Organic, Natural, or Biodynamic?

Confused by what the difference is between natural, organic, and biodynamic wine? Well, you are not alone. The growing trend toward natural, organic, and biodynamic wines has created a marketplace in which an informed consumer stands a much better chance of buying a product that fulfills their desire to live a “greener lifestyle”.

In my opinion, the best way to feel confident that you are purchasing a natural, organic, or biodynamically produced wine is to buy it from a producer you trust. Before you decide on which production practices best suit your needs let’s look at an overview of each method. You must keep in mind that there is no clear-cut distinction between practices and there is often an overlap between terms describing them; the qualities are not interchangeable between methods. 

Organic wines are separated into two categories in the U.S. The first is wine certified organic by the United States Department of Agriculture using strict regulations. The U.S.D.A. guidelines require the grapes to be grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers and all ingredients added to the wines must be certified organic. No sulfites may be added to these wines. Only wines that meet these strict rules may display the U.S.D.A. certified organic seal. The second category contains wines made from grapes that were grown using organic farming methods. Wines in this category were made using organically grown grapes and may or may not have been made following organic winemaking methods. 

Biodynamic wine is made using the principles of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. I think of biodynamic practices as embracing a holistic approach toward viticulture. It observes farming methods based on a specific astronomic calendar. An example of this would be only harvesting grapes on days designated as “Fruit” days or only pruning on “Root” days. Biodynamic farming isn’t only dependent upon the calendar but is similar to organic in that it only allows for the use of organic fertilizers and bans the use of any type of pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, or any synthetic chemical intervention in the vineyard. Biodynamic wines are, however, permitted to contain sulfites. It is these small differences that can cause confusion when comparing whether a wine is organic, biodynamic or both. A wine designated as organic doesn’t mean it is also biodynamic or a biodynamic is always organic.

Natural wine or low-intervention wine, as it is often called, is fermented spontaneously by its native yeasts. As the name implies they are, for the most part, unmanipulated and never filtered or fined. By not filtering these wines they appear cloudy because of the solids left suspended in them. Due to the minimal amount of intervention by the winemaker these wines have limited stability and should be treated accordingly. If a winemaker doesn’t want to go through the regulatory process of having their wine certified as organic they can just skip the process and label it as “Natural”.

This is why I strongly suggest when you are looking for a wine to purchase in this segment of the market it is always a good idea to buy from a producer you know and trust.

Interview: Jeff Vejr Owner/Winemaker Golden Cluster

While scrolling through my Instagram recently I came across a mention of

an Oregon-made Saperavi. It piqued my interest because I wasn’t aware of any Saperavi being made, let alone grown further west than a few newly planted vineyards in Southwestern Pennsylvania. After a quick internet search, I located Golden Cluster and its owner/winemaker Jeff Vejr in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. I contacted Jeff to find out if he and Golden Cluster were as unique and cutting edge as they appeared at first glance. The short answer is “YES” plus so much more than meets the eye when you realize what he is accomplishing.

Jeff Vejr, Owner/Winemaker Golden Cluster Photo Credit: Laura Domela

The Golden Cluster website goldencluster.com is packed with fascinating information ranging from the uncommon grapes they use in their wine, the wine they make, the history of the area, and Jeff’s story and winemaking philosophy. There is so much information that it can be confusing so I asked Jeff to clarify the structure of his operation. He told me all of his wines are made under the Golden Cluster umbrella but there are some individual wineries that have different themes or points of view. He is the winemaker of all the wine and he makes all of his wine at the David Hill Winery which was originally the Charles Coury Vineyard & Winery. His Saperavi is not grown at the David Hill Vineyards but is grown in the Columbia Gorge AVA of Oregon. The uncommon grapes he sources from David Hill Vineyards were planted between 1966-1972 by Charles Coury. Those grape varieties are Semillon, Savagnin Rose, Flora, Melon de Bourgogne, Sylvaner, Perle of Csaba, and Gouges Blanc (aka Pinot Gouges).

If you find this prelude to my interview with Jeff Vejr owner/winemaker Golden Cluster interesting please read on for my conversation with Jeff. I didn’t believe I could convey Jeff’s passion and vision for his winery better than he did so I am publishing our interview “In his own words”.   Enjoy!

1) Why did you choose to make wine from uncommon grapes?

The Semillon grape holds a special place in my heart, as it was the first white wine that brought me out of my “I only drink red wine” ignorance.

In early Spring of 2013, I was visiting the historic David Hill Vineyard with fellow winemaker Barnaby Tuttle of Teutonic Wine Company.  We walked around the vineyard looking at some of the rows of Sylvaner and Riesling grapes that he contracted for. At the end of our walk, we came across these vines that were much larger than anything else we were looking at, so we asked the vineyard manager what they were. We couldn’t believe our ears when he told us that they were Semillon planted in the mid-1960’s.Upon further questioning, we came to find out that the Semillon was picked with the “other” mixed white grapes on the property and blended away. This news brought Barnaby and I considerable pain. On the drive back to Portland, we decided that Barnaby would call up to the winery the next day and ask about the availability of the Semillon for the upcoming harvest. Barnaby made the call to inquire and they agreed to sell him the Semillon.Their only question was why he wanted to even bother with it.

The original Charles Coury Vineyard (now called David Hill Vineyard) is one of the first vineyards planted in the Willamette Valley after Prohibition. For Barnaby and myself, it was a travesty that these historic grapes were not made into a single varietal bottling. To know that these grapes had been here for nearly 50 years without anyone making a stand-alone wine from them was unbelievable to us. Once I received this news, I was keenly aware of the rare opportunity and the responsibility involved.  What I did not realize was that this chance encounter of Semillon grapes planted in 1966 would expand into a wider untold story about the famous pre-prohibition Reuter Vineyard and the man who planted these original Semillon vines, both originating on the exact same piece of land.

It was as if Dionysus was sending a message and a mission. It was at this time when opportunity and duty converged and Golden Cluster was born.  

In proceeding vintages, I was able to source and make wine from other uncommon grapes from the original Charles Coury Vineyard. Grapes such as Flora and Savagnin Rose. Flora was one of the first American wine grapes to be developed after Prohibition, by the famous grape breeder, Dr. Harold Olmo at UC-Davis. The Savagnin Rose was a grape that had been misidentified for 50 years as Gewurztraminer in the David Hill Vineyard. After trips to Alsace, extensive research, DNA analysis, and most importantly visual identification, I was comfortable in correcting the record in 2016. To my knowledge, it is the oldest known Savagnin Rose in the U.S.A.

In the past 3 years, I have been afforded the opportunity to source other grapes that are not common in Oregon. Grapes such as Saperavi, Bon Noir, Sagrantino, Fiano, Alvarinho, Vignoles, Garanoir, Regent, and Agria, just to name a few. Some of these grapes are the first plantings of these grapes in our state. Oregon is a far more dynamic wine region than what our industry touts and than what the general public is led to believe. From a grape-growing perspective, Oregon is just as diverse as France, Italy, or Spain. Many of our vineyards can be grown non-irrigated, which is the standard in Europe. While most of the attention that Oregon receives is directed towards one grape and one of our wine regions, the most exciting work and resulting wines are coming from grapes that are not “typical” for Oregon. It is within this framework, where Oregon can be appreciated in a wider sense. We are operating with the same commitment, sacrifice, spirit, and hard work that it took the Somer, Lett, Coury, Erath, Ponzi, Sokol Blosser, Adelshiem, Vuylsteke, and Campbell families to reestablish Oregon wine after prohibition. We have a strong foundation to launch from, thanks in part to their work. The story of Oregon wine continues. 

2) Tell me about your wine journey and how it has brought you to where you are today?

I am the stereotypical wine lover who left their previous profession to throw themselves into the wine business I started at the bottom, working in every facet of the wine industry from vineyard work, cellar work, harvest intern, wine buyer, importer, wine educator, and wine delivery driver.

At every step in this journey, I have stayed hungry to learn more. For those that are intellectually curious, the wine world is an incredible place to reside. It encompasses so many other professions; geology, chemistry, language, history, botany, meteorology, biology, music, anthropology, business, art, economics, religion, politics, etc….This is part of the beauty and curse of wine, as it is a galaxy of knowledge that never ceases.The minute you think you know something, you quickly realize that you know nothing. Wine is far more than just an alcoholic beverage.

For me, I have been guided by my own taste. As my palate has changed and as I have learned more, I have come to appreciate diving deeper and deeper into the proverbial rabbit hole. 

I am not classically trained as a winemaker or sommelier. I have not taken any classes, nor earned any certificates or credentials in any area of the wine business. This has provided me with an uncluttered headspace to discover my own palate organically. I did not enter the wine world framed by institutional biases.  

3) What are your plans for the future both near term and long-range? 

My plan has been consistent since I humbly entered the wine industry. The plan is to never quit, never stop learning, never stop exploring, and accept opportunities as they arise. The commitment remains the same because this is more than a profession to me, it is a lifestyle.  What is also important to me is to continue to research, unravel, and learn from the twin stories of the Reuter Vineyard and the Charles Coury Vineyard. To unify the histories of the Oregon wines that were grown and made on this hill behind Forest Grove, in the northern reaches of the Willamette Valley.

Photo of Reuter daughter in the original Reuter Vineyard circa 1904 Photo Credit: David Hill Vineyard

The story Jeff is writing with his forward-thinking view of winemaking is absolutely just the beginning and where it takes him and Golden Cluster will be thought-provoking to watch as it unfolds vintage after vintage.

Souther Williams Vineyard

In the rolling hills of western North Carolina nestled within the Crest of the Blue Ridge lies the beautiful vineyards and boutique winery of Souther Williams Vineyard. Souther Williams Vineyard sits on the remains of a 10,000-acre farm that has been in owner Ken Parker’s family for over 200 years. The vineyard and winery continue the family’s commitment to the land and their dedication to being responsible stewards as is stated in their motto ”Gargien de la terre” which means “Caretakers of the Earth”.

Souther Williams Vineyard Photo Courtesy: Souther Williams Vineyard

Ken currently has 8 acres in vines and plans for an additional 5 acres. The vineyards are planted at approximately 2500 feet above sea level in mountain loam soil with a rocky substrate that provides good drainage and mineral content allowing the vines to sink their roots deep into the ground. I originally heard of Souther Williams because of their Saperavi planting, which is the first in North Carolina, but after learning more about their vineyard I became very interested in their choice of grape varieties. They grow wine grapes that originated in Austria, Eastern Europe, Germany, and Russia because these grapes have proven to be reliable and produce quality fruit even when grown at higher altitudes in cool climates with shorter growing seasons. Ken planted one acre each of Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Vidal Blanc, Cynthiana, Blaufrankisch, Regent, Saperavi, and Cabernet Franc with an acre of Rkatsiteli to be added in 2022.

Ken Parker and his wife Angela have a wine story that is a familiar one when it comes to people who succumb to the

Sun shining on rows of Cynthiana vines Photo Courtesy: Souther Williams Vineyard

irresistible pull of time and place by following their hearts home to live the “Winemaker’s Life”. Ken and Angela were professionals in banking and technology when they found their passion for wine. They left those careers to pursue new careers in the retail side of the wine industry but soon realized the only way they could truly fulfill their dreams was to return home to North Carolina and start their own vineyard and winery on the family farm. Souther Williams Vineyard will open its tasting room to the public in June 2021. Vidal Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Riesling, Grüner Veltliner, Rkatsiteli, and two Meritage blends will be available for purchase in the winery’s initial offering of wine

Aerial view of Gruner Veltliner and Vidal Blanc vineyard Photo Courtesy: Souther Williams Vineyard

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Till We Meet Again

Isabella Grapes Photo Courtesy: Double-A Vineyards

In my last post, I explored the idea that you didn’t need to try wine from far away places to experience something new. There are plenty of grape varieties that were commonly found on kitchen tables and being made into everyday wines have fallen out of favor for a myriad of reasons can provide an interesting distraction from the predictable narrative of today’s offerings.

Isabella is a Vitis labrusca grape that was once prized for it’s ability to produce fruit that was marketable as table grapes, juice, and grapes for winemaking. Isabella is a large round grape with dark purple skin and a green-yellow flesh that is easily separated from its skin.

In many European countries, Isabella is still banned from being grown and it is illegal to make wine from its grapes. The importation of Isabella vines from North America was widely blamed for the phylloxera plague that ravaged vineyards across Europe in the mid-1800s. Despite it being outlawed in many European countries Isabella can still be found in vineyards and being made into various styles of wine, especially in Italy where the sweet dessert wine Fragolino is very popular. Isabella’s reputation as a desperado has necessitated it being known by more than fifty aliases. Those names range from Alexander and Fragola to Moschostaphylo and Kerkyraios but no matter what name you have known Isabella by it always displays that trademark “foxy” flavor that Vitis labrusca grapes are known for.

Homeward Bound

If you have followed this blog you know that I’m fascinated by uncommon wine grapes and where they are being grown by innovative vintners. I usually write about grapes that originated in other parts of the world but today I’m writing about a grape that was developed in the United States and is widely planted in my home state of Pennsylvania.

Traminette was created in 1965 at the University of Illinois by crossing the Vitis vinifera grape Gewürztraminer and the French-American hybrid grape Joannes Seyve 23.416. It was originally created as a white table grape but was then found to possess qualities that make it favorable for making wine. The result was a grape with a complex flavor profile, good productivity, resistance to cold temperatures, and versatility in the cellar. Traminette produces a straw-colored wine that has an enticing floral aroma and flavors of apricot, honey, and to a lesser extent, tropical fruit. I had the pleasure of tasting Traminette juice as it flowed from the press at Ripepi Wnery & Vineyard Monongahela, PA. It was bright and had a depth of sweetness with a flavor that is hard to describe. Traminette is most often made in a dry to off-dry style. I like both styles but prefer the off-dry wine when enjoying a day at the winery with my friends.

Traminette can be found throughout Pennsylvania but is most heavily concentrated in the southeastern and northcentral regions.

Australian & South African Winemakers Need Your Help

Winemakers in Australia and South Africa are facing a crisis. Australia is embroiled in a trade dispute with China in which China has halted the purchase of Australian barley, most beef, seafood, coal, and yes,wine. By early December 2020 Australian wineries had lost 1.2 billion in sales. South Africa has banned all alcohol sales as it battles a resurgence of Covid-19. You can help by buying a bottle or two of Australian and South African wine when you visit your wine shop. This is a perfect opportunity to revisit an old favorite from these countries or explore something new, either way it’s a win/win situation.

                                                                       


 

Star-Crossed Wine Lovers


Twelve bottles of Bordeaux and hundreds of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon canes made it back to Earth Wednesday night 1/13/2021 when they splash-downed in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida near Tampa. The wine was sent to the International Space Station by the Luxembourg startup Space Cargo Unlimited. The object of the experiment was to determine how aging in space would affect the wine. The wine will first be taste-tested by a panel of experts then subjected to chemical analysis to verify if any alterations in it’s aging occurred.

The vine clippings arrived at the space station aboard a different SpaceX mission in March 2020. The focus of the vine experiment was to observe how they respond to the stresses of weightlessness and use that information to develop hardier and more adaptable plants for use on earth and on future space missions.

As interesting as the experiments are what I find amazing is the restraint those astronauts showed being stuck in space with a case of Bordeaux for more than a year and not opening a single bottle! WOW! I salute their will power! LOL

SpaceX splashdown Photo Credit: NASA

A Wrinkle in Time

I just received an interesting email from my good friend Steve Casscles. You may recognize Steve from his many articles about wine grapes or his book “Grapes of the Hudson Valley and Other Cool Climate Regions of the U.S. and Canada” available on Amazon.com. Steve is a winemaker at Sabba Vineyard in New York’s Hudson Valley. He wanted me to share the exciting news with my readers that Sabba Vineyard has embarked on a new project and is offering a very limited quantity (about 20 gallons) of wine made from heritage wine grapes. Steve and Sabba Vineyard owner Abby Youghabi have worked tirelessly at preserving these and many other heritage grapes so they can be enjoyed by future generations. Anyone interested in purchasing these unique wines can go to sabbavineyard.com and click on “Order Now” to view the wines or use this link: http://sabbavineyard.com/s/order At this time they are offering:

 

-Baccchus Marion –  a Ricketts Red variety developed in the Hudson Valley in the 1870s  a flinty red variety, medium body, but a true wine grape developed in the 19th century (which was unique then) $25

– Baco Blanc – as steely and flinty white with fruits of soft lemons and green apples.  The variety is used a lot in Cognac and Armanac to make brandy. $25

– Pallmer Noir – a chance hybrid Steve found at his farm.  A big Malbec kind of wine.with lots of vinifera in its genetic makeup. $25

Billecart-Salmon Brut Sous Bois Champagne

To say 2020 has been a difficult year would be an understatement of monumental proportions. Don’t let your haste to put 2020 behind you results in a missed opportunity to treat yourself to a New Year’s Eve toast with a great Champagne as you show the past year the door. Billecart-Salmon Brut Sous Bois Champagne ($85) is just such a Champagne. It is a unique cuvée made with three Champenois grape varieties blended in an artful style that resurrects the heart and soul of original Champagne. The Premier and Grand Cru Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs, Premier, and Grand Cru Pinot Noir from the Montagne de Reims, Aÿ and Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, and Pinot Meunier from the right bank of the Vallée de la Marne are vinified entirely in oak and aged 6 to 7 years on their lees to yield a Champagne with a complex aromatic character. Brut Sous Bois displays a brilliant yellow color in the glass with sparkles of gold highlighting the steady streams of small bubbles that delight the eye. Aromas of fresh citrus and dried fruit lead your palate naturally into the bold burst of flavors featuring notes of grilled brioche and toffee, exactly what you would expect from a powerful mature wine from Champagne. Pairing suggestions include mushroom dishes, cheese (especially finely shaved Monk’s head), and poultry. This full-bodied wine will stand up to the heavier fare of the holiday season and can provide the perfect complement to steak or other grilled meat. Billecart-Salmon’s pursuit of quality doesn’t stop with what they put in the bottle but also with the label itself. Look closely and you will see the label is made from real cherry wood. To enjoy the true essence of Billecart-Salmon Brut Sous Bois Champagne pour a glass and just savor the moment.

 

Invitation To My Latest Article

I would like to invite you to view my latest article that was just published on The Vintner Project website vintnerproject.com It is a candid look at the Saperavi being grown and made in the State of New York. It includes intimate and insightful commentary from four legendary N.Y. winemakers, Fred Frank, President of Dr. Frank’s Wine, son of Willy Frank and grandson of Dr. Konstantin Frank, John McGregor, Vice-President of McGregor Vineyard and son of the founder Bob McGregor, Martha (Marti) Macinski, the founder and former owner of Standing Stone Vineyards, and Jim Baker, the founder, owner, and winemaker of Chateau Niagara Winery. This piece offers a truly unique perspective into the mystique of American Saperavi like never before. A “must” read for anyone interested in the future of emerging winegrapes in North America. Photos Courtesy: Dr. Frank Winery, McGregor Vineyard, and Chateau Niagara Winery. If you like the article please share. Link to article: https://vintnerproject.com/wine/saperavi-the-next-cult-grape/

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