“Organic” wine. A simple and desirable notion, yes? You grow some organic grapes, you turn them into wine, and voila. Or so I thought. It turns out that environmentally responsible winemaking is considerably more complicated—and consequently more controversial—than you might think.
For instance, there’s “certified organic,” which means one thing in the U.S. and other things in other countries—and wine being the global affair that it is, there’s your first complication. And there’s small-o “organic,” which is organic in practice but not officially certified. Then there’s “natural” and “biodynamic” and “sustainable,” each with its own rules, methods, and proponents. What’s a conscientious oenophile to do?
Range of Options
In the U.S., it comes down to a choice between “USDA Organic” and “made with organic grapes.” The big difference? The official designation requires that there be no added sulfites in the winemaking process; and yet according to many viticultural experts, wine without sulfites is merely fermented grape juice that will spoil quickly. Plus, the USDA certification process is lengthy, difficult, and expensive, which places small producers at a distinct disadvantage—and they're the ones most likely to espouse environmentally sound practices.
Even more difficult to locate and encourage—especially since there are no official government designations—are the more emphatically environmental practices. “Natural” winemaking generally involves organic grapes that are processed with local wild yeasts and minimal sulfites. "Biodynamic” winemaking is a subset of “natural” with its own particular set of rules. “Sustainable” refers to the entire process of cultivation, which begins with composting and companion planting for insect control, and sometimes includes providing reserve areas for wildlife and minimizing emissions with the use of horse-drawn ploughs.
To locate such wines, you need to research a variety of wineries and their practices—or just find yourself a knowledgeable and friendly wine store clerk and follow his or her recommendations. With a little legwork and a lot of sampling, you should be able to locate some tasty vintages that will satisfy both your conscience and your palate.
The “French Paradox”
Of course, your palate is only one reason to drink wine. Another is its health benefits. For centuries, wine has been used for both medication and pleasure. But the modern world has had little use for it beyond its gustatory and intoxicating effects. That is, until a series of studies in the 1980s and ’90s popularized the “French Paradox”—the fact that the French, in spite of their high-fat and high-dairy diet, have much lower rates of heart disease than Americans and British who consume similar diets. The difference? Those little glasses of red wine that the French enjoy with almost every meal.
The main factor in the science is thought to be the polyphenol resveratrol, which is found in the skin of the grapes. Thus red wine, which remains in contact with the skins longer in the fermentation process, has a higher concentration of this useful compound than white.
Studies have shown that resveratrol can reduce the risk of heart disease with its blood-thinning capabilities, as well as by lowering levels of “bad” cholesterol. There is also evidence that it helps prevent DNA mutations that may lead to cancer.
All things in moderation, of course; excessive amounts of any alcohol, including wine, are undesirable. But a glass or two of red wine with dinner—why yes please!
Easy Peasy Coq au Vin
2 Tbs. olive oil
5 lbs. pastured organic fryer chicken, cut into pieces
2 ½ cups organic red wine
2 ½ cups organic chicken broth
½ tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. thyme
1 large bay leaf
4 strips turkey bacon, cooked and crumbled into large pieces
1 8-oz. bag frozen, peeled, organic pearl onions
8 oz. white button mushrooms, quartered
1 cup frozen organic peas, heated
PER SERVING: 1003 CAL; 78 G PROT; 67 G TOTAL FAT (18 G SAT FAT); 14 G CARB; 294 MG CHOL; 960 MG SOD; 3 G FIBER; 8 G SUGARS
Classic Mulled Wine
1 bottle robust red wine, such as Zinfandel
1 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice
2 Tbs. organic honey
1 cinnamon stick
2 star anise
4 black peppercorns
4 2-inch strips orange zest
1 7- by 7-inch double-thickness square cheesecloth
Combine wine, orange juice, and honey in large pot. Place spices and orange zest in center of cheesecloth, bring up corners to form pouch, and tie closed with butcher's twine; add to pot. Slowly bring to a boil, reduce heat, and barely simmer, about 20 minutes. Serve hot.
PER SERVING: 144 CAL; 1 G PROT; <1 G TOTAL FAT (<1 G SAT FAT); 14 G CARB; 0 MG CHOL; 5 MG SOD; <1 G FIBER; 10 G SUGARS