Value Vino – Great wines for under $15

Statements such as the following drive the cynic in me nuts: “`famous European winemaker’s` love for the soil grew into a love for mother earth, and he began to champion the well-being of the planet … ”

The romantic in me, on the other hand, wants to believe every sanctimonious-sounding word of it. Growing up both a gatherer of wild bounty and the designated, spring spader of the family garden, I’m predisposed to genuflect before almost anyone willing to pay even token attention to what the soil supplies if well-treated. And as the organic produce movement begins to make ever-increasing inroads into our lives, it only makes sense to look for the same in wine.

A recent web search turned up a list of more than 300 wineries world-wide involved in biodynamic practices to at least a modest degree — but what in Pomona’s name does it all mean? A perfunctory overview: The term “organic” denotes a foreswearing of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. The step up to “biodynamic” is a serious one. According to Alsatian producer Marc Kredenweiss, “a `biodynamic` farmer must respect the rhythms and balance of nature. He considers the movements of the moon and the planets, which influence plants in subtle, perhaps immeasurable, ways … the health and immunity of the vines is strengthened with herbal sprays of horsetail … and nettle infusions … ”

Since “the soils are living again,” the expression of terroir in the fruit, and the wine, should be pronounced and even profound — especially from those Demeter-certified wineries (see adhering strictly to the tenets developed in the 1920s by the movement’s Austrian founder, Rudolf Steiner.

We might as well start with two Kredenweiss offerings, the 2002 Andlau Riesling and the 2004 “Partager Avec Toi” Kritt Gewurzrtraminer. Even the most scrupulous farming practices and moon watchings can’t extend the life of a wine beyond its time, it appears, and all my tasters felt that the ’02 Riesling was somewhat past its prime. Yes, there was still some distinct minerality, even a little petroleum, and more than a touch of mature honey (“like the brown spots on a banana” said one recruit). Candied grapefuit peel also came to mind. And so did Catherine Deneuve — an elegant and mature beauty if there ever was one. But for sheer fruit expression and vibrancy, the gewürztraminer, all spicy peach and smoky notes with more than a hint of Harry & David’s Fruit-of-the-Month Club pears — ripe Riviera version — was the Cinderella sister of the two. If this is what Alsace’s terroir is like, we should all move there now.

Based on tasting the wines of the Rhône’s Michel Chapoutier, we also might consider splitting our time between Alsace and France. Chapoutier took over his family’s struggling firm in 1990 and has transformed it into one of the Rhône’s — and the world’s — most respected wineries by dramatically reducing yields and adopting biodynamic and organic farming practices. At the high end of his line, his wines have recently received five 100-point scores from the guru’s guru, Robert Parker. At our lowlier end, there’s Belleruche — still farmed according to bio-organic principles and produced using natural yeasts. On the evidence of our tasting, I say these wines might rate in the high 80s at best. The white Belleruche 2005 Côtes du Rhone opened with faint, white flowers, followed with a little mineral and assertive honey (let’s say acacia in order to sound more esoteric and knowledgeable), followed by elusive almond on a fairly short finish — an extremely pleasant wine but not a profound one.

Here’s an aside for you: When confronted at a party or reception by two unknown (and presumably cheap) wines, a white and a red, I’ll almost always take the white on the assumption that it’s harder to screw up a white than a red. In dollar terms, Belleruche could be a party wine — a party for good friends, that is. And it’s the red that scores. The ’05 had lots of berry and black cherry on the nose, a zippy tannic backbone, and an interesting, almost powdery-tasting, finish. Some might say graphite. It was a beautiful blending of brash youth and incipient elegance with a well-defined sense of place.

America’s Chapoutier equivalent, at least at the Belleruche level, is Bonterra, an arm of the vast Fetzer empire. Much is made of organic farming practices on Fetzer’s website (, but the Brown-Forman market rep with whom I spoke freely admitted that a 2000-acre estate couldn’t have much impact on the total output of a four million-case winery, hence the concentration on Bonterra — certainly all-organic and, especially with the reds, substantially biodynamic. He also indicated that the wines are sold as “made from organically grown grapes,” since to claim organic winemaking would be to deny the use of added sulfites beyond those that occur naturally.

The Bonterra Vineyards 2005 Chardonnay showed light oak on the nose, coupled with green apple, and closed with a long, lemony finish — a “great quaffer,” we determined. Bonterra’s 2004 Merlot from Mendocino County had all the merlot moves — cedar, cassis, black cherry — segueing to blackberry on the reasonably long finish; it was a wine to bolster the grape’s good name without lofting it into the post-Sideways stratosphere.

The ’04 Cabernet also had all the cab components — black cherry and plum, some meaty/coffee qualities tinged with spice — all on a soft and polished tannic frame. It was cab light, but cab to be reckoned with regardless. Did it conjure up wild mustard plants being plowed back into the earth and free-range chickens happily harvesting predatory bugs? No, not really. “This is all really just old-fashioned agriculture,” said Brown-Forman’s Jim Caudill. But if all these guys — and others like them — can turn out distinctive wines at a decent price using, at the very least, sustainable (yet another term, even more loosely defined) practices, then I’m all for it. A taste of terroir is an added bonus.

p.s. “Famous European winemaker” is Marc Kredenweiss,” who is forgiven.


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