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Focus on organic wines: do they really taste better?

The profile of organic wines has been rising steadily in recent years. And while they've not caught on quite as quickly as organic fruit and veg, the fact that supermarkets such as Sainsburys have a separate shelf display dedicated to them is an indication of their growing status with consumers. Personally, the whole issue of organic and biodynamic wine greatly interests me: I'm convinced that growing the grapes is the crucial quality-determining step in wine production, and any regime that encourages producers to take more care in the vineyard is likely to have a beneficial effect on the final wine. Indeed, a recent article in the leading scientific journal Nature showed that organically grown apples actually tasted better than non-organic ones (click here for a news piece from the journal discussing this).  

Because of the higher labour costs and (frequently) lower yields of organic regimes, organic wines often cost more than their non-organic peers. But do they taste any better? Do you get more for your money? While it's not possible to provide a precise answer to this question, a recent tasting organized by organic wine guru Monty Waldin presented a fascinating opportunity to make a direct comparison. This tasting, the first of its kind, was put on by Wine magazine, and the results are published in the current issue (December). I was invited to take part as a panelist, and I'm including here my full notes. I also took the opportunity to ask Monty Waldin a few questions about organic wines, and this interview can be found here.   

The wines were tasted blind, in 30 matched pairs (organic and non-organic). Of course, it would be fairly easy to rig this sort of tasting if you had an agenda. For example, Monty Waldin is an advocate of organics, and he could have chosen stunning organic wines and then paired them with weaker non-organic counterparts. Credit to him, he didn't. The wines were chosen to represent as close a comparison as possible within each pair, but the exact identities were dependent on which samples were sent by producers and retailers. 

For each wine, we were asked to give a score (out of 100), and to indicate which of the pair we thought was organic. The scores I gave seem a bit on the high side, but I was trying closely to follow the guidelines we were given. 

For the record, I correctly guessed the organic wine in the pair 20 times out of 30. How? Well, there's no exact science, but I was looking for wines with more individuality and personality, perhaps a more rustic feel, and maybe in some cases a less technical or 'clean' character. Did the organic wines taste any better? From this relatively limited sample, I preferred the organic wine 16 times, and the non-organic one 14 times, which is pretty close to 50:50. So I'd have to conclude that opting for the word 'organic' on the label doesn't necessarily guarantee a better drinking experience. 

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