Eight Organic Italian Wines You’ve Got to Try

Organic wines and environmentally friendly wineries in Italy - as well as elsewhere - are in vogue now. Formerly the domain of small, artisanal, off-the-grid wineries, the organic wine movement has expanded, evolved and become generally accepted in a way that could not have been forecast or even imagined a few decades ago. Today, any number of producers tout their organic or eco-friendly credentials as much if not more than the quality of their wines.

Even establishment organizations such as Gambero Rosso, Italy’s premier arbiter of good taste in wine and food, have embraced the organic wine movement. In 2007 Gambero Rosso added a special award for the winery with the best sustainable viticultural practices to their annual list of best Italian wineries of the year. Slow Food, the global grassroots organization dedicated to countering the rise of the fast food culture, has also started publishing an annual “Slow Glass or red wine with plate of fruitWine” guide that evaluates Italian wineries on the basis of a variety of factors including environmental sensitivity and sustainable winemaking practices.

Italy is rich with organic and/or “eco-friendly” wineries and the list is becoming longer every day, or so it seems, as more wineries become sensitized to the impact of their viticultural practices on the environment as well as the quality of their wines.

While a reliable count of the number of wineries in Italy practicing organic and/or biodynamic farming principles is hard to come by, casual observation and anecdotal evidence suggest that the number is large and growing. Given the large number of wineries in Italy it’s not unreasonable to suggest that there are probably more organic and/or biodynamic wineries in Italy than anywhere else in the world.

Organic Wines

So what is an “organic” wine and how is that status determined?  For starters, the term “organic” when applied to agriculture and especially wineries and wines is fluid and varies from country to country. In Italy the term “organic” when applied to wines refers primarily to work done in the vineyard, the front-end of the wine production process. It refers to the process of growing grapes and tending vineyards which is an agricultural or farming activity.

An organic wine in Italy, as elsewhere, refers to wines made from grapes produced in conformance with the principles of organic agriculture. This means that no chemical or artificial fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides or growth hormones or genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) are used in producing the grapes. Only certain natural preparations may be used against insects or plant diseases and only “natural” or organic preparations can be used as fertilizers. As such, it refers to work done in the vineyard and does not include work done in the cellar or the rest of the winemaking process.

A wine in Italy produced from organic grapes is called a biologico wine (or vino biologico) and can be certified as organic by any one of a dozen or more national or international certification organizations. Not all organizations use the exact same standards for certification. But certification is a seal of approval or evidence that the producer has followed organic farming practices in the production of its wine and this certification can give the producer certain bragging rights in the marketing of its wines.

However, it's important to note that there are some Italian producers that follow the requirements for producing organically-certified wines and consider their wines organic but for various reasons have not pursued formal organic certification. Factors often cited for not pursuing certification include costs, time expended in compliance testing as well as the philisophical precept that what’s important is the end product and not certification per se.

Natural Wines

The concept of “natural” winemaking processes is a step up in the organic hierarchy. A “natural” approach to winemaking emphasizes letting nature take its course and minimizing human intervention in the winemaking process.  It is a holistic approach to winemaking that looks to all aspects of winemaking, including work done in the cellar as well as the vineyard and offers a dramatically different alternative to the conventional process for making wines.

Natural winemakers typically start with organically-farmed grapes. The grapes are then harvested by hand and brought to the winery for crushing and fermentation. Fermentation and treatment of the wine will take place with a minimum of human intervention in the process. For example, fermentation takes place using only natural or native yeasts present in the vineyard or cellar. Also, the addition of sulfur dioxide (sulfites) to stabilize the wine is discouraged. Ideally, only naturally-occurring sulfites will be present in the wine. Typically, naturally-produced wines will be also be bottled without fining and filtering.

This non-intervention or natural approach is in sharp contrast to conventional fermentation procedures that rely heavily on non-natural yeasts specifically selected on the basis of their ability to achieve certain aromatic, color and flavor profiles for the wine desired by the winemaker. Also, other traditional techniques such as micro-oxygenation may be used to soften a wine’s tannins while mechanical fermenters have become popular as a way to enhance a wine’s color and concentration. These and other "artificial" procedures are anathema to natural wine advocates.

Natural winemaking is not governed by any uniform code of laws or regulations and there are no certifying organizations that inspect and validate the process. Consequently, it is hard to get reliable numbers on the volume of wines produced under a natural regimen.

However, anecdotal evidence suggests that the natural winemaking movement has gained momentum in recent years largely as a negative reaction to the trend towards “internationalization” of wine styles or what is frequently referred to as the “Parker effect" after the internationally famous wine critic and author.

Biodynamic Wines

Biodynamic wines come from grapes produced according to the biodynamic method developed in the 1920s by the Austrian Rudolf Steiner. His approach is founded on a holistic approach to agriculture that views the health of soil, plants and animals as all being inextricably linked with the creative and spiritual forces of the universe. Hmmm. That probably requires some explanation.

The principles of biodynamic farming begin with the fundamentals of organic farming in that both systems prohibit the use of chemical or artificial fertilizers and pesticides. The biodynamic system also incorporates the basic principles of “natural” winemaking in that winemakers are discouraged from manipulating their wines through yeast additions or intervening in the winemaking process in any way that alters a wine’s inherent characteristics. Both approaches also encourage eliminating or at least minimizing the use of sulfites in the winemaking process.

But the biodynamic model goes well beyond this with its perspective that farming should be synchronized with the spiritual forces of the universe. For example, instead of using chemical fertilizers or pesticides, a series of special preparations (specified by Steiner) designed to enhance the life of the soil should be applied at specific times consistent with the rhythms of the natural universe. Adherence to the biodynamic model means coordinating planting and harvesting with the phases of the moon or positions of the planets.

It’s a complex system that is sensitive to the intersection of agriculture, the environment and the physical universe. It focuses attention on the vineyard as an ecological whole and this approach is gaining increasing numbers of converts. This includes some winemakers who, while adhering to the basic philosophy underlying the biodynamic approach, have shied away from the more eccentric aspects of the Steiner’s biodynamic approach and adopted only those aspects of the biodynamic model that meet their specific needs and situations.

However, for a winery to be certified “biodynamic” it has to meet the rigid requirements specified by the Demeter Association, the internationaly-recognized biodynamic trade association and certifying organization.

Does It Make Any Difference?

Organic and biodynamic vintners in Italy spend a great deal of time and effort in crafting their products. So it’s only logical to ask whether the end product, in this case the organic and/or biodynamic wine, is worth the extra time and effort these processes require.

Organic wines generally tend to be more expensive than conventional wines. But in comparing organic wines with conventionally-produced wines in blind tastings, it's oftentimes difficult to tell the difference between. If so, are organic wines worth the price difference?

But organic wine proponents would, I’m sure, reply, “hold on, that’s not the whole story.” Taste differences aside, organic wines are better, they would insist because they are wholesome and healthier due to the absence of any harmful residues from the chemical insecticides and fertilizers used in conventional vineyard management.

However, in blind tastings involving natural and/or biodynamic wines with conventionally-produced wines, some discernible differences can be noted. While the results can be uneven and vary from producer to producer, biodynamic and/or naturally-produced wines can exhibit strong personalities with rich and complex aromas and flavors. Or they can exhibit unusual or off-aromas and flavors or a certain “funkiness.”

But organic and natural/biodynamic winemaking proponents insist that these wines are not only better but also more complex and interesting in that they better express the true flavors of the grape variety and the vintage and a greater sense of place than conventionally-produced wines. As such, biodynamic and/or natural wines will also exhibit greater variations in their taste and flavor profiles from vintage to vintage.

So the question of whether this new wave of organic, natural and/or biodynamic wines is wonderful or simply weird really comes down to your own tastes and preferences. It also depends on your aesthetic preferences in terms of the premium you put on “honest” and artisanal wines as opposed to those whose character has been manipulated and flavor-enhanced to various degrees by winemakers.

Listed below are eight organic, natural and/or biodynamic wines from Italy generally available in the U.S. There are many other such wines and wineries in Italy. The Paolo Bea winery in Umbria and the COS and Occhipinti wineries in Sicily come easily to mind. It is not a comprehensive listing but simply serves to indicate the variety of Italian initiatives in organic viticultural practices and procedures.

The wines are listed alphabetically by producer.

Alois Lageder, “Porer” Pinot Grigio 2011 (about $24)
Pinot Grigio is the most popular imported wine in the U.S. Unfortunately, much of the Pinot Grigio consumed here has been produced with a focus on quantity rather than quality. Most of it is, quite simply, dull and uninteresting. However, there are some Italian producers crafting aromatic, pleasantly acidic, richly flavored and complex Pinot Grigio wines that are worth searching out among the seemingly endless array of Pinot Grigio selections on wine shop shelves.

One such producer is the Alois Lageder (ah loh’ is lah gay’ der) winery in the mountainous Alto Adige region in northeastern Italy and is one of the region’s top producers. It produces a range of white as well as a few red wines, all of which have to meet the estate’s high quality standards.  

Lageder’s “Porer” Pinot Grigio is named after the estate’s hillside vineyard just a short distance south of the town of Maigre. All the Pinot Grigio grapes for the Porer are sourced from this vineyard, making it one of the few single-vineyard Pinot Grigio wines produced in Italy. Only certified organic grapes are used and the winery follows a strict biodynamic regimen in both the vineyard and the cellar in producing this and other wines.

In order to retain Pinot Grigio’s naturally high acidity, the grapes are harvested in late August and early September. The wine is fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks for several months and spends an additional 6 months resting in the bottle prior to release for sale.

The 2011 Porer Pinot Grigio is a rich and full-bodied white wine with a pleasant texture and a fresh, crisp, citrus-flavored finish. Unusual for a Pinot Grigio, this one has some staying power and will, when stored under proper conditions, drink well for 3-4 years after vintage. This wine is great as a before-dinner aperitivo or it can be used at the dinner table with full-flavored fish, shellfish, chicken or other white meat dishes.

This single-vineyard, organic Pinot Grigio is simply delicious and will give you a new perspective on Pinot Grigio.

Badia a Coltibuono, Chianti Classico Riserva 2008 (about $31)
The Badia a Coltibuono estate has a long wine-making history stretching back for centuries. The estate originally consisted of a monastery founded in the 11th century by a Benedictine congregation. Like most medieval monasteries it quickly became a major center of wine production.

2008 Badia a Coltibuono, Chianti Classico RiservaFast forward to the 19th century when Stucchi Prinetti, a Florentine businessman, purchased the property from the Catholic Church in the mid 1800’s.  The estate today has 175 acres of vineyards located in the heart of the Chianti Classico zone and is managed by Roberto Stucchi Prinetti,  the 6th generation of the family to run the estate. Badia a Coltibuono produces

several Chianti Classico wines in addition to some Super-Tuscan blends and two Vin Santo dessert wines. The entire estate follows organic farming principles and was certified organic in 2005 by the ICEA, a prominent inspection and certification organization in the field of sustainable development.

The estate’s Chianti Classico Riserva is comprised of 90 percent Sangiovese and 10 percent Canaiolo grapes sourced from the estate’s own organic vineyards. The grapes are harvested in early October and hand-sorted at the winery. After fermentation, the wines are blended and then aged in oak casks for 24 months. The wine rests for 4 months in the bottle prior to release for sale. Badia a Coltibuono’s Chianti Classico Riserva is only produced in the best vintage years and 2008 was an outstanding year in the Chianti Classico region.

With its opulent aromas, fresh acidity and moderate tannins, this wine would be a welcome presence on any dinner table, especially if veal or pork dishes are on the menu.

Corte Sant’Alda, "Campi Magri" Valpolicella Ripasso 2008 (about $38)
In 1985 Marinella Camerani decided to leave her comfortable life in Verona and pursue her dream of making wine on her family’s country estate northeast of Verona in the village of Mezzane de Sotto. With her family’s help she revitalized the country estate and started producing wines from grapes grown on the farm’s 37 acres of prime south-facing vineyards. Significantly, she decided to go organic and all grapes used in Corte Sant’Alda’s wines are certified organic. The winery is also operated in accordance with biodynamic principles. Marinella also undertook extensive research on soil characteristics of different parcels of the estate’s vineyards and planted each parcel with only the best grape varieties.

Corte Sant’Alda's 2008 Campi Magri Ripasso is made with the traditional mix of Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara grapes. The grapes are manually harvested in late October and then placed in small crates to dry naturally.  Three months later the dried grapes are fermented with natural yeasts at cellar temperatures for approximately 2 weeks. The wine spends an additional week on the skins of Amarone grapes in the traditional Ripasso vinification procedure. It is then aged for about 2 years in cherry wood casks.

This Ripasso wine is loaded with plenty of dark fruit aromas and flavors. Enticing aromas of dark cherries and dried herbs segue into dark berry and cassis flavors followed by a rich and smooth finish. This is an outstanding example of a Ripasso-style wine.

La Cappuccina, “Arzimo” Ricioto di Soave DOCG 2007 (about $24 for 500ml bottle)
La Cappuccina is a certified organic winery and since the mid-1980’s all vineyard management operations are carried out in accordance with organic farming practices. The winery's operations are monitored by BIOS, a Veneto-based organic certification organization. The estate uses natural organic fertilizers exclusively and has also adopted new eco-friendly pruning systems as well as the practice of growing grasses between the grapevine rows.

La Cappuccina’s Arzimo is a top-quality, traditionally-crafted sweet 2007 La Cappuccina, Arzimo Ricioto di Soavewine produced in accordance with Ricioto di Soave DOCG requirements. The name “Arzimo” means “the best bunch” in the local Veneto dialect, which in this case refers to the semi-dried Garganega grapes used in the production of Arzimo.

Hand-picked grape bunches are placed in single layers in small wooden crates and stored in dry, well-ventilated drying rooms. The sugar content of the drying grapes increases as they shrivel and lose water. After 3 to 4 months, the semi-dried grapes are softly pressed, the juice fermented and then left to age in small oak barrels for up to 14 months. The wine spends a year resting in the bottle prior to release for sale.

It is a tedious and labor-intensive process but well worth the effort. The ’07 Arzimo has a dark golden-yellow, near amber hue and pronounced honey, peach and apricot aromas that segue into similar flavor sensations. It is sweet without being sugary and its not-too-high (14 percent) alcohol level is nicely balanced by an underlying vein of acidity. It has a long, distinctively “honeyed” finish that borders on voluptuous.

This traditional dessert wine goes with, well, desserts such as butter cookies, biscotti or something as simple as toasted walnuts. For a special treat, try it with Pandoro, a fluffy Christmas cake that is a traditional Veronese dessert.

Moccagata, “Bric Balin” Barbaresco 2007 (about $52)
The Moccagatta estate has 26 acres of vineyards in and around the Neive and Barbaresco townships in the heart of the Barbaresco wine region. The estate practices natural, organic agricultural principles. Only organic fertilizers (manure) from cattle farms where no concentrated feed is fed to the animals are utilized. Other environmentally-friendly practices are followed such as promoting growth of natural grasses between the vineyard rows which when mowed are left on the ground to form natural compost.

The Moccagatta estate produces a range of traditional Piemontese wines that include Barbera, Dolcetto d’Alba and Langhe Nebbiolo in addition to Chardonnay and three vineyard-specific Barbaresco wines. The Barbaresco wines come from three different Moccagatta vineyards - Bric Balin, Balarin and Cole - each of which has different features and soil characteristics. The grapes from each vineyard are vinified separately so as to bring out the different characteristics and personalities of each vineyard.

The Bric Balin Barbaresco is the flagship wine of the Moccagatta estate. The Nebbiolo grapes are harvested in late September-early October and rushed to the winery where the grapes are crushed and then fermented in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks.  The wine is aged for a year and a half in a combination of new and used small French-oak barrels to round off the Nebbiolo’s sharp edges without adding pronounced oak flavors. The wine then spends 9 months resting in the bottle prior to release for sale.

Moccagatta is one of the Piedmont’s best producers and 2007 was a fantastic vintage in the Piedmont. Put the two together and you’ve got a Barbaresco that really delivers the goods.

Perlage, “Riva Moretta” Prosecco di Valdobbiadene DOCG 2011 (about $18)
The family-run Perlage winery is located in the heart of the prestigious Valdobbiadene (val doh bee ah’ dee nay) Prosecco zone in the Veneto region of northeastern Italy. Perlage has been operating exclusively as an organic farm since its founding in 1985. Two decades later it began implementing full biodynamic agricultural practices. In 2005 they introduced the first biodynamic Prosecco which was followed a few years later with the first and only sulfite-free Prosecco. More information about this remarkable winery and their lineup of organic and biodynamic wines is available at their website.

Prosecco is easily Italy’s most popular sparkling wine. Light, refreshingly effervescent and inexpensive with engaging fruit flavors and crisp acidity, Prosecco is an integral part of any luncheon, wedding, birthday party or other celebratory function throughout Italy. Prosecco’s popularity has spread beyond Italy’s borders and is now one of the world’s most popular sparkling wines. Many Americans have discovered its charms and any serious wine shop today will have at least a half-dozen different varieties of Prosecco on its shelves. For more on Prosecco, view the article Subtle and Bubbly Charms of Prosecco.

Perlage’s “Riva Moretta” Prosecco is made in the frizzante (lightly sparkling) style from grapes harvested from the steep, rocky slopes of 2011 Perlage, Riva Moretta Proseccothe Riva Moretta vineyard. With vines up to 60 years of age, this vineyard is the oldest in the Perlage estate.

This single-vineyard wine is made entirely from certified organic grapes and is the only Prosecco wine with that distinction. Pale, straw-yellow in color, the 2011 Riva Moretta Prosecco has a fruity bouquet with delicate apple, pear and citrus fruit flavors.

This Prosecco is at its best when served with delicately flavored dishes and cheeses that won't overwhelm the wine's gentle bouquet and flavors. Serve it by itself as an aperitivo or pair it with seafood such as shrimp, lobster or scallops; various appetizers; fruit tarts or almond cookies; as well as with not-too-strongly-flavored cheeses.

Querciabella, Chianti Classico DOCG 2009 (about $31)
The Agricola Querciabella (kwert cha bel’ la) is one of the most acclaimed wineries in Tuscany and its award-winning Super-Tuscan style wines are some of the most sought-after in all Italy. The estate is also one of Italy’s foremost practitioners of organic and biodynamic viticulture. Querciabella switched to organic farming practices in 1988 and converted to biodynamic viticulture exclusively in 2000.

The winery does not use any genetically modified organisms (GMOs) Querciabella, Chianto Classico DOCGand rejects the use of any artificial manipulation of wines in any phase of the winemaking process. The winery has also adopted an unusual farming regimen known as “cruelty-free biodynamics” which eschews the use of any animal-derived products in any phase of the wine production process. Therefore, all of the estate’s wines are vegetarian and vegan-appropriate.

With over 180 acres in several prime Chianti Classico locations in addition to 80 acres in the Maremma area of eastern Tuscany, the winery’s total holdings constitute the largest collection of certified organic and biodynamically farmed vineyards in Italy.

Since most attention is focused on the estate’s array of award-wining Super-Tuscan style wines, it’s easy to overlook the estate’s elegant Chianti Classico wines.

The 2009 Chianti Classico consists of 95 percent Sangiovese and 5 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. The Sangiovese and Cabernet grapes are hand selected and then macerated and fermented in different stainless steel tanks for varying periods of time. After the fermentations are complete, the wines are transferred to separate French oak casks of varying ages where they age for up to 14 months. The individual wines are then sampled, evaluated and the best lots selected for inclusion in the final blend.  After the wine is assembled, it spends three months resting in the bottle prior to release for sale.

Querciabella’s 2009 Chianti Classico is an elegant, medium-bodied wine with delicate cherry and plum aromas and lively red fruit flavors balanced with soft tannins and a streak of acidity. Querciabella’s Chianti Classico typically doesn’t reach maturity until 3-4 years after vintage and will age well for at least 8-10 years after that.

Agricola Querciabella’s complete lineup of organic and biodynamic wines can be viewed at their website.

Tenuta delle Terre Nere, Etna Rosso DOC 2011 (about $42)
Marco de Grazia, a highly-regarded American exporter of Italian wines, bought land and started a winery on the slopes of Mount Etna in eastern Sicily in 2002. While Marco de Grazia’s reputation was initially based on his wine-picking skills for his export portfolio, he also turned out to be a skilled winemaker. His single-vineyard Mount Etna wines have garnered great critical reviews and in the process helped focus attention on the Mount Etna area as Italy’s most exciting wine region of the moment.

The Tenuta delle Terre Nere winery (whose name roughly translates as “farm of the black earth”) has approximately 38 acres of vineyards on the northern slopes of Mount Etna. These are high altitude vineyards, ranging from 2,200 to 3,000 feet above sea level, making them some of the highest in Europe and probably the world. Here Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Capuccio grapes are grown, the two red varieties that by regulation must be used in the production of Etna Rosso (Etna red) DOC wines. These late-ripening native varieties meld together to produce medium-bodied, intensely aromatic wines with red fruit flavors, vibrant acidity and soft tannins.

All the Tenuta delle Terre Nere vineyards have been organically cultivated since the winery opened for business in 2002. All fertilization is organic and natural. Nitrogen-rich cover crops are grown between the vineyard rows so that when the cover crops are plowed under they enrich the soil with organic nutrients. The winery received organic certification in 2010. The winery has also built a solar panel unit with sufficient capacity to meet the majority of the winery’s energy needs. The estate’s wine-making facilities are a model of eco-sustainability.

2011 Tenuta delle Terre Nere, Etna Rosso DOCThe Etna Rosso DOC wine is the estate’s entry-level Etna Rosso wine and unlike the estate’s more prestigious single-vineyard Etna Rosso wines, the grapes for this wine are sourced from young as well as old vines on the estate’s various vineyards.  The 2011 Etna Rosso consists of Nerello Mascalese with a splash of Nerello Cappuccio. After fermentation, the wine is aged in wood for approximately a year, after which it is bottled and made available for sale.

It’s an aromatic, elegant wine on a medium-bodied frame that defies comparison with other wines from southern Italy that tend to be concentrated with ripe fruit. This Etna Rosso is more akin to Pinot Noir than Nero d’Avola.

If this wine intrigues you, you may want to up the ante and splurge on one or more of the estate’s other organic, single-vineyard wines such as its Santo Spirito, Calderara Sottana or Guardiolo.


©Richard Marcis
July 28, 2013

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