For Organic Wine That’s Great, Hit the Chile Aisle

organic wine from Chile

Barrels aging at Matetic winery in Chile

Let’s face it: organic wine has a bad rap. Most wine drinkers assume it’s going to be sub-par, just as they assume with kosher wine. In both cases, history plagues them. For a long time, it was next to impossible to find a bottle you would drink just because of the taste.

Novas organic wineThankfully, organic wine is getting better all the time. If you pick up a bottle from Chile, or taste a glass in a wine bar, I can promise you’ll be pleasantly surpised. Thanks to ideal growing conditions (mountains on one side, the sea on the other), grapes grown in much of Chile don’t need a lot of pesticides anyway. Plus with land not being nearly as expensive as, say, Napa Valley, winemakers have been able to embrace the more expensive organic practices without sacrificing quality. Whereas organic wine from Oregon or California often comes with a premium price, the ones from Chile are in line with their non-organic counterparts.

I’ve tasted a variety of styles from three wineries in Chile, with impressive results. Two of them I visited in person while touring the wine valleys near Santiago: Matetic and Emiliana. The third, Visión produced my favorite out of five Savignon Blancs I sampled in a single tasting event – Cono Sur. All are putting out wines as good or better than those coming from vineyards using non-organic methods. You can drink these just because you like good wine: the eco-friendly part is a bonus.

Producing organic and biodynamic wine is not easy. Matetic and Emiliana both have herds of sheep roaming the grounds to chew up the grass and weeds between the vines and to provide natural fertilizer. The companies use solar energy and biofuels and are certified as carbon-neutral. (Visión, maker of Cono Sur, offsets all its carbon emissions as well.) Keeping the bugs away requires more labor, though Chile’s topography means fewer pests than in the U.S. or Europe.

Matetic’s winery in the Rosario Valley employs a wide range of biodynamic principles, like being built into a hill to keep the temperature contstant and using gravity-fed hoses instead of pumps. In order to maintain diversity and give employees a stake in the business, Emiliana allows them to grow their own crops on company-owned land adjoining the vineyards (like olive trees for olive oil), with profits from these side projects going to the families directly.

I was impressed by the results. Over and over in these wines I found a surprising level of complexity and variety. Emiliana’s red blend Coyam was heavenly with the ribs I was eating for lunch. The critics apparently agree: Coyam won a Best Wine in Chile award in its first vintage from the Wines of Chile Annual Awards.

Matetic has obtained scores above 90 in Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, and Wine & Spirits.

good organic wine ChileEmiliana’s wine brands include Gê (the first certified biodynamic wine in Latin America), Coyam (the second), Novas, Natura (branded as Adobe in Chile), and Emiliana itself. Some are blends and the varietals include Syrah, Cabernet, Chardonnay, Savignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir, and Carmenere. The Natura Carmenere and Savignon Blanc ones I tried retail between $10 and $15 in the U.S. – a terrific value. Maybe that’s why this is the 3rd-largest Organic brand in the U.S. See more at the Emiliana website.

Matetic’s wine brands include EQ, Corralillo, and Matetic. Varietals include Syrah, Chardonney, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Noir. See more at Matetic.com.

I’ve only tried the Sauvignon Blanc Cono Sur, from the Visión winery. This ranks as one of the best $15 white wines I can remember having anywhere. It’s a softer, gentler version of the style, less bracing, more juicy. It’s the kind of mouth-watering wine that disappears before you know it as glasses get refilled. See more at the Cono Sur site.

To see more about all of Chile’s wine regions and wineries, see the Wines of Chile site.

Biking Country Wine Roads in Oregon’s Willamette Valley

Days spent meandering down rural country lanes lined with grapevines, orchards, and hop fields ease into afternoon wine tastings. Nights are in small and welcoming Oregon towns you’ve never heard of, like Dundee, Newburg, McMinnville, and Carlton—population 1,755.

In just a few decades, Oregon has gone from an unknown to a premier wine region, with its Pinot Noirs competitively ranking as some of the best in the world in international competitions. There are now more than 300 wineries in Oregon and the famed Pinot Noirs are but one of 70+ varieties.

The majority of these wineries are in the Willamette Valley extending south from near Portland to Eugene. Despite the explosion in popularity of wines from this region, it’s still well off the tourism radar. Unlike in California’s Napa Valley, where you may find yourself sharing the road with multiple tour buses, you often have the roads and the tasting rooms to yourself.

The bike routes in this region are on regular roads, but it’s possible to do much of the touring on calm country lanes. In the summer it’s not hard to find a healthy snack, with roadside stands selling berries and fruit.

You can base yourself in one inn and branch out from there, or meander down the valley to sleep in a new area each night. Peter Nelson chose the latter option with Life Cycle Adventures after setting up a customized itinerary. “Their support on the ride was so nice to have; all you need after you take off is a cell phone in your pocket if you get in trouble or your bike breaks down. At one point they came 40 miles out of their way to fix a brake cable.”

The Oregon wine country is not known for high-end lodging, but most cyclists find that it’s plenty comfortable after a day of riding.

A few short routes allow riding back on an Amtrak train: the connections between Salem, Albany, and Eugene are 30 to 44 miles. Perhaps the best way to get a taste of an Oregon wine biking trip in one day is to follow the tracks of Tom Huggins at Eola Hills Wine Cellars in Rickreall. Each Sunday in August he leads a group on two intersecting routes of 30 or 52 miles, stopping at various wineries along the way and finishing up with a barbecue.

Consider this region a counterpoint to the Finger Lakes, with complex red wines being the ones that stick in the memory. Peter Nelson points to one he liked so much he flew a few bottles home: Willamette Valley Vineyards Founder’s Reserve Pinot Noir 2007.

If you go:
Life Cycle Adventures runs customized independent tours (LifeCycleAdventures.com), while Unusual Tours is a budget option for those with their own bike who are up for camping and motels (Unusual-tours.com). Cycling routes and maps are at Ride Oregon or the Oregon Wine Center. For train connections, see the Amtrak Cascades and Coast Starlight routes at Amtrak.com and reserve far ahead for a bike spot. The Eola Hills one-day rides with support are $65 (See EolaHillsWinery.com).

Riesling Bike Rides Around the Finger Lakes of New York

Winery locations and beautiful scenery often go hand in hand. So why not see it all at a slower pace, from the seat of a bicycle instead of behind the windows of a car or bus? Our first in a series on biking trips in wine country is on the Finger Lakes region in the U.S.

The area around the 11 finger-shaped lakes of upstate New York is the largest wine growing region east of the Rockies, but you’ll often have the roads mostly to yourself. Bruce Stoff from the Ithaca Visitors Bureau is baffled that bike tours aren’t a common sight here. “Strangely, wine country bike touring isn’t very developed here yet, despite wide open country roads, rolling hills, and big views.”

Jacki Lewis chose a Finger Lakes biking trip with WomanTours because she wanted something scenic that was close to her Toronto home and she liked the focus on women’s history in the mix. She says the tour and the incredible beauty of the landscape surpassed her expectations. “I wasn’t sure I’d really get something luxurious, but I was pleasantly surprised at quality of the lodging-one night we were in a chateaux even. Everything was unbelievably well-organized from start to finish.” For her, the organized tour with meal stops and luggage transfers made the trip hum. “It’s remarkable to travel on a bike from inn to inn and not have to worry about anything but yourself.”

Lauren Blau, who was on the same tour, says this a great first biking destination. “In those four days you get beautiful, varied scenery-vineyards, lakes, farms, and cottages-with a low level of vehicle traffic,” she says. “Plus there are great local inns and B&B’s to stay in, with delicious food.”

wine tour New York

Mike Evans booked a tour with Classic Adventures after his cyclist brother talked him into it, even though he says, “I hadn’t been on a bike for 30 years. I spent two months training to get ready because we committed to an 11-day trip.” He was impressed with the vistas, all the sightseeing options, and the quality of the lodging. “I couldn’t believe it when we pedaled up to Belhurst Castle and that’s where we were spending the night.”

Those who normally drink hearty red wines won’t find a lot to impress them here, but the whites are a different story. Mike Evans found the change refreshing coming from the west coast and says he really enjoyed trying all the different Rieslings and ice wines. “On a few stops the winemakers gave us a tour and talked about their operation as they poured samples. It was a nice, relaxed education in wines I hadn’t tried much before.”

If you go:

Classic Adventures offers the best long guided group tours, with six-day options at around $1,900 per person. For a budget option, the annual Le Bon Ton Roulet tour set up by local YMCAs is a $525 6-day bring-your-own-bike affair with public camping, luggage transport, and group meals. Shorter three- or four-day annual tours are available through Southern Tier Bicycle Club and WomanTours.

Hungarian Wine: The Story Then and Now

Hungary wine

It’s a wine tasting gone amok, with some 700 bottles displayed, 50 open ones to choose from, and almost nothing that sounds familiar. What is a Szekszárdi Kadarka supposed to taste like? Or a Borpalota Szürkebarát?

After gazing over the Budapest skyline from a platform next to the impressive Buda Castle, I walked past the world’s most out-of-place-looking Hilton and down some stops into the House of Hungarian Wines, a now-defunct center for tasting all the country’s best, from hearty reds to late harvest dessert wine. I could have just read the English signs and played eenie-meanie-miney-moe with my wine glass, but springing $22 for a cellar master tour seemed like a better way to go. He explained the origins of “Bull’s Blood,” why Tokaji wine only comes from a specific region, and how the Villany area of Hungary has a climate much like that of southern France. Eventually he got to the Hungarian Wine Story.

It doesn’t take much time among Hungarian winemakers and wine lovers to learn the Hungarian Wine Story by heart.

Here’s the condensed version. Hungary has been making wine since the Roman times, maybe longer. Törley sparkling wine was second only to Champagne’s and Tokaji Aszú dessert wines gained the world’s first appellation control, before Port wine or Bordeaux. It passed the lips of Europe’s kings, queens, and Popes; it graced the wine glasses of Beethoven, Schubert, and native son Franz Liszt. By the early 1900s, things were going swimmingly.

Then the communists came along (and among those Hungarians who speak English well the full phrase is usually “damn communists”). Collective farms and state-owned factories prized volume above all else. The Soviets forced everyone into making jug wine that would get the comrades good and drunk. Act three: the Iron Curtain fell and the winemakers went into overdrive trying to recapture centuries of skill and knowledge wiped out in a few short decades. As good as the wine gets though, there’s still a huge stigma to overcome.

After a few tellings, the grand theme emerges. Instead of chips on their shoulders, the Hungarian wine marketers have a ghostly hammer and sickle on their shoulders, haunting them as they struggle for respect. “In just two generations you can lose it all” laments the award-winning winemaker István Jásdi in Balaton. “We have to find our traditions again.”

My notes from Hungary are a jumble of alien accents and words I can’t pronounce, with an occasional Pinot Noir or Chardonnay tasting note standing out like a familiar Hollywood blockbuster in a sea of foreign indie flicks. In Eger, Monarchia Winery’s Pók Tamás gives his export brands names like “Zen” (a light and fruity white) and “Rhapsody in Red” (a complex ruby red cuvee of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and local grape Kekfrankos.) The Hungarian names carry too much of a stigma.

“We were making wine before the French were!” shouted Szeremley spokesman Gábor Kardos as he launched into The Hungarian Wine Story with great gusto. “Now we have to prove we know what we’re doing all over again.” I noticed that bottle after bottle was covered with international award stickers though, so that coveted respect is starting.

When I visit the Figula winery up the hill from Lake Balaton, only established in 1993, one of the sons of the founder pours a series of fantastic white wines that are almost chewy in their depth of flavors and minerals, hitting every taste bud around the mouth. “This one needs another two or three years” he sighs after sipping their late harvest Pinot Gris. A good problem to have-and a rare one in a global white wine market where screw caps are now common.

I stumble out and go one block to Budavári Fortuna Restaurant, in a space that was once part of a labyrinth of caves during WWII, serving as a weapons depot and military hospital. The cave here is seeing happier times now, with one of them dedicated to creating sparkling wine in the Champagne Method. The enthusiastic owner lets me pop out the sediment ice around the neck of one bottle and pop in my own cork with the press. “When you return to Budapest,” he says, “this bottle will be waiting for you here in the cellar, for a fine dinner with your wife.” Mine is number 555, an especially lucky draw it seems, and my name goes in the book next to Melanie Griffith and Anthony Banderas.

Yes, I will return someday to retrieve my bottle, perhaps after spending more quality time down south in the prime red wine district around Villany. The Hilton will still be ugly, Buda Castle will still be beautiful, and I am confident the wine will still be delicious. Perhaps in a few years, Act 3 of the Hungarian Wine Story will dispel the drama and tension and we can look forward to a happy ending.