Farewell to the ladybugs If organic and biodynamic certification doesn't guarantee good wine or responsible agriculture, what does?

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Previously, the Cambridge Formaggio Kitchen wine department took care to identify the wines on its shelves that were made from organically or biodynamically farmed grapes and with no — or minimal — applications of sulfur.  We used little ladybug icons to set them apart.  It seemed like a reasonable step to take, since a significant subset of our clientele expresses a preference for wines made this way.

But there were some drawbacks to this approach — primarily, the implication that wines that couldn’t flash a ladybug badge were somehow of a second order of quality or moral standing.  One can imagine the line of thinking this might initiate: If they’re not farming organically, what must be going on in those vineyards?  Routine and frequent applications of chemical fertilizers?  Pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides sprayed on a fixed schedule whether vines are actually threatened or not?  

The fact is that we don’t sell any wine that can be described this way.

The choices made by conscientious wine growers are conditioned by durable facts on the ground,  the vagaries of the vintage,  and the style of wine that is in view.  Durable facts on the ground include, for example, whether the climate is dry or damp, whether the vineyard has a good flow of air, how pervasive mildews may be.  In places like sunny, dry Sicily, prevailing conditions make organic agriculture relatively easy to accomplish.  In cool, damp Bordeaux or almost anywhere in the U.S. east of the Mississippi, it can require heroic efforts.

Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get.  And from year to year the degree to which winegrowers are challenged by nature can vary wildly.  For many smaller-scale and family operations (the most numerous kind on our shelves),  capital reserves that would buffer a calamitous vintage (never mind several in a row) simply don’t exist.  In the face of a genuine emergency it doesn’t seem reasonable to expect a family to lose the income from an entire vintage rather than make a reluctant, minimally appropriate, and temporary resort to a chemical remedy.

Finally, while it seems irrefutable that (all things being equal) organic methods are always to be preferred over conventional means,  it’s also true that without judicious applications of sulfur at harvest and during vinification,  some styles of wine simply couldn’t be made.

As a recent experience with an unsulfured German riesling proved,  the elegant, pristine fruit and racy acids for which these wines are known aren’t achievable without a contribution from an antioxidant agent.  We may begin to see some wines made this way — and they may be appealing in their own way — but they will be a different German riesling than the one the world has come to know and appreciate.

In chatting with our guests about issues related to agricultural responsibility, we want to remind them that while transitioning toward,  practicing, or being certified as organic or biodynamic provides some assurance of responsible behavior,  it can’t guarantee it.  Nor do natural approaches to farming and winemaking necessarily produce excellent wine.

In light of this, a winemaker’s decision not to practice organics with perfect consistency shouldn’t lead one to the conclusion that his approach is therefore irresponsible.  The situation is rarely so starkly binary and in any case  decisions of this kind are better left to the folks who are on-site and who have skin in the game.

For these reasons (and some others), we’ve decided not to routinely single out wines for special note because of the way the fruit is farmed,  although this continues to be an issue we are careful to inquire about before we decide something deserves a place on our shelves.

Beset as we are by ever more extravagant claims for wine that is pure, cosmically-attuned, and more innocent than Adam and Eve before the Fall, it’s worth remembering the words of iconic 18th century libertine, bon viveur, and memoirist Giacomo Casanova, who knew a thing or two about wine and the many uses it could be put to:

You stupid fellow, how can you ever be certain of the purity of wine unless you have made it yourself?

We might choose to put it a bit more politely,  but we agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment.  In the end, the only way to guarantee that our wine is responsibly produced is to deal only with responsible producers.

Stephen Meuse can be reached at stephenmeuse@icloud.com 

Arf! How winemaking resembles dog breeding

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Border Collies during the breed judging at the 2007 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

It’s a provocative question but not a facetious one.  The thought came to me while having lunch recently with an old friend who was instrumental in making two once-celebrated Boston area restos destinations for wine enthusiasts — the waterfront’s Anthony’s Pier 4 and Newton’s Pillar House — more than forty years ago.

The subject was some Chablis that my Formaggio Kitchen colleague James Hull and I tasted earlier in the day from Jean-Marc Brocard. Being the incorrigibly old school kind of guy he is, Bernie groused that not enough Chablis today tastes like Chablis.  When I explained that I thought this Chablis did indeed taste like Chablis he seemed pleased.  For him, the sine qua non of wine quality is that it taste like what it is.

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Sweetening the pot Conjectures on the origins of sugary wine

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In the passito process grapes are left to dry, concentrating their natural sugars. Credit: Marco Fon

I recently recorded a spot for America’s Test Kitchen Radio on sweet wines.  It didn’t feel that successful frankly, but as often happens the effort wasn’t without its compensations.  It came in the form of a new idea – and possibly some insight – about how sweet wines may have come about.

Nothing actually scientific or historical here, I’m afraid – most of what follows is strictly conjectural.

Evolutionary biologists tell us that our distant hominin ancestors came down from the trees already addicted to the sweet taste of ripe fruit. Grapes, having the highest load of sugars of any fruit were thus instantly attractive to us wherever we found them.

What a thrill when we first learned that those sugars would spontaneously ferment, giving birth – under the right conditions — to that marvelous, mood-altering substance: alcohol.  Hurrah!

Now imagine the disappointment which must have followed with shocking immediacy when we realized the cost. All that dreamy sweetness that attracted us to grapes in the first place was used up in generating  alcohol. Boo! Hiss!

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Confessions of a shelf talker How is a wine defined?

A chat with Julia Hallman, general manager at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge this week about the shelf talkers that I had been busy rewriting.  The time between taking the old ones down and putting the new ones up gave me a chance to see what the response of our clientele would be to their temporary disappearance.  The result of our little experiment: shoppers really do rely on them.

So now the question becomes what these signlets should say. ThereIMG_2078‘s not a lot of space to work on business card size tags (example at left).  Julia noted that based on what she had been hearing constituent grape variety/varieties are the most sought-after data.  This started me down a road I’ve trudged before: just what is it consumers are thinking when they ask “What kind of wine is this?”

It’s a question that has its origin in what I have called elsewhere the fog of wine: that disturbing combine of mystery, doubt, and anxiety all of us feel at one time or another as we try to find our way through the thickets of place names, soil types, cultivars, and flavor profiles wine confronts us with.

Though it seems natural enough now, clearing the fog by focusing on grape varietals is a relatively recent phenomenon. The likely reason it took so long: the wine industry’s deep, historic aversion to transparency.  For centuries wine was distributed via brokers and negociants whose business it was to blend stocks of wine into saleable condition while completely obscuring the process by which they accomplished this.

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Reach me at stephenmeuse@icloud.com