alvarez treated guests to a delightful selection of canapés that included cheese, vegetables and beef. What to pair with such a broad array of foods? Cava, of course! Sparkling wine creates a festive mood and, being high in acid, helps to cleanse the palate between bites, allowing the taster to fully enjoy the various and distinct flavors.

Albet I Noya Cava NV

I chose Albet I Noya Cava NV Brut Reserva. Cava, Spain’s sparkling answer to Champagne, was first produced in the 1870’s after winemaker Jose Raventos visited France and tried champagne for the first time. Cava is traditionally produced from three native grapes, parellada, xarel-lo and macabeo (also known as viura), although in the ‘80s, other grapes were authorized for cava production, including pinot noir and chardonnay. Although the denominacion de origen for cava is based on method, not location, 95% of cava is produced in Cataluna with San Sadurni de Noya considered cava’s spiritual home. The traditional methode champenoise is followed, although somewhat less rigorous procedures are implemented than those for champagne.

In 1978, Josep Maria Albet I Noya, who was known to be a strict vegetarian, was approached by a Danish company in search of an organic wine producer for the region. After a successful initial wine was produced, Josep Maria embraced organics and converted to a completely organic vineyard. He was the first in Spain to do so. The vines are treated with green compost rather than chemicals, copper hydroxide is used instead of copper sulphate, the vines are managed to produce lower yields and the amount of sulphur dioxide used in the cellar is approximately half that used in conventional winemaking. All of the yeasts used for fermentation are indigenous to the Penedès region. Since 2004, the winery has been slowly increasing its biodynamic treatments.

The degorjat for this cava (the process of removing the lees from the neck of the bottle) is done manually and the date of degorjat is printed on the bottle labels. This is important because ideally cava should be drunk within one year of degorjat. This sparkler showed great acidity with citrus notes, crisp minerality and an overall clean and well-balanced presentation. And as a tribute to Josep Maria, it is vegan.

Roast Pumpkin Soup with Wilted Sage

For the appetizer, a pumpkin soup seasoned with sage, I chose Bonterra Viognier from Mendocino, California. Viognier, native to the Rhone in France, is a heady, succulent, sexy grape. In France it is typically drunk as vins de pays and is often blended with Syrah. In California, this hefty grape is allowed to ripen more fully which results in a dark yellow wine with high alcohol and seductive aromas of apricots, peaches, blossoms, honey and tropical fruit.

Bonterra produces certified organically grown grapes on its 378 acres. Organic since 1987, the vineyard is sustainably maintained incorporating beehives, free range chickens, sheep and bird boxes. This luscious viognier is blended with two other Rhone grapes, rousanne and marsanne, as well as muscat. The result is a rainbow of aromas including peach, honeysuckle, jasmine, apricot and vanilla. This intoxicating wine, which displayed just a hint of oak, was elegantly balanced between crispness and creaminess.

A choice of entrees provided WINE with an opportunity to showcase some additional wines. For the lamb dish, I decided to brave uncharted territory and pair it with a grape that is not well known, but is certainly worthy of great attention – tannat. Tannat, indigenous to Southwest France and one of the oldest varieties in all of France, is one of the four most tannic grapes in the world. This grape is so high in tannins that the procedure of micro-oxygenation was actually invented specifically to tame this grape. It is often blended with varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot to soften its tannins. Tannat was taken to Uruguay in the nineteenth century where it is now flourishing. The difference in climate and terroir produce a grape that, while still in high in tannins, creates wines of superb quality when produced in low yields.

Duo of Lamb with Wild Hive Polenta & Spigarello

I was thrilled to treat the guests to Bodegas Carrau Ysern Tannat from Uruguay, having just met the winemaker, Dr. Francisco Carrau, the week before the event. With roots in Catalonia, Spain dating back to 1752, the Carrau’s moved to Uruguary where they have been at the forefront of innovative winemaking since 1930. Bodegas Carrau was the first to export wines from Uruguay, they introduced the idea of using tannat for top reds in 1973, and in 1997, they built one of the most innovative wineries into the side of a hill to capitalize on low-input winemaking. Bodegas Carrau employs organic and sustainable methods, uses indigenous yeasts and makes some of their wine without the addition of sulfur. Their Ysern Tannat spends 20 months aging in French and American oak and was reminiscent of dried fruit, dark chocolate and oranges. For those of you familiar with Barcelona Restaurant, they have recently added Bodegas Carrau wine to their award-winning wine menu.

Guests who chose the Farro Risotto for their entrée had a choice of red or white wine. For the red, I selected the biodynamic Nuova Cappelleta Barbera del Monferrato Minola. Barbera is the third most planted red grape in Italy after montepulciano and sangiovese. This high acid and richly pigmented grape is native to Piedmont. Sadly, in 1984 there was a methanol scandal that caused people to shy away from this delightful grape for some time. I am glad to see this late-ripening, grape making a well-deserved comeback.

Nuova Cappelleta Barbera del Monferrato Minola

The color alone is a treat and, in fact, the barbera grape is often used to “correct” the color of nebbiolo, the grape used for Barolo. Founded in 1965, the 520-acre estate at Nuova Cappelleta was certified as a biodynamic farm in 1984. The daughter and grandson of the founder hand harvest the grapes and use indigenous yeast for these vegan wines. This reserve wine, which was aged in French oak for twelve months and then in the bottle for another six, was a rich ruby red. 100% barbera, the wine had distinct aromas of vanilla and cinnamon, an excellent structure and was well balanced. I have had the pleasure of tasting their entry-level barbera and highly recommend it, as well.

For those risotto eaters desiring a white wine with their main course, I offered another biodynamic selection, a Domaine de Zind Humbrecht Pinot Gris from Alsace. Pinot gris is a mutation of pinot noir. Although native to Burgundy, France, pinot gris is most familiar and revered in Alsace. The grape is known as pinot grigio in Italy, and there is actually more planted in Italy and in Germany than there is in France. In the United States, it is the number one planted white in Oregon, where they produce a style similar to that made in Alsace – high acid, medium to full body, neutral aromas of apple and pear. These wines are generally quite rich, dry and gently perfumed. In 1997, Olivier Humbrecht began his first organic and biodynamic vine trials, receiving biodynamic certification in 2002. M. Humbrecht has stated that his conversion to biodynamic farming was inspired by the effects he perceived from the high quality compost used in this method. The pinot gris had a deep golden color which evinced extra ripeness. The aromatics included cocoa, peach, pear, and some nutty scents. Very complex, the wine was big, bold and firmly acidic with honey, exotic spice and bergamot notes.

To complement the apple tart dessert, I treated guests to a very special dessert wine produced from chenin blanc. Another highly acidic grape, chenin blanc, a native of the Loire, can be long-lived and is used to make wines from dry to sparkling to sweet. This grape is also popular in South Africa where it is often referred to as steen and, in fact, twice as much chenin blanc is planted there than in France. Terroir plays a critical role in the production of wines made from chenin blanc. The dessert wines typically have a concentrated honey flavor with strong dairy tastes, such as clotted cream or sour cream. I was fortunate to obtain an excellent example of this dessert wine from Anjou-Saumur in the Loire, Domaine de Mihoudy. Produced by Cochard et Fils, a sixth generation sustainable winemaking estate, this floral and elegant wine with hints of honey and orange blossoms was the perfect mate to the evening’s final course.

List of Wines with Prices:

Albet I Noya Cava NV, Spain     $20

Bonterra Viognier 2007, California     $13

Bodegas Carrau Ysern Tannat 2005, Uruguay     $16

Nuova Cappelleta Barbera del Monferrato Minola 2006, Italy     $16

Domaine de Zind Humbrecht Pinot Gris 2009, Alsace     $22

Domaine de Mihoudy Chenin Blanc, Anjou-Saumur     $30

The Sun, Moon & Stars…and a biodynamic cup of wine

I admit, I have been known to knock on wood to avoid tempting fate, and have even caught myself stepping over a crack in the sidewalk on occasion, but the last time I read my horoscope was in junior high school and it was for a lark. So how could I possibly buy into the philosophy behind biodynamic wines?

I first heard about biodynamics while studying for the Certified Specialist of Wine exam. It was afforded one paragraph right after organics and sustainability. I confess to snickering ever so slightly when I got to the sentence about phases of the moon and alignment of the planets. I was confident that, should a question arise regarding biodynamics, I would have no trouble remembering which theory it was and that I need not know any more about it.

Many weeks later, I happened to see a wine denoted as being biodynamic on a wine menu at my favorite oyster bar. It was a Sauvignon Blanc and I was in the mood for one, so I ordered it. I was very pleasantly surprised. The taste of mangos and melons married on my tongue and flowed through my mouth in perfect harmony, leaving nothing but an echo of their fresh, lively flavor for an aftertaste. I had a similarly pleasing experience with a biodynamic pinot grigio the next week. The floodgates opened. I attended a local “Taste of” and perused the wine tables. One table of Italian wines caught my attention. Upon tasting a couple of the wines there, I was inclined to sample the rest. After knocking back the final wine, I was receptive to hearing more about them. The national sales manager who had been pouring was all too happy to tell me about the biodynamic methods used in growing the grapes and making the wine. I did not hide my skepticism of what I termed these “quasi-religious” practices. He was nonplussed. I was impressed.

I wanted to know more. I knew the original movement was begun in 1924 when a group of farmers sought the help of Austrian philosopher and spiritual scientist, Rudoph Steiner. The farmers wanted to learn how to grow grapes without depleting the earth of its nutrients through the use of agrochemicals. But where did biodynamics stand now, 86 years later? My search brought me to a book on biodynamics by one of today’s leading advocates and an avid practitioner of the method, Nicolas Joly. Mr. Joly’s vineyard, Coulee de Serrant, is held in extremely high regard by wine experts. I was on the precipice of conversion

Knowing I had been on a biodynamic wine kick for weeks, a colleague contacted me with a request for a list of my favorites. He had a friend with a self-diagnosed allergy to the sulfites in wine and suggested he try biodynamic wine. This was turning into quite the miracle wine! I told my friend that, while the “spiritual science” techniques practiced in biodynamic agriculture did not in and of themselves render these wines any safer to drink for one with sulfite allergies, the fact that biodynamics demand organic vinification and vitification processes would indeed produce a lower sulfite wine. Although sulfites are a natural byproduct of the fermentation process and will be found in all wines to some degree, organic winemakers do not add any additional sulfur dioxide to the wine. SO2 is often added to prevent browning from oxidation and to prevent microbial spoilage.

So, was I ready to permanently suspend my disbelief and jump on the biodynamic bandwagon? No, that was not in the stars. But I now have a better understanding of the principles behind biodynamics, and a greater appreciation for the many benefits biodynamic agriculture has to offer. Not least among these benefits is the organic methods employed, which not only serve to maintain a healthier ecology, but have the added bonus of producing wines that are truer representations of their terroir. I am no longer snickering.