We live in an age where the word “organic” is viewed with a mixture of interest and suspicion, since many of us know the term is often bandied about with little regulation.
As it applies to wine, you’ll see varying terms such as “organic,” “biodynamic,” and “natural.” For the purposes of our exercise today, we will discuss organic wine.
So what is “organic wine”? Depending on where you are in the world, this may have a wildly different answer. As we are discussing American wine, organic is defined as being produced from “organically-grown grapes without added sulfites.”
It is a common misperception that wine can be totally sulfite-free. There are two types of sulfites: those that are naturally occurring and those that are added. The natural process of wine fermentation creates sulfites, so if you are under the impression from a past bad experience that you are allergic to sulfites in wine, you most likely are not. Very few people have true sulfite allergies.
The more likely cause would be a “red wine headache” caused by the alcohol, residual sugar or other additives (typically to mask flaws in cheaper, bad wine). In fact, if you have never had a problem eating dried fruits such as apricots or mangoes (containing five to 10 times the amount of sulfites as red wine), then you are not in the small percentage of people who have to worry about this.
In 1988, the United States mandated that wine producers label their wines as containing sulfites. And it wasn’t a wine problem that initiated this federal law. With the rising popularity of the salad bar in the 1970s and 1980s, some Americans experienced bad reactions to the sprayed sulfites to keep the vegetables from wilting, and the U.S. went into action protecting the consumer.
Additionally, anti-alcohol lobbyists (a wicked, evil breed, to be sure!) worked to force wineries to list their ingredients and aided in the fight for the “Contains Sulfites” stamp. True story.
Certainly many of us strive to eat healthier where possible, and that should not differ in our wine consumption. So what is the point of adding sulfites to wine? Sulfites help preserve wine so that the fancy Bordeaux you have sitting in your cellar will age into a beautiful queen and not a vinegary witch. Sulfites also aid in taste stabilization.
So what about organically grown grapes?
Most vineyards use herbicides and pesticides to control all the bad things you can imagine can happen to vulnerable vines. The U.S. does regulate residue in food and beverage and the use of chemicals in vineyards, and not just to protect the consumer but the farmhands as well. Stories of massive chemical usage in countries such as Chile, which are booming in wine production, are far less promising.
To receive the CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers) “Certified Organic” label, grapes must have been grown in accordance with the organic standards established by the USDA National Organic Program, wines must contain all organic grapes, and wine are from a certified organic facility. Wines can contain up to 100 ppm total sulfites and not have added sulfites.
Few such wines exist in the kosher world, nor have many been attempted, but Herzog Wine Cellars, one of the leading kosher wine producers in the world, has undertaken to change that.
Based in Oxnard, Calif., Herzog has just released the 2019 Herzog Variations Be-Leaf Cabernet Sauvignon ($24, mevushal), from the rapidly expanding wine region (and AVA) of Paso Robles, Calif. a city founded by Jesse James’ uncle!). I was able to speak about this exciting new addition to the kosher wine shelf to the crazy-busy Joseph Herzog, general manager of Herzog Wine Cellars.
“My uncle, David Herzog, was actually dreaming of organic for a while, so we were looking for a grower that had quality grapes and availability to sell some fruit,” said Herzog. “Then, from the organic we added the additional idea of no-added sulfites. I don’t know what the future holds, but we are excited to see the feedback from this first release.”
I asked him about the idea behind the name of “Be-leaf,” to which he replied, “So the name behind the wine is to put that flag up and say, ‘Wow what’s the story behind it?’ and [it indicates that the wine] is organically grown and has no sulfites added.”
Herzog’s “Variations” line of Cabernet Sauvignon is overseen by Herzog’s trailblazing assistant winemaker, Alicia Wilbur, who tells me that organic is an incredibly important part of her family’s lifestyle, and creating high-quality organic wine seemed only natural.
Tasting Notes and Food Pairing:
In the glass, red garnet in color, clear and light. On the nose, there is plenty of bright red fruit, graphite and green notes. On the palate, the wine is medium-bodied with pleasant acid and medium tannins. This is a fruit-forward Cabernet Sauvignon, with notes of vanilla, red and black fruits, and the youth and freshness is apparent. The wine needs some time in your decanter to settle, but in my opinion is a drink-now wine.
So decant, settle in for the evening, and revisit this wine after a few hours.
As is the culture of our times, I recently led a Zoom wine and cheese tasting to support the incredible Chai Lifeline Mid-Atlantic alongside my friend, Brent Delman, aka “The Cheese Guy.” I would highly suggest pairing the organic Herzog Be-leaf with the awesome organic Viney Sheep cheese, itself aged in red wine for nine months.
Consider the great things you are doing for your body. Or just create an organic pairing with your favorite friend or loved one.
Dr. Kenneth Friedman is a Baltimore-born kosher wine aficionado/connoisseur. He is known for his unsolicited wine advice and runs many local kosher wine tastings.