A dozen years ago, organic farming and produce was a fringe movement. Supermarkets had begun to establish dedicated little sections - a metre across - for organic produce, where they displayed a rag-bag assortment of jams, biscuits, tinned veg and usually a few bottle of wine. Invariably the wine that I tried was of middling quality, expensive, and certainly in itself no great advert for organic production being a guarantee of quality.
Today, organic food is much further forward in the public consciousness, and certainly there's an awful lot more of it about. It has burst out of its ghetto too, and the organic produce takes its place alongside its non-organic peers, competing directly with them. Wine is the same. Today, a lot of wines are organically produced, a small number take this a stage further into biodynamics and a large number whilst not organic, are made from grapes farmed with minimal use of chemicals. Whilst 'organic' on a wine label may once have signalled a quirky but possibly not very good niche product, today it is more often associated with the most careful and thoughtful wine producing companies.
Organically produced wines mean that no synthetic herbicides, pesticides or fertilisers are used in the vineyard. Vegetarian wine are not necessarily organic, but carry a guarantee that animal products have not been used in their creation. Though it may seem strange that fermented grape juice could be anything other than vegetarian, animal-derived products have traditionally been used in the wine-making process, particularly to fine or clarify the wine. Two common fining agents are isinglass, which is derived from fish, and gelatin, which can be derived from animal bones. Vegetarian wines are fined with non-animal products.
I decided to put a whole batch of organic and vegetarian wines to the test. Detailed notes are below, but generally speaking this was a really sound selection of almost 20 wines, that were on the money in terms of their price-to-quality ratio. It seems that organic and vegetarian wines are now competing on a level playing field, and doing a pretty good job at that. All wines in this report are suitable for vegetarians, and organic wines are indicated in the text.
Via Cara, Pinot Grigio Cuvée Brut NV
Suitable for vegetarians, this sparkling PG from northern Italy pours a pale lemon colour with plenty of lively froth. On the palate there's attractive, peach and ripe red apple fruit, with a touch of toffee in the background. On the palate it is dry and citrussy, with the fruit staying pretty well-organised through the mid palate, the gentle effervescence adding some edge with just a trace of something slightly bitter right on the finish. Forget that though: at this price it's a party starter of some style. 85/100. £3.99, Aldi.
Sizanani, Chenin Blanc 2008, South Africa
There's a delicate yeastiness and nutty note on the nose of this 12.6% alcohol Chenin, which comes from a brand that is 40% owned by an employee trust, and where all workers come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Ripe apple, and even a hint of more tropical fruit fills in. On the palate this is juicy and herbaceously fresh, with a little grassy note and plenty of crisp, lively fruit. A fairly simple and straightforward wine, but a little hint of honey and toast does add some interest. 86/100. £5.99, Oddbins included in a '3 for £15' offer, 17th August until 4th October 2009.
Marks & Spencer, Pinot Grigio Veneto 2007, Italy
This organic Pinot Grigio has an almost transparent, green-tinged colour, a modest 12% ABV, and a crisp, crunchy aroma of apple and melon. On the palate it is dry and lemony, with a touch of minerality, and a long, cool finish. Straightforward and uncomplicated wine, but I like its dry, grown-up style. 87/100. £6.99, Marks & Spencer
Di Majo, Organic Falanghina 'Biblos' 2008
The rise in popularity of Southern Italy's white wine varieties is noticeable, though still taking baby steps rather than giant strides. This Falanghina comes from Molise, just north of Puglia on the Adriatic coast. It has quite a powerful nose, dominated by ripe Ogen melon and a touch of apple skin aroma, and a certain straw-like quality. On the palate this has quite a full texture and again that suggestion of power, with a certain grippiness and phenolic bite in the finish. This would be best with some food - maybe a creamy pasta or grilled seafood, but is a nice wine. 88/100. £9.99, Oddbins
Fox Gordon, Princess Fiano 2008, Australia
Though still far from common, there's more of another southern Italian grape, Fiano, around in South Australia than you might imagine. This example has a seductively pretty nose where wild flower and quite exotic guava and lychee notes meld with a touch of honey and some nectarine fruit. On the palate it is a real beauty: that burstingly sweet, juicy nectarine and mandarin orange fruit fills the mouth, with a little trace of something smoky and mineral, and plenty of zesty acidity just giving a cutting edge and shimmering boost to the pitch-perfect fruit. 90/100. £9.99, Oddbins
Viña Decana, Rosado 2008, Spain
This veggie-friendly pink from Utiel-Requena is made from the local Bobal grape. It has a bold cherry colour and an attractive nose where some soft, creamy strawberry is lifted by a little hint of zestiness. On the palate this has fairly dry red berry fruit that has a bit of roundness and depth (with a touch of residual sugar) leading into a crisp, lemony finish. Quite sparky and bright, with enough fruity and spicy impertinence to give it some character too, this is simple but rather fun at the price. 85/100. £3.99, Aldi
Bonterra Vineyards Organic Rosé 2008, USA
Grapes are not listed on the label for this Mendocino County wine, though in fact it is a blend of many grapes including Sangiovese, Zinfandel and Syrah. A deep-coloured rosé, there's a note of cranberry and cherry, a hint of spice and a certain tea-like quality. On the palate it is full of strawberry pulp fruit, underpinned by a citrussy acidity and still showing little herbal and leafy qualities. Layered stuff, and note that if there is still some on the shelves by 9th September, Waitrose will cut the price to £5.99. 87/100. £9.99, Waitrose.
Sizanani, Pinotage 2008, South Africa
This Stellenbosch Pinotage has a nose of coffee and dark berry fruits, though there is a little tell-tale note of burning rubber that is typical of some Pinotage wines. On the palate there's a sweetness to the fruit and masses of spice. Creamy raspberry fruit dominates, though I have to say I find a little bit of a resinous quality to this that is distinctively Pinotage, but not entirely harmonious, right in the finish. 85/100. £5.99, Oddbins included in a '3 for £15' offer, 17th August until 4th October 2009.
Château du Parc, Coteaux du Languedoc 2007, France
An organic blend of Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache, this has a bright, raspberry and cream fruit with a touch of something herbal and certain jammyness. On the palate that mix of sweet, juicy red fruit with a little herbal lift continues, leading onto a dry, savoury finish of gentle tannin and good acidity with lots of pepper and spice kicking in. 87/100. £5.99, Marks & Spencer.
Errazuriz, Winemaker Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Chile
This Aconcagua Cabernet has a wonderfully tight focus, with pure blackcurrant fruit and just a swirling hint of smoky spice. On the palate there is a juiciness to this, with plenty of lively acidity and firm tannins shoring up the inherent sweetness of the black fruit. Drinking really nice this and a beautifully made wine. 88/100. £6.99, Oddbins.
Usoa de Bagordi, Organic Rioja Joven 2007, Spain
Organic Tempranillo with a touch of Graciano is the recipe for this fresh, fruity, modern Rioja. Strawberries and cream, with a little lick of denser, more plush cassis aroma, leads on to a palate that is medium-bodied and quite grippy, with a firm, rustic edge to the tannins and a smoky, charry edge of spice that builds through to the finish. Quite a lively handful this, much grippier than some Riojas, but though bold and flavourful maybe lacks a little mid-palate fruit. Needs food. 86/100. £6.99, Marks & Spencer.
Botteghino, Chianti 2007, Italy
This 100% Sangiovese is made from organically-grown grapes from vineyards close to Siena in Tuscany. The nose has a cedary, sweet-tobacco note over rounded cherry fruit with a hint of black olive. On the palate this is quite crisp and racy, with the typically bright and juicy acidity of the grape, and a nice, subtle underpinning of smoother, richer fruit, spiciness and some earthy softness of older oak. This is a really nice Chianti that's also quite long. 88/100. £7.99, Marks & Spencer.
Gemtree Vineyards, 'Tadpole' Shiraz 2008, Australia
McLaren Vale is a hotspot for big, burly Shiraz wines, this one named after the tree frogs that have repopulated the Gemtree farm as part of their environmental programme. It has a deep-set blueberry nose with a great deal of plush, ripe fruit character and undertones of espresso and wood smoke. The palate has that super-ripeness again, with a big, solid fruit core that is dense and bittersweet, a certain creaminess to fruit and texture playing against burly tannins and a bit of alcoholic heft. 89/100. £7.99, Oddbins.
Château Grand-Pey-Lescours, St Emilion Grand Cru 2005, France
A vegetarian-suitable Bordeaux from a fine vintage, this St Emilion has 70% Merlot in the blend, along with the two Cabernets. It has a soft, earthy, sweet, damp leaves nose with plummy fruit and a bit of cedar beneath. On the palate it is quite bold and fleshy, with good fruit - lots of blackcurrant and bittersweet plum and plum skins, with the tannins ruffling the surface and balanced acidity. The spice and cedar of the oak asserts in the slightly dry finish. A characterful Bordeaux at a good price. 88/100. £9.99, Aldi.
Bonterra Vineyards, Zinfandel 2007, USA
One of the best-known names in organic wines, Bonterra from Mendocino in northern California has been farming organically, and biodynamically, for two decades. The French and American oak-ageing for this Zinfandel leaves the rich, bramble and hedgerow berry fruit to take the lead, with an earthy spiciness and just background notes of chocolate and toast. On the palate it is quite robust and chunky, with strapping tannins and powerful berry fruit. There's a ripeness and sweetness to this wine, and that core of warming, smoky spice adds weight and depth. Acidity is good, and just about manages to balance the big, powerful character of the fruit and slightly drying tannins. Yummy, but even better with a chunk of barbecued beef or Mexican food. 89/100. £10.99, Waitrose, Majestic (buy two and save £5.00 until end August 2009)
Bonterra Vineyards, Merlot 2006, USA
There's a chocolate and plum richness and enveloping smoky darkness about the nose of this wine, where ageing in French oak barrels has only added cedary nuances. On the palate this delivers a big, fairly straightforward rush of bittersweet black fruit, with blackcurrant and black plum nestling down amongst ripe, chunky tannins, that smoky, savoury oak and good acid structure. Chewy and dense Merlot this, with a long, spice-infused finish. 88/100. £10.99, Waitrose.
Corte Sant'Alda, Valpolicella Adalia 2007, Italy
The Adalia brand name is derived from Adalia bipunctata, the ladybird, which is one of the main biological methods used by Corte Sant'Alda to control aphids in the vineyard. The wine has a creamy, juicy, strawberry and raspberry fruit character with a nice suggestion of schisty minerality. The palate has nicely-pitched fruit that is sweet and ripe, but sharpened and balanced by crisp acids and a tart, cherry-skin tang. I have to say £10.99 looks a little steep for this wine delicious but ultimately simple wine, and the mixed-case price of £8.79 makes more sense. 87/100. £10.99, Oddbins.
Fonseca, Terra Prima Reserve Port, Portugal
Fonseca's Terra Prima is an organic Port, and the spirit used to fortify the wine was also from organic grapes. It is a deep, rich ruby, aged in vats, and has silky-smooth aromas of crushed red berry fruits and chocolate, with little herbal nuances. On the palate that herbal quality is still there, but some pure, velvety, cherry and plum fruit fills in nicely, the subtle sweetness developing but staying balanced by a certain acidity and a fairly nimble, lighter-bodied character. A spicy finish too in a style that is not heavy, and very sippable. 89/100. £14.99, Waitrose, Bibendum, Luvians, Peckham & Rye.