Taking in samples from a category as loosely-defined as ‘organic wine’, the aim of our annual Global Organic Masters is not to draw stylistic conclusions, nor is it to pass judgement on the benefits of being labelled organic in the worldwide marketplace.
However, this single competition plays an important role in the wine business, because it acts as a quality-check on this sector. It is designed to see if wine can be both organic and delicious, and, with that in mind, what is great, and where is it from.
In short, the competition’s expert judges aren’t especially concerned about the grape variety or source region, but there are hungry to find first-rate examples of wines that have taken the demanding step of practising organic, or indeed biodynamic, viticulture methods.
And on that note, it should be added, the requirements for any entrant to the Organic Masters is that the wine must be made with grapes that are certified as organic or biodynamic, and while the tasting does not preclude ‘natural wines’, it has been devised to draw attention to those producers who have adopted a particular philosophy in the vineyard, rather than the winery – even if the two sometimes go hand in hand.
So why is a quality assessment of the organic wines category necessary? For a number of reasons, but particularly due to a somewhat entrenched belief among some consumers that organic wines are inferior; that due to the constraints of this agricultural method, the product won’t be as good. Or, perhaps, the cynics among such consumers might also believe that organic wine producers are promoting their philosophy over and above the inherent character of their wines to distract from something missing in their drops.
In short, we believe it’s vital to taste-test organic wines without knowledge as to their source region, or producer, or indeed grape variety, to draw attention to the quality in this category, and by that, hopefully change perceptions about wine made this way. And there’s another positive opinion-altering element to the Organic Masters, and that’s to find out the range of high-quality wines available within the sector. In short, is there a good organic option if you like dry rosé, fresh sparkling, or rich reds, even fortified wines?
Furthermore, it’s always pleasing to debunk a commonly held belief that challenging climates for viticulture, particularly cooler, damper areas, cannot product great results employing organics. While there may be relatively high cost implications of being organic in maritime and marginal wine regions such as England, it’s still possible to grow high quality grapes – as evidenced again this year by the lovely fizz from the organic Oxney Estate is Sussex.
Nevertheless, there were wines that failed to excite our judges, although that is true of all our Masters competitions. So, for example, when asked to comment on the negatives from the day’s tasting, one judge, Patricia Stefanowicz MW, said, “Organically grown grapes are not a guarantee of quality at any price point. Careful winemaking and appropriate use of SO2, filtration and other cellar techniques are crucial.”
Indeed, she felt that there was evidence, albeit rare, of some heavy-handed approaches to the red winemaking, although such issues can be found in wines, whatever the agricultural practice. “At £20-30 the reds sometimes appeared to be trying too hard, with over-extraction and high alcohol evident on some wines, not quite balancing the fruit concentration,” she said.
Overall, however, she came away with a positive view. “The variety of wine styles made using organic, bio-dynamic and ‘natural’ techniques is inevitably exciting!” she said, adding, “It is a delight to find that there are producers of sparkling whites, rosés and reds and still whites, rosés and reds: many of any style can shine with quality and value.”
As for her favourites, she recorded, “A few red wines stood out as ‘Masters’. Very high-priced these were, yet worth every extra pound.”
So who was behind the standouts? Within the sparkling wine section, it must be said that Prosecco performed extremely well, with two Golds awarded, one for a DOC version from Anna Spinato, and another more expensive sample from Massotina, using organic grapes from the DOCG Prosecco area of Conegliano-Valdobbiadene. These are important results in a region that is producing crowd-pleasing aromatic, slightly-sweet fizz, because it shows that it’s possible to make delicious sparkling wines that are true to type, while eschewing the use of synthetic fertilizers, fungicides and pesticides.
Although we’ve already mentioned Oxney Estate, it was pleasing to see that England was the source of a very good traditional method organic sparkling, following the strong performance of Champagne in this sector last year – primarily from the much pricier wines from Leclerc-Briant, especially its £150 Cuvée Abyss, which gained a Gold in 2018’s competition.
Moving to the still wines, starting with the entry level samples within the white category, we saw some good-value expressive wines in mainstream sectors: New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Veneto Pinot Grigio, along with something a little more obscure: a wine made from the Passerina grape from Masso Antico in Puglia’s Terre di Chieti. All gained silvers.
However, the first Gold in the still whites was awarded once the £10 price barrier had been breached, with Babich impressing the judges for an expressive, pure and balanced Albariño from Marlborough – a wine to show that this famous part of New Zealand is no one-trick pony based on Sauvignon Blanc.
The rest of the whites up to the £20 mark delivered plenty of consistent Silver-level quality, taking in lovely wines from Australia and Chile, New Zealand and Spain, along with Portugal, before we awarded our final Gold among the clear, still entries, for, once more, a white from Marlborough: The Darling for its expressive and class-leading Sauvignon Blanc.
Before considering the reds, it’s vital we draw attention to an exciting find in the rose category. While Veramonte – a wonderful source of organic and biodynamic wines from Chile – delivered a very good Syrah rosé with a sub £15 retail price, a touch pricier was another sample from the UK. Hailing from Surrey’s Albury Vineyard, this ‘Silent Pool Rosé’ wowed the judges for its combination of inviting strawberry aromas and refreshing, bright palate with a ripe apple finish. For us, this was the first blind taste of the results of the brilliant 2018 harvest in England, and we were very impressed.
Now, to the reds. In this category, at the more inexpensive end of the tasting, it was pleasing to see strong, recognised big brands tipping their toe into the organic wine category, and producing results of quality and character. Among these were Marqués de Cáceres and Campo Viejo, along with longtime organic specialist from Chile, Cono Sur.
Like the whites, it wasn’t until the £10 point was passed that we gave out our first Golds. And, like last year, it was Angove Family Winemakers that showed the quality-price ratio possible with organic wine production in South Australia, and particularly the McLaren Vale. However, coming close in quality were some lovely reds, including one from the aforementioned Veramonte but also Quinta do Ataíde and Altano from the Douro – which, like much of Chile and McLaren Vale, is a place worth considering to find great results with organics. Indeed, right at the end of the tasting, we also had a delicious organic Port called Natura from Graham’s, highlighting the fact that there now seems to be a high-quality organic option whatever the wine style.
Back to table wines, between £15 and £20 we found our best-value pick of the day, a pure Syrah from Minervois, made by biodynamic Château Maris. Soft, intense, with masses of black fruit, spice and touch of tapenade, this was a great wine at an affordable price, that we later found out, much to our surprise due to its clean and expressive fresh fruit character, is also made with no added sulphites.
Over £20, it should be stressed, was where we found real consistency in quality, will almost all the samples gaining Golds, or indeed, Masters – our title for the outstanding wines of the day. You can see the results in the tables below, but it was notable that Australia performed so well, with Shiraz and Grenache, hailing from the McLaren Vale and Barossa. As for the organic masters behind such wines, these were Kalleske, Angove and Gemtree.
However, Europe also shone at this top end of the tastings. Notably a delicious Syrah-Sangiovese mix from Il Borro in Tuscany, and, once again, Château Maris, which produced our star of the day with its ultimate expression: Dynamic. Gaining an average score of 96 points from our exacting judges, it appealed to everyone for its clearly identifiable fine, concentrated dark berry and pepper Syrah character, and smooth fleshy black cherry flavours on the palate, along with a touch of smoky complexity, grippy texture, and some sweet oak in the background. A big, powerful drop in its youth, that also displayed an appealing brightness too. As Stefanowicz summed up about the wine, “Balanced, concentrated, complex, layered and lingering on the finish.”
The Organic Masters is a competition created and run by the drinks business, and is an extension of its successful Masters series for grape varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as well as regions such as Rioja and Champagne.
The competition is exclusively for wines that are certified organic or made with certified organically-grown grapes, and also includes certified biodynamic wines.
The entries were judged by a selection of highly experienced tasters using Schott Zwiesel Cru Classic glasses supplied by Wine Sorted. The top samples were awarded Gold, Silver or Bronze medals according to their result, and those organic wines that stood out as being outstanding received the ultimate accolade – the title of Organic Master.
The wines were tasted over the course of a single day on 12 June at Opera Tavern in London. This report features only the winners of medals.