First published 2003 in Wines From Spain News (New York).

Back to the Future: Organic Wines Begin to Take the Prizes
By Janet Mendel

More and more wine connoisseurs are looking beyond quality and value when selecting wines. They are beginning to want wines that are organically produced from ecological vineyards. In 20 years, Spain’s organic wineries have grown from zero to more than 100, with every wine producing region represented. These wines-quite a few of which are available in the United States-carry labels that identify them as wines made from organically-grown grapes.

It’s been a very good year for Dionisio de Nova, for he’s been racking up international awards for his organically grown wines. His Vinum Vitae 2000 (Bodegas Dionisis, Valdepeñas) won first prize for red wine among 111 contestants at BioFach, an important international fair for organic foods in Germany; a red ribbon for organic wine at the International Wine Festival at the Los Angeles County Fair, and a silver medal at the Córdoba (Spain) organic farming fair.
He pours proudly. This is good wine.
Is it good because it’s organic? It’s good because growing grapes organically requires that a great deal of care be taken at every step of cultivation, pruning, picking, and vinification. And, vines that have to work harder to derive nutrients from poor soil produce grapes with more color, aroma and flavor. Wines grown organically, says Dionisio, best express terroir (the word is terruño in Spanish) and grape varietal.
Dionisio was a pioneer in organic agriculture in Spain. While still a student in agriculture school in the late 70s, he and a few others began experimenting with organic farming.
“We had a compost heap on the ag school terrace,” he says with a laugh. “We were radicals.” The professors would have nothing to do with organic growing, but, now, he says, they’re getting on the bandwagon too.
Dionisio worked in various regions before returning to his roots, in Valdepeñas in central Spain. He comes from a family of bodegueros, wine makers. At his urging, his father made Valdepeñas’s first wine from organically-grown grapes in 1984. When his father retired, Dionisio returned to Valdepeñas and took over the vineyards and bodega. He improved the winery’s installations and converted the cellar-a cool cave hacked out of limestone-from the old tinajas, huge earthenware amphorae, to oak casks. He turned all of the family vineyards to organic growing and, by 1995, was producing only wine from organically grown fruit.
“I was thrilled to come back to my hometown and, especially, to be making wine, a product I grew up with. Wine is much more than other agricultural products-it represents life, friendship, culture. What better way to transmit the spirit of ecological philosophy?”

A winemaker who shares this philosophy is Josep María Albet i Noya, who makes highly regarded wines and cava (sparkling wine) from organic vineyards in the Penedès region of Catalonia. He was the first in Spain to make ecological wine in1982. He points out that non-organic farming was a 20th century phenomenon, with the introduction of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and synthetic pesticides. Organic growing, in a sense, is back-to-the-future.
Conventional vines are chemically fertilized and regularly sprayed against various diseases with systemic chemicals-those which are absorbed through the roots into the vine’s sap and passed through leaves, stems and fruit. Chemical residue ends up in the grapes and, thus, the wine.
Organic viticulture uses only external treatments, seeking to restore the soil’s balance.
The Albet i Noya vineyards are planted in winter with a grass cover which is ploughed back into the soil in the spring. After a number of years without excess nitrogen in the soil, the vines become more resistant to many of the diseases brought on by forced overproduction. Only light dustings of copper hydroxide and sulfur (non-systemic treatments) are used.
“In Spain, organic is easy,” Josep Maria claims. “The conditions-except in rainy Galicia-are right: hot and dry means fewer diseases. What’s not easy is making good wine. That has to come first.” He is committed to organic winemaking because he believes it’s the best way to achieve quality wines.
Organic wine regulations specify the amount of intervention allowed in the winemaking process, limiting the quantity of sulfites added and prohibiting other additives, explains Josep María. Without some sulfites, there is no wine of any quality, except very local and very fresh, because it oxidizes. Sulfites in the Albet i Noya wines are well below the 100 milligrams per liter maximum allowed in organically-made wines.
His is a family winery, still run with his brother and mother. Originally, all the grapes came from family vineyards, but now he buys from other growers who are certified organic.
Ninety percent of Albet i Noya wines are exported. About 20 percent go to North America. His wines cost 10 percent more than comparable wines from the Penedés region.
Josep María continues to experiment with varietals that are sturdily resistant to disease, including some old vines that pre-date the phylloxera plague. He also is testing local herb extracts to substitute for the copper and sulfur.
“Growing organic is a process,” he says. “It’s ongoing. You don’t just arrive at an organic stage.
“Wine is not like detergent, that you just want it to clean well,” he says. “Wine is a living substance. It comes with a story; it comes from the earth.”
La Rioja, Spain’s most well-established and respected wine region, is in the vanguard of organic wine producing. Besides a good number of individual winemakers dedicated to ecological production, the provincial Rioja government is behind it as well.
Juan B. Chávarri Mardones is the enologist for the Bodega Institucional La Grajera, an ecological winery and research station sponsored by the La Rioja government. He oversees vineyards and winemaking for an organically-made Rioja wine that isn’t for sale anywhere. It’s the official wine of the Rioja government, and serves as both experiment and promotion.
Juan talks passionately about organic growing. “The future is organic,” he says. “For the health of the consumer; the health of the planet, we have to keep trying to make it work.”
“In La Rioja, we were running before we could walk,” says Juan. “We had a few growers dedicated to organic production at the highest level, before there were even rules for certification.”
In the experimental organic vineyards he uses composted muck from vine pressings to enrich the soil; pheromones that confuse the sexual impulses of bugs that attack vines; management of vine canopy to decrease possibility of disease. He
notes that comparative studies show that overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides appears to lead to loss of acidity in the resulting wine, decrease in the varietal aroma, and reduction in the wild yeasts which characterize the wine’s fermentation.
Juan estimates that one kilo (2.2 pounds) of grapes costs 32 percent more than that grown by conventional means due to higher labor costs. Vineyard management-composting, pruning, picking-has to be done by hand.
“Organic wines should cost even more,” he says. Some winemakers keep the price down to establish a market niche.
Juan Carlos Sancha, manager of Viñas Ijalda winery, the first to go organic in La Rioja, says his primary interest was to make high quality wine.
“I enjoy drinking wine, so I want it to be as good as possible. Quality is more than the degree of alcohol, sugar, acidity. I wanted the healthiest wine, with no additives or residual chemicals.”
Juan Carlos says that the Ijalda vineyards are 100 percent organic. “We use manure from sheep and cattle, no chemical fertilizers. No chemical pesticides. We use pheromones to combat insects.”
A professor of viticulture at the Rioja University, he explains that organically grown vines produce more resveratrol, the polyphenols that give color. “Like white blood cells, they are the plant’s defense against attack by disease.” The longer the vines are organic, the more resveratrol they make, he says.
Alicia Rojas is another winemaker in La Rioja who produces wine from organically-grown grapes from the estate established by her father in 1920.
“We’re going organic poco a poco (little by little),” says Alicia. “It began as an experiment, to see if it was possible to grow grapes organically and make good wine.” About 16 percent of the vineyards has been converted to organic growing.
Beginning the first of September the grapes are monitored daily for the optimum level of sugar and acidity to determine the vendimia, harvest. Healthy grapes are processed as soon as they arrive at the winery, to prevent oxidation and premature fermentation of the fruit. Temperature-controlled fermentation follows. The new wine is allowed to macerate with the skins for three or four weeks in order to extract the maximum color and sugars. Vinification requires scrupulous hygiene at every step, allowing very low doses of sulfites.
The result is Bodegas Alicia Rojas Solarce Ecológico Crianza, red wine made of organically-grown grapes, 90% Tempranillo and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, and aged 12 months in oak and 12 months in bottle.
This is good wine.
And, finally, good wine is what it’s about.

What is organic?

In Spain organically-raised produce is called ecológico or biológico. It comes under European Union regulations, but is regulated by each regional autonomous government. So, for example, Catalonia, La Rioja, Andalucía, each sets its own norms for organic agriculture. Independent certification boards (such as ECOCERT) carry out inspections and analyses to verify growers are in line with the norms. Grapes and wine are tested for the absence of certain chemicals and residuals. Once certified, products carry both the European and Spanish regional organic agriculture labels.
Organic wine is made from organically-grown grapes. No chemical and synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides are used in the vineyards. Organic growing promotes biodiversity, the enrichment of the soil and conservation and non-contamination of water resources.
However, under current United States regulations, it can not be certified as organic wine, because it contains sulfites.
According to Robert Wolke, kitchen scientist (What Einstein Told His Cook), small amounts of sulfites occur in grape skins, so the wine will naturally contain a certain amount. Vintners add sulfites to wines for two reasons: First, it inhibits the growth of molds and bacteria and, second, it's an antioxidant, so it counteracts the oxidation of alcohol to acetic acid (vinegar), which happens when wine is exposed to air. In both cases, it acts as a preservative. A small fraction of the population is sensitive to sulfites, so the FDA requires a statement on the labels of wines and other foods that contain added sulfites.
What distinguishes organic wines--those produced from organic grapes-- is that the level of sulfites is very, very low, less than half the quantity of conventionally made wines.

Janet Mendel is an American journalist based in southern Spain. She is the author of several books about Spanish cooking, the most recent My Kitchen in Spain (HarperCollins 2002).

© Text Janet Mendel
 © Photos by J.D.Dallet 

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