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Published:  23 July, 2008

Organic wines are claiming more shelf space in the multiples, but is this higher profile driven by the rising quality of organic wines, or a result of retailers' opportunism? In the Christmas build-up the Harpers team tasted 80 organic wines from around the world, to gauge the variety and strength in depth of the organic sector

The healthy response for submissions to the Harpers organic wine tasting was an indication of just how much organic production has increased in recent years, and how eager producers and their agents are to show off the fruits of their labours. But has quality been rising in step with production? This was the question in the minds of the Harpers tasting team as they embarked on their analysis of 80 organic wines from all over the world.

Overview The general consensus was that while there were few bad wines submitted, and a handful of very good ones, for the most part there was little here to excite. Most marks were given in a narrow band in the mid-range, with very few high or low marks awarded. The average mark overall was an adequate but uninspiring 14.5. The reds and sparkling wines were generally marked higher than the white and dessert wines, although there was not much to separate the different categories. Out of the wines submitted from France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy, South Africa, California, Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina, somewhat surprisingly it was the wines from Germany which showed the best. While it is said to be easier to practise organic viticulture in warm climates, Germany scooping the top three places, a Loire wine at number four and a generally stronger showing of cooler-climate wines suggests that this is yet to be seen in relation to quality. It would appear that the New World still has some catching up to do with Old World countries such as Germany and France, which have the experience, in some cases, of decades of organic winemaking.

The price is wrong The highest average mark (17.4) was awarded to one of the most expensive wines, the 1998 Neirsteiner Pettental, Weingut Heyl Zu Herrnsheim at 15.60. The lowest average mark (10.5) was awarded to the lowest priced, a Californian Chenin Blanc at 2.99, which one taster described as being barely wine'. While price generally corresponded to quality, the majority of the wines were still considered too expensive by the tasters. Lower yields and more labour-intensive practices, combined with the cost of certification, means that organic wines are more expensive than other wines, but it was still felt that many of the examples needed a quality boost to bring them in line with their price tag. Only 30% of the wines supplied were under 5, with most of these at the 4.99 level. This turned out to be the weakest area, where most of the lowest marks accumulated. Of these, only one made it into the top ten, the 2000 Muscadet Svre et Maine, Sur Lie, Chteau de la Gravelle from the Loire, which - at 4.99 - was considered by everyone to be a characterful wine that offered really good value. Most of the interest started above 7, but even here a frequent disparity between price and quality was noted.

Natural qualities The tasters' hopes for the purity and intensity of fruit claimed by organic growers as characteristic of their wines were largely disappointed. While many of the wines did show good fruit, it was generally felt that this was somewhat subdued, while heavy-handed use of oak, especially in the red wines, frequently masked what remained. One taster perceived a gulf between the best and worst wines, considering that the less impressive were possibly the worse for being organic, while the top wines, which were very good, were perhaps better for being made organically. One of the most shocking things remarked on by the tasters was the high level of winemaking faults, which one taster adjudged to affect perhaps half the samples. One trend was an over-reliance on sulphur. With permitted sulphur levels in organic winemaking at about half to one third of those used in conventional winemaking, this came as a surprise. While high sulphur levels could have been attributed to wines being recently bottled, only a very small percentage of the samples came from the 2001 vintage. After this, oxidation, which one may have thought would have been a bigger problem, was found to be rare, with only one bottle affected. A far more widespread problem was that of the reductive characters which permeated many of the reds. Some volatility, TCA and brettanomyces were also detected. The general impression given by the wines was that good grapes had been made into bad wine as a consequence of poor winemaking choices and expertise. It was suggested that maybe too much attention was being paid in the vineyard at the expense of the winemaking practices. The team's verdict? Nice fruit, shame about the winemaking.

Top ten organic wines 1. 1998 Neirsteiner Pettental Riesling First Growth', Weingut Heyl Zu Herrnsheim, Germany, 15.60 @ The Wine Barn A complex, stylish wine, with a minerally palate and rich, almost tropical fruit. 2. 1998 Neirsteiner Pettental Riesling Auslese, Weingut Heyl Zu Herrnsheim, Germany, 11.75 @ The Wine Barn An intense, exotic Riesling' but not overblown', with spicy notes, good acidity and a long finish. 3. 2000 Riesling Kabinett, Bruder Dr Becker, Rheinhessen, Germany, 6.99 @ Growers and Chteaux A pleasant, refreshing and well-balanced wine, with very good quality fruit'. 4. 2000 Muscadet Svre et Maine Sur Lie, Chteau de la Gravelle, Loire, France, 4.99 @ Safeway Everyone was impressed by the quality-to-price ratio of this wine, which one taster described as excellent, classic, zippy Sur Lie style, with nice honeyed undertones'. 5. 1998 Nativa Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmen, Chile, 9.99 @ Stevens Garnier Arguably Chile's first organic wine, a very good and classy example of classic Maipo style. A smooth, sweet palate with medicinal and liquorice notes.' 6. 2000 Cava Albet I Noya 21, Spain, 10.99 @ Vintage Roots Regarded as another very good example of its style. Rich, creamy and youthful', with good length and a gentle but persistent mousse. 7. 1997 Brunello di Montalcino, Corte Pavone, Italy, 15.60 @ Loacker Tenute A decent' Brunello, which for one taster - though tannic - had complexity and would develop well, while another liked its density of fruit'. 8. 2000 Riesling Aulerde, Wittmann, Westhofen, Germany, 10.80 (no UK stockist) While one taster's notes led with slightly blowsy', another considered this floral wine to be a little closed', but showing good potential'. 9. 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot, Wilkie Estate, Australia, 8.99 @ Tesco Despite slight reservations about over-oaking, this wine was generally considered attractive, with its big, silky palate packed with cassis fruit'. 10. 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz, Penfolds, Australia, 7.99 @ Southcorp The tasters liked this wine's smooth sweet fruit, with its minty notes; while one considered it to be a good, quite restrained example of its style.