Around the world, environmentally conscious wineries are at the forefront of the movement to change the way crops are grown. Using sustainable, organic, and biodynamic techniques along with cutting-edge technological advancements to make their vines as healthy as possible to both the terroir in which they are situated and to the wine lovers that eventually sip the fruits of their labor, these forward-looking companies are dedicated to the idea of vino-ecology.
Ironically, many of these vineyards (especially those in the “Old World,” like Tuscany’s Badia a Coltibueno pictured above) are simply returning to the traditional ways of doing things. When Jean Meyer’s great-grandfather started Josmeyer in France’s Alsace region back in 1854, modern pesticides and herbicides were not a part of a grape grower’s arsenal. Today, that is exactly what Meyer believes, as the lion’s share of the grapes that go into his dry, perfectly balanced, delicious wines (try the 2005 “Mise du Printemps” Pinot Blanc, $25, or the 2006 “Le Kottabe” Riesling, $34). Starting with 2000 vintage, all Josmeyer domaine vineyards are farmed biodynamically, and the grapes harvested by hand.
Michel Chapoutier, the force behind the highly regarded Rhone Valley house Maison M. Chapoutier, is following his family’s centuries-long dedication to making fine wine (they began making wine in the early 1800’s), but in the almost 20 years that he has run the company, he has ramped up the firm’s dedication to ecologically sound growing and winemaking practices. He has adopted biodynamic and organic farming techniques in his estate vineyards, refuses to use chemicals, fertilizers or sprays on his vines, harvests the grapes by hand, and uses only natural yeasts to produce unfiltered wines.
The result are universally acclaimed, from his Selections Parcellaires – highly touted, hard-to-find bottles like the Ermitage “Le Pavilion” Syrah – to his more accessible 2004 Hermitage Monier de La Sizeranne, $75, a juicy Syrah bursting with red raspberry and black cherry flavors, or the elegant white 2004 Hermitage Chante-Alouette, $60, made from Marsanne grapes and full of tastes of honey and ginger. It seems in the Old World, going with eco-friendly practices as in the past are reaping big rewards.
Italian winemakers are not far behind the French in their sustainable practices. Alois Lageder, he of the eponymous winery from the Northeastern Italy area of Alto Adige, follows in the footsteps of his ancestors, who have been making wine in the region for well over 150 years. But Lageder, with his large portfolio of wines, under his namesake label as well as Tòr Löwengang and Casòn Hirschprunn, has taken it to another level. He is using solar energy (photovoltaic energy) to run all of his winery’s electrical and hot water needs; he is growing his vines using organic farming techniques; and uses gravity, not machinery, to move the wine through the stages of fermentation. The result is a line of top-notch wines, including the single vineyard wines like the 2006 Benefizium Porer Pinot Grigio ($20), a creamy, smooth white wine with oak notes that pairs beautifully with seafood.
Further south, in the Chianti region, Badia a Coltibuono continues a centuries-old tradition of organic farming, using cover crops like alfalfa and clover and composting to protect the soil from erosion, a “healthy viticulture” choice that allows the winery to produce exceptional wines. Their Certified Organic 2005 Chianti Classico is a terrific Sangiovese, with dense red cherry fruit flavor and big soft tannins, and the Riserva is one of Italy’s legendary Chiantis.
Sustainable farming practices are spreading from the Old World around the globe, as Argentina’s Michel Torino Estate wines from the Cafayate region prove. Sheep provide the fertilizer there, weeds are cut with machetes, and the certified organic wines they produce are called Cuma, a word that means “pure and clear” in ancient Aymará, an Incan language. The results are eminently drinkable wines – Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and a sweet, floral white known as Torrontes – that retail in the United States for around $13.
Here in America, the shift toward sustainable farming practices is practically cosmic. With so much media attention being paid to global warming, carbon footprints, and the health benefits of eating – and drinking – organically, it makes perfect sense that top wineries are positioning themselves as forward-thinking, eco-friendly companies. From the Napa and Sonoma valleys to Mendocino and Oregon’s Willamette further north, some of the best in the business are going seriously green.Napa’s Rutherford-based Staglin Family Vineyard, whose highly rated Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($80 for the 2005) is a magnificently balanced, big elegant red wine, farms 100 percent organically, is 100 percent solar powered, and recently rehabilitated their local creek with thousands of seedling native plants. It’s no wonder theirs is one of Napa’s finest Cabs.
Far Niente and its sister winery Nickel & Nickel, two other top Napa red wine producers (try the Far Niente 2005 Estate Bottled Cabernet, $120, for a sublime experience of blackberries, chocolate, and soft tannins) from the Oakville appellation, have gone to solar power, using “Floatovoltaic” panels that are floated onto an irrigation pond, resulting in a net-zero energy bill. Frog’s Leap, a Rutherford winery, is living up to organic standards and adding in a system of dry farming, which works the soil via cover crops and tillage, thus saving water and making their vines more disease resistant. Their 2004 Rutherford Cabernet ($75) is the proof that being ecologically responsible is working well; it is a serious red filled with notes of cherry and pepper, with a long, intense finish, a steak lover’s dream wine.
Shafer, the renowned Stag’s Leap District winery, uses cover crops in between their vines to protect the soil, and has also gone 100 percent solar; their newest release, the 2005 Merlot ($46), is packed with lush flavor and soft tannins, perhaps a result of the lack of greenhouse gases emitted in the winery?
Whatever the reason for Etude Vineyard’s incredible Carneros Pinot Noirs, it is certain that some of the credit must go to the intentional “concept of sustainability” that the company practices, which includes protecting their land’s wetlands and wildlife. It shows in every drop of Etude, from their always lovely Pinot Noir ($42) to their astonishingly good single-vineyard Pinots (Heirloom, Temblor, and Deer Camp).
Over in Sonoma County, standouts in organic wineries include Gundlach Bundschu, the oldest (150 years) family-owned winery in California. Making excellent wines has come naturally to this company for decades on their Rhinefarm estate, and recently they have ramped up their dedication to the earth. Using biodiesel fuel in their tractors, beneficial predators, cover crops in their vineyards, and water reclamation recycling through their on-property ponds, GunBund protects their land and consistently turns out excellent product. Try their 2005 Rhinefarm Vineyard Pinot Noir ($38), a smooth quaff filled with plum, blackberry, and earth notes; or the 2005 Rhinefarm Vineyard Chardonnay ($25), so rich, oaky, and smooth you’ll immediately want more.
Michel-Schlumberger Wine Estate in the Dry Creek Valley is a California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) winery that even includes fish-friendly farming and an organic garden. A visit to the winery can include a “Green Tour”; and one taste of their outstanding Bordeaux-style 2004 Deux Terres Reserve Cabernet ($75) or the densely fruitful and oaky 2005 La Brume Chardonnay ($32) will convince you that going organic is the road to wonderful wines. Quivera, another Dry Creek Valley vineyard, is dedicated to biodynamic and organic farming; and they, too, have harnessed the sun via solar panels, and are making some terrific Zinfandels (try the Wine Creek Ranch, $30, with dense flavors of pepper and chocolate).
Sonoma’s Chalk Hill appellation boasts a number of top-notch sustainable wineries, including Medlock Ames, whose sheep and geese graze the vineyards and create natural fertilizer, and whose horses plough the land instead of gas-guzzling tractors. Try their 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon, $50, for a lush mouthful of smooth cherry, chocolate, and spice. Chalk Hill’s Rodney Strong Vineyards use drip irrigation to save water, solar panels to create energy, and fish-friendly farming to help protect the Russian River’s salmon and trout populations. Their 2006 Charlotte’s Home Sauvignon Blanc ($14) is a crisp, non-grassy quaff with flavors of pear and citrus that proves they are on the right track.
Further up in Mendocino, Bonterra Vineyards is firmly established as one of America’s leading organic wineries. With a full line of reds and whites, the company is committed to both organic and biodynamic farming practices, creating a balance between natural pests and predators that results in a healthy ecological balance in the vineyards. Their 2005 Merlot ($15) is a jammy, dense, fruit-forward wine with notes of dark fruit and tobacco, and the ’05 Chardonnay is a crisp yet creamy wine that is sure to pair well with chicken or fish.
Our world tour of vino-ecological wines ends in Oregon with Sokol Blosser, the Willamette Valley producer dedicated to sustainability. Their barrel cellar is the first in the country to earn LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification; they have had full organic certification since 2005; use solar panels for their energy needs; and even use unbleached paper products for their labels. And their 2005 Pinot Noir is a delicious, smoky, wine with deep cherry notes and a smooth finish, proving that no matter where you go in the world, wines that have an earth- and environmentally-friendly focus are usually worth checking out. Plus, looking for wines that protect the earth is kind of a no-brainer, isn’t it? Why not drink wine with an eco-conscience, given the abundant choices?