Making a Case for Serious Organic Winemaking

One of Slovenia's top winemakers talks about making organic synonymous with quality
Jun 18, 2010

Marjan Simčič was ranting and raving a couple of nights ago in his cellar in the small hillside village of Ceglo, Slovenia. Simčič (pronounced Sim-chic in Slovenian) is either No. 1 or No. 2 in the Slovenian wine world, depending on how you look at it. The top position is between him and his buddy, Ales Kristančič, who makes fabulous whites at the nearby Movia winery.

Simčič‘s whites are compelling wines that ooze with character from his minerally soils and his intense passion for what he does. He makes three levels of wines in an inexpensive range, a selection from his best grapes, and those from single vineyards. I like them all, but find his base level the most interesting because they offer excellent value for the quality.

Marjan makes whites from Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Friulano and Ribolla, among others, just a stone’s throw across the border from Italy’s famous white wine region of Collio. In fact, his region, called Goriška Brda, is essentially part of the same hillsides of Collio, and the two were once joined together before the first World War under the Austrian Hungarian empire. It was divided after WWI and then after the second World War it became part of Yugoslavia. It wasn’t until 1991 that Slovenia became a separate country. I find Slovenia like a new Switzerland (German-speaking part). It’s clean and with good infrastructure and friendly people and full of green hills and mountains and clean streams, rivers and lakes.

The other night, Simčič was not angry because of history, or that the wines of Goriška Brda are much less-known or sought-after than those of Collio in the global market. He was upset over the recent trend in Italy and his country where winemakers are promoting their wines as “organic” or “biodynamic” or even “natural,” and he says that in many cases it is nothing more than a cover for bad winemaking or just as a "bluff," as he put it.

"I have been growing my grapes organically for 12 years, but I don’t have to put it on the label and make a big deal of it," he said, standing in his cellar after dinner while we tasted a dozen or so barrel samples of 2009 whites and reds straight from the vats and French oak. "I see people put 'organic'on their labels and they just changed their viticulture a couple of years ago. That’s not serious."

I too have my concerns about this growing movement in the wine market. I am 100 percent behind the concept of organically grown grapes and organically produced wines, and anything else that is consumable for that matter that is organic. I am searching out excellent wines that are produced under these conditions to communicate back to you, but they have to be serious.

Some vintners, as well as consumers, believe that if a wine says “organic” or “biodynamic” on the label, then it means quality. But it’s just not true.

I remember a friend a few months back who was all excited about a bubbling Barbera that he was drinking at lunch with me because it was “natural.” The problem was that it was not supposed to be bubbling! It had gone through a secondary fermentation in the bottle due to a winemaking flaw.

I invited Sting’s winemaker in Tuscany, Paolo Caciorgna, to dinner at my house a few weeks ago, and he is a keen producer of organic and biodynamic wines. “The wine has to be good quality before someone starts talking about whether it is organic or biodynamic; otherwise, it’s not serious.”

By the way, I tasted Sting’s new red, Sister Moon. The 2007 blend of 45 percent Sangiovese, 30 percent Merlot and 25 percent Cabernet Sauvignon shows a lovely balance, with a cuddly, delicate texture that makes you want to drink it. The 10,000-bottle production wine is made from organic grapes. I found it outstanding quality that night, but still have to rate it officially for the magazine.

Anyway, I find that some of the best organic, natural or biodynamic wine producers in the world don’t even mention the fact publicly. That may change and I think it would be helpful if such wineries mentioned it on their labels and websites, but for now, many are letting the quality of their wines speak for themselves. Marjan was quite vocal the other night about his organic viticulture and winemaking.

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