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
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
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
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
“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
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
“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
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
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
“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
“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
© Photos by J.D.Dallet