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biodynamicwine

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OUR BLIND LOVE AFFAIR WITH ORGANIC WINES

Châteauneuf du Pape vineyard soil
Photo credit: Jasper Van Berkel

When I was a kid, it wasn’t uncommon to see people throw bags of leftover McDonald’s wrappers out of their car windows on the highway. Recycling was a new and little understood concept. And we regularly left the tap running while we brushed our teeth or did the dishes.

We would never have spend good money on bruised, mis-shapen produce or sprung 5$ more to ensure that our meat was grass-fed and hormone-free.

How times have changed.

I often find it curious how we as a society swing from one extreme to another before finally reaching a middle ground.  Today’s eco-conscience, Western consumers are increasingly dogmatic in their quest for organic goods. They spend the extra time and money to procure them, and pat themselves on the back for their efforts. I should know. I am one of them.

Do you sense a vaguely sarcastic tone? Oh, it’s there alright. For, what is often lacking in this right-minded behaviour is a sense of critical thinking. It is a drastic over simplification to assume that a product is truly environmentally friendly because it has “organic” stamped on it.

It is a drastic over simplification to assume that a product is truly environmentally friendly because it has “organic” stamped on it.

How good for the planet are organic bananas, wrapped in a plastic containers, flown up from Central America? Sure, you could argue that they beat the same fruit sprayed with pesticides that kill the soil and surrounding flora and fauna…but again, there is more to the debate than this.

I regularly hear wine lovers and professionals alike enthuse about a winery, citing its organic or biodynamic status as the primary reason for loving them. Shouldn’t taste be the n°1 criteria for liking one wine more than another? And how sure can you be that the estate in question is truly behaving sustainably from the vine to the bottling line? Your reasons might include the following:

They are certified. There exist a vast number of organic wine certifying bodies around the world; each with different rules and regulations. The common thread is a ban on artificial chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. However, not all certifications cover the products used in the winery. Furthermore, the levels of heavy metals permitted in organic viticulture can build up dangerous levels of soil toxicity, leading to “dead” soils that require regular fertilizer additions for vines to grow.

Domaine Fondrèche of the Rhône Valley recently joined an increasing number of French winemakers by dropping his organic certification (Eco-cert). Speaking to Decanter magazine last year, estate owner Sebastien Vincenti said: ‘I will reduce the copper build-up in the soils by changing my treatment programme to one that is more balanced between organic and synthesized products. The amount of oil used for tractors will also be halved, as I will not need to apply the treatments so regularly, so I will be lowering my carbon footprint’.

…the levels of heavy metals permitted in organic viticulture can build up dangerous levels of soil toxicity…

I have been to the vineyard and seen the soil health and biodiversity first-hand. This is certainly a solid and compelling argument. Growers committed to thriving vineyard environments are definitely worth favouring, but one should still ask themselves…to what extent are these ecological principles practiced? I recently saw footage of helicopters swooping back and forth over the vineyards of a revered biodynamic estate in Burgundy to ward off frost. I make no judgement as to the detrimental environmental impact of hours of helicopter fuel. Even the wealthiest domaines can little afford to lose a whole years’ crop and damage the latent buds for the following seaon. I just think consumers should be aware of these contradictions.

And what of irrigation? California is often held up as a gold standard for sustainable vineyard management. Yet, the bulk of wines produced in this frequently drought-stricken land are entirely dependent on irrigation. High-end wineries selling wines at premium prices are increasingly making efforts to reduce water usage, but the real volume of wine production comes from the entry to mid-tier level wines (sub 20$). A 2016 University of California Davis study shows an average of 300 litres of irrigation water used to produce a mere 1 litre of wine. The vineyards might look healthy, but at what cost to the planet?

As you can see, the subject is not as cut and dry as one might assume. Some wineries’ environmental efforts are little more than empty marketing ploys, while others are quietly making earth-friendly choices, without plastering the evidence of their good deeds on their labels.

…an average of 300 litres of irrigation water is used to produce a mere 1 litre of wine in California…

This is why I have always been more attracted to wineries that speak about sustainability rather than strictly defined organic practices. My ideal wine producer makes ecological choices holistically and pragmatically; weighing out environmental impact at each juncture (within feasible economic limits) rather than following a pre-set guideline. They also consider the social aspect of their enterprise. An estate that treats their grapes better than their employees surely doesn’t deserve our patronage?

Don’t mistake my meaning. I am not against organic certification; many adherents truly are leaders in vineyard ecology. And I certainly champion any efforts a winery makes to become more green. I merely suggest that wine drinkers beware of putting blind faith in estates’ organic claims, and not jump too quickly into assuming the moral high ground for these wines over their ‘conventionally farmed’ peers.

Producers Reviews Wines

Producer Profile – Ferraton Père et Fils

Saint Joseph - Ferraton
Photo credit: Ferraton Père & Fils (Saint Joseph vineyards)

The French have a wonderful word for describing certain wines: digeste. I have never been able to find an adequate counterpart in English. The literal translation is digestable which, one would hope, most wines are.

Basically, the term refers to wines that are elegant, balanced and fresh, with low to medium alcohol. In my experience, these are the kind of wines that make you thirsty for another sip and, when consumed in moderation, won’t leave you fuzzy headed the next morning. They are pretty much the exact opposite of the big, oaky fruit bombs that coat your tongue, and finish warm and boozy.

Cool climate Pinot Noir, Gamay and Cabernet Franc are the most frequently cited digeste reds. And what of Syrah? Cue the raised eyebrows. If you think Syrah (aka Shiraz) is the poster child for massive, jammy reds, you have clearly not tasted enough Northern Rhône.

In the Northern hemisphere, the vast majority of wine growing regions lie within the 30th and 50th degree of latitude. The 45th parallel runs directly through the Crozes-Hermitage appellation, making the Northern Rhône among the more northerly, cooler vineyards of Europe.

If you think Syrah (aka Shiraz) is the poster child for massive, jammy reds, you have clearly not tasted enough Northern Rhône.

Syrah here is mainly crisp and lively, with tart red fruit, medium body and earthy, peppery flavours. The famed hill of Hermitage and roasted slopes of Côte Rôtie offer denser, more powerful reds yet, even here, beautifully fresh acidity and tangy fruit flavours provide exceptional balance and, yes, digestibility.

A couple of weeks back, I had the good fortune to attend a tasting of Ferraton Père & Fils wines. Before we delve into the reviews, I’ll give you a little background on the estate.

Ferraton Père & Fils was established seventy-odd years ago. Jean Orens Ferraton started out with just one tiny plot of land; less than half a hectare of Hermitage. The estate was passed down, as the name suggests, from father to son for several generations. As time passed, the estate grew, acquiring well situated parcels of Crozes Hermitage, Hermitage and St Joseph.

Concern for the health and sustainability of their vineyards led the Ferraton family to embrace biodynamic farming techniques in the nineteen nineties. With an eye to expansion, the Ferratons took on a likeminded investor: the Maison Chapoutier.

The quality is consistently high, even in lesser vintages. This, to me, is a sure sign of a strong estate.

Sadly, Samuel Ferraton suffered a bad motorcycle accident in the early two thousands which left him unable to carry on the family business. In two thousand and six, Ferraton was officially purchased by Maison Chapoutier, with the aim of maintaining and even furthering the high quality for which the Ferraton name stood.

Fast forward 10 years, and Chapoutier’s promise seems kept. The estate’s vineyard holdings continues to be managed according to strict biodynamic principles. The négociant wines (made from purchased grapes or wine) are essentially sourced from sustainable or organic farms. The quality is consistently high, even in lesser vintages. This, to me, is a sure sign of a strong estate.

Until recently, the tendency in the Northern Rhône was to create just one blend per appellation. Many producers still espouse this philosophy, claiming that the whole is better than the sum of its parts. However, a growing band of outliers are starting to bottle individual vineyard plots separately, to showcase the particular features of the terroir. This Burgundian approach is dear to the heart of Ferraton’s team.

“Our parcel selections allow us to showcase the superior qualities of our vineyard sites” says Ferraton’s Sales Director Patrick Rigoulet. “They play a critical role in defining what makes our wines unique”.  

Our parcel selections…play a critical role in defining what makes our wines unique

Ferraton Père & Fils has been a favourite of SAQ and LCBO buyers for years now, with a variety of the following wines on offer currently.

What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out:

Ferraton Père et Fils Côtes du Rhône red “Samorëns” 2014 – 88pts. VW

Moderately intense aromas of ripe black fruits, violets and subtle spice feature on the nose. The palate is medium bodied, with a fairly firm structure and lots of juicy black fruit. Ripe, chewy tannins give way to a hint of sour cherry that lifts the finish. This is a serious style of Côtes du Rhône, to be paired with food. Drink within 3 years.

Where to Buy: LCBO (15.95$) – as of January 2017

Pierre Henri Morel Côtes du Rhône Villages Laudun White 2014 – 89pts. VW

Pierre Henri Morel is one of Ferraton’s négociant labels. Fragrant, moderately complex nose featuring honey, macerated apricots, poached pear, and hints of cinnamon. Lovely balance on the palate; the rich, rounded mouthfeel is nicely lifted by fresh acidity. This dry, medium bodied white ends with a vibrant kick of ripe lemon and just a touch of bitterness. Drink now.

Where to Buy: LCBO (18.95$)

Ferraton Père & Fils Saint Joseph “La Source” White 2014 – 92pts. PW

This 100% Marsanne offers a lot of finesse. Elegant aromas of white flowers, lemon curd, marzipan and subtle minerality feature on the nose. A fresh, lively attack gives way to a moderately rich, rounded mid-palate with great depth of flavour. The finish is long; layered with honeyed fruit, lemon and lingering minerality.

Where to Buy: Enquire with agent Mosaiq 

Ferraton Père & Fils Crozes Hermitage “La Matinière” Red 2014 – 89pts. PW

Attractive, somewhat restrained nose of tart red fruits, with perfumed floral hints and earthy undertones. The palate offers crisp acidity, a full bodied, densely structured style and concentrated, just ripe red fruit flavours. The tannins are still quite firm, though are ripe and finegrained.

Where to Buy: SAQ (24.95$)

Ferraton Père & Fils Saint Joseph “La Source” 2014 – 92pts. PW

This is a very well crafted Saint Joseph. Elegant, layered aromas of violet, ripe red berries, red currant, white pepper and spice feature on the nose. The fresh acidity is nicely balanced by the full body and concentrated red fruit flavours. Despite a certain firmness of structure, the texture is quite silky, finishing with ripe, finegrained tannins. The oak is quite subtle, adding more structure than aroma. The finish is long and nuanced. Drinking well now, but will certainly improve with 3 – 5 years’ cellaring and should hold well for another couple of years.

Where to Buy: SAQ (31.50$) – 2012 vintage

Ferraton Père & Fils “Les Miaux” Hermitage 2009 – 92pts LW

2009 was a warm vintage in the Northern Rhône. This is evident on the heady, fragrant nose featuring crushed red berry and cherry aromas, overlaid with toasty, spiced notes. Hints of leather and tobacco emerge upon aeration. The palate is big and bold, with fresh acidity, a muscular structure and lovely depth of fruit and dark chocolate flavours. The oak is subtle and well integrated, and the finish is long and layered.

Where to Buy: SAQ Signature (90.00$)

Ferraton Père & Fils “Les Miaux” Hermitage 2010 – 93pts. LW

The 2010 Les Miaux from Ferraton is a highly complex, beautifully balanced expression of Hermitage. While it lacks the full throttle fruit and power of 2009, it amply makes up in finesse and precision. Ripe red fruit, exotic spice, candied orange peel and hints of leather feature on the nose and in mouth. The palate is full bodied, with lovely fresh acidity and great concentration. The finish is very long, with subtle oaked nuances.

Where to Buy: SAQ Signature (90.00$)

Ferraton Père & Fils “Le Méal” Ermitage 2013 – 95pts. LW

Intense, highly complex nose featuring tobacco, red currant, cherry, earthy notes and attractive minerality. A fresh, lively attack gives way to a full bodied, firmly structured, yet velvetty textured mid-palate. The depth and concentration of flavour is impressive, as is the long, layered finish. This powerful red needs 3 – 5 years additional cellaring for the grippy tannins to soften. It should continue to improve for many years to come.

Where to Buy: Enquire with agent Mosaiq