Is This Wine Organic? Wait … What’s Biodynamic?

Organic:Bio shelf talkerHere at Chain Bridge Cellars we work mainly with wine made by people who drink what they make and serve it to their family and friends. Overwhelmingly, they care about health and the environment and reflect that care in how they farm and make wine, whether or not they meet the various standards for organic and biodynamic farming or winemaking.

Still, because more and more of our customers want to know how the wine was grown and made, we recently decided to include the words “organic/bio” in green in our wine descriptions and on our “shelf talkers.” But what exactly does this mean?

A Focus on the Farming
Winemaking can be divided into two stages: the farming of the grapes in the vineyard and the fermenting, aging, and bottling of the wine in the winery. When we mark a wine with our “organic/bio” label, we’re referring to the farming: It means that the grapes were farmed either organically or biodynamically.

Organic farming is much like what you would expect: compliance with bans on herbicides and systemic pesticides and limits on what growers can use to nourish their vines and protect them from disease. For example, organic vine growing allows use of copper sulfate and sulfur, which are sprayed on the vines to prevent mildew and other fungi from growing.

demeter-logo-225px-hiWhat about Biodynamic?
Developed by Rudolph Steiner in the 1920s, biodynamics not only bans chemical or manufactured sprays, it also governs what growers do and when they do it.

For example, growers must follow a lunar calendar of root, fruit, leaf and flower days that determine when a grower can prune and harvest. In addition, all growers must spray two preparations on their vineyards: 1) a spray made from manure that has been buried in a cow horn for six months, and 2) a dilution of fractured quartz. Other preparations that vinegrowers can choose to use include herbal and homeopathic preparations.

And while some of this might sound a little crazy, it’s important to understand that biodynamics also relates to a bigger picture: how farming contributes to the overall health of the world. Standards apply to what grows on the edges of a vineyard, for example, and many biodynamic winegrowers grow cattle, chickens, and vegetables in addition to grapes. Biodynamics requires ecological diversity.

USDA Organic symbolThe Winemaking Piece
For a wine to have the USDA organic seal, both the wine growing and the winemaking must meet organic standards. And even though many organic wine growers make their wine with minimal intervention, one big issue keeps them from achieving USDA organic status: sulfites.

Sulfites are a natural byproduct of fermentation – anytime you ferment grapes, you’re left with wine that has sulfite in it.  If you ever find a “sulfite free” wine (which I bet you can’t!), the sulfites would have to be chemically removed … along with much of the wine flavor.

In the winery, almost all winemakers add sulfites to grapes and wines at multiple points in the winemaking process to protect the grape must from oxygen, kill off unwanted bacteria, and to ensure adequate levels of “free sulfur” in the finished wine at bottling to keep it fresh and tasty over time.

For reasons of both cost and philosophy, modern winemakers generally use as little sulfur in the winery as they can consistent with turning out a sound, healthy, fresh wine for you to enjoy.  But that means they almost always end up with greater than 10 ppm of residual sulfite – the level that triggers the “Contains Sulfite” label and prevents a wine from being awarded the FDA Organic label.

Even so, wines have far less sulfur in them than your typical package of dried fruit.  And, over the last few decades, winemakers have been steadily decreasing the amount of sulfur they add to their wines: no one likes wines that taste like sulfur! And, especially under screwcap, over-sulfured wines can taste rubbery and reduced. So each winemaker must decide: do I add just enough to be confident the wine is stabilized? Do I see how little I can get away with? Here at Chain Bridge Cellars, we favor wines made the first way.

Biodynamic practices also extend into the winery. That root, fruit, leaf and flower calendar also governs winemaking. In addition biodynamics forbids use of cultured yeast – all yeasts must be native to the winery or vineyard. And many biodynamic producers have begun to focus on how to keep winemaking from interfering how the wine reflects the vineyard’s terroir: Do the wines taste like the place the grapes were grown? This question leads winemakers consider how much they should manipulate the grapes, how much wood to use, if any … to consider  how “natural” their wines can be.

A Word about the Word “Natural”
But if you see the word “natural” on a wine, our advice is to run! Wine, much as we might like the pretend otherwise, is not a natural product. It’s a manipulated product, and winemakers “interfere” with the process for good reasons. Unsulfured wines tend to go bad, for example. Call us crazy, but we like our wine to taste good!

Where do we approve of “natural?” In the phrase “as natural as possible.” We like to work with winemakers who are careful, who work to have their grapes express the best that the varietal can be in their region, but who also are willing to intervene when things seem to go wrong. The line can be fuzzy – but we think you can taste the difference in the bottle. An overly manipulated wine tastes … manufactured. And an overly “natural” wine can taste, frankly, bad.

Then Does this Organic/Bio Label Make a Difference?
We think the answer is yes … and maybe. We know some excellent winemakers decide not to get officially certified in organic or biodynamic farming—sometimes because of the expense, or because they want to be able to use certain non-organic treatments when it’s necessary. Still, vine growers who go organic or biodynamic are willing to spend extra time and energy in the vineyard, monitoring and caring for the vines and their land—and that attention shows in the glass.


New Grape Time! Per’ ‘e Palummo

Per e Palummo glass and grapeThis ancient Roman grape has many names with similar meanings: Piedirosso (red feet), Palombina (little dove), and Per’ ‘e Palummo (dove’s foot).

All refer to the grape’s russet-colored stem and the three small clusters that hang at the bottom of each bunch. It’s naturally low-yielding and also low in color, acidity and tannin. In Campania (on the mainland), it’s mainly used to soften the tougher, darker Aglianico.

Thriving on the Island of Ischia
Ischia cenatiempo2Many all-Piedirosso wines I’ve tried are either thin and flabby, or show tough, bitter tannins, an unfortunate consequence of winemaking attempts to get some backbone in the wine.

However, the grape thrives on the island of Ischia, a volcanic island just off the coast from Naples and north of Capri. Grown in Ischia’s free-draining volcanic soils and ample Mediterranean sunshine, Per’ e’ Palummo, as they call it there, ripens to fleshy fullness without losing acidity or gaining excess alcohol.

Ischia cenatiempoThis week, we have a fine example of this grape ready for you to try in Cenateimpo’s Per’ e’ Palummo Ischia 2017, a delicious, captivating Italian red wine. Winemaker Pasquale Cenatiempo’s super-gentle winemaking captures the grape’s charm and cherry and brambly wild berry fruit with just enough structure to hold everything together.

Come by anytime this week to give this wine a try. At a minimum, you can check another grape-varietal off your grape-bucket list! And you could just have discovered a new favorite red to pair with anything from mussels to grilled mushrooms, salami and cheese pizza.

Cenatiempo Per' 'E Palummo

The Benchmark 2016 Vintage in Chateauneuf du Pape

Chateauneuf du PapeThis week’s Dom La Barroche Chateauneuf du Pape 2016s illustrate the 2016 vintage in Chateauneuf perfectly.

Across the Southern Rhone, and especially in Chateauneuf du Pape, 2016 is a great, great vintage. Now, to be honest, in the past 20 years, there have been only a couple of bad vintages (2002 and 1997) and not many “average” ones (perhaps 2008 and 2004?). But now that 2016 is in the bottle, Rhone lovers will be debating which of 1998, 2001, 2005, 2007, 2010, 2015 and 2016 are the “greatest” year of all!

How 2016 Has it All
I suspect 2016 will end up at the top of that exalted heap, possibly at the very top. Because it brings together the flamboyant richness and immediate appeal of a hot year like 1998 and 2007, the drought-driven intensity of years like 2005, and the purity, drive, and intensity of small crop years like 2001 and 2010. In short, 2016 has it all!

Four factors work together to make 2016 so special – and so unlike any other growing season in recent memory:

  • Generous, Even, Fruit Set – Fairly benign conditions during flowering let the vines set healthy – not excessive – loads of grapes (unlike 2010, say, when the small crop intensified the structure within each berry).
  • Very Hot, Sunny, Days – Rhone grapes need sunshine and heat to ripen, and 2016 delivered that in spades with multiple days exceeding 95°F, even in September.
  • Cool, Brisk, Nights – While days resembled hot years like 2007, low humidity and limited cloud cover meant that nighttime temperatures dropped quickly. As Dunnuck says, “This is what separates 2016 from other hot years like 2015, 2011, 2009, and 2003. This diurnal temperature swing is generally thought to preserve freshness in the grapes as well as contribute to more purity and freshness in the aromatics.”
  • Drought With Perfectly Timed Rain – After fruit set, the weather turned dry with extremely low rainfall until the arrival of light showers in mid-September. The drought kept berries small and intense and drove wonderfully dark colors. The refreshing late season rain gave the vines energy to finish ripening just in time for a traditional early October harvest.

What does all that mean in the bottle? Well, Josh Raynolds at Vinous says:

“If exuberant ripe fruit, harmonious tannins and an overall impression of generosity and lushness are what you’re after in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, then 2016 has plenty to offer. But the best wines also display real energy, making this a standout vintage. References to other great years such as 2010 and 2001 abounded during my visits with producers in mid-April, and while I concur with the comparison to 2001, the ‘16s show more flesh, more abundant fruitiness and rounder tannins than the 2010s did at a similar stage. At the same time, I believe that the wines will often be superior to those from recent hot years like 2009, 2007 and 2003 because of their greater freshness.”

And Jeb Dunnuck – formerly of Wine Advocate and now on his own, agrees:

“The 2016 vintage was truly extraordinary for the Southern Rhône and is a vintage that readers should buy with abandon. This is the greatest young vintage from the Southern Rhône Valley I’ve ever tasted, both in terms of quality as well as consistency. While these are ripe, concentrated, and exuberant wines, they also show an incredible purity of fruit as well as weightless, sensationally balanced profiles on the palate. They are complex, powerful wines that satisfy both the intellectual and the hedonistic parts of the brain. Rhône lovers will be comparing the 2016s, 2010s, and 2007s long into the future, and you will want these wines in your cellar.”

2016 at Dom La Barroche
Julien Barrot of Dom BarrocheThe work Julien Barrot has done at this Domaine comes to full fruition in 2016. And the results show in the critical acclaim (95 points for their Signature label and 100 points for their “Pure”).

The Barrot family owns 36 acres of some of Chateauneuf’s finest vineyard land, with 30 acres in production and six lying fallow in preparation for new planting. Julien will leave more than 5% of his land out of production for seven full years – shocking given the value of CdP vineyard! – because, “When you think about it, a parcel could have been used for vinegrowing for 100 straight years or longer. There is no way the soil can recover in just a few years after that.”

The producing land is mainly sandy-soiled sites in some of the region’s best areas, including an important slice abutting Rayas. The average vine age is 65 years, with multiple plots comfortably over the century mark and all farmed with organic care.

In the second year of his new gravity flow winery, Julien has taken major steps to increase the purity and finesse of his wines and moderate the extreme ripeness and power the region sometimes struggles to manage in an era of warmer growing seasons. For the first time ever, in 2016 he made no green harvest to increase the workload of the vines and moderate sugar levels. All of the Grenache remained on the stems for fermentation, adding a touch of spice and extra layer of freshness. And all of the fruit fermented in unlined “raw” concrete egg-shaped tanks to gain very gentle extraction and tamp down fruitiness a tiny bit.

The results are among the most exciting young Chateauneuf du Pape reds we’ve ever tasted, full of classic richness, ripeness and power but balanced by simply brilliant purity, finesse and length. The 2016 Signature shows astonishing freshness and vibrancy to go with the dark red fruit and full-bodied feel. And the 2016 Pure is…well, yes, Wine Advocate was “being too conservative at 99 points.”

Introducing Lower ABV Wine Selections

Lower ABV SelectionsMore and more often, we hear you ask, “What do you recommend for lower-alcohol reds?” Because while 14.8% Napa Cab and 15% Chateauneuf du Pape certainly has its place, sometimes something a little lighter, fresher, and easier to simply sip appeals.

Of course, you want lower alcohol – not lower levels of quality, satisfaction and deliciousness. Wines like today’s featured Cavalchina Bardolino 2016!

So when we’re tasting and evaluating wines for the store, our first question is, “Does this taste great?” Followed by, “Will our customers love it too?” More and more often, that brings us a range of wines that are full of flavor and delight but a touch lower in heft and alcohol.

So the next time you come into the store, take a look at our shelf tags. Where you see the blue “Lower ABV” emblem, you’ll know the wine is 13.3% or lower alcohol by volume (“ABV”).

Or you can click this link to see our Lower ABV wines online!

Champagne, Cava, Cremant … What’s The Difference?

champagne glassesWe get lots of questions about the names and terms used for different sparkling wines, so here’s a quick primer for anyone who is feeling a touch confused.

The big name in the field is Champagne, a label that used to be applied to many different kinds of fizz. Today – after years of negotiation and some fairly aggressive litigation by the Champenoise – the “Champagne” name is restricted to wines that:

  • Come from the Champagne region of France
  • Are made from seven authorized grapes (but mainly Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and the red Pinot Menieur)
    Get their bubbles from a secondary fermentation that takes place in bottle
  • Rest on the lees – dead yeast cells – from that secondary fermentation for at least 15 months for non-vintage or 30 months for vintage dated wines

The story of how Champagne was first created and popularized is long and winding and full of myth (no, Dom Perignon did not “invent” Champagne – he tried to stop it from fizzing!), but it’s ended up with Champagne holding the title of, arguably, the best sparkling wine in the world and certainly the most expensive.

Grower Champagne. This term refers to Champagne made from grapes that the estate also grew. Many Champagne houses make Champagne from fruit they purchase from growers. Veuve Cliquot and Moen & Chandon are two examples. These are certainly fine Champagnes, but over the last few decades there’s been a movement by more growers to make Champagne themselves. The price can be lower too!

R Dumont Solera Champagne.pngSolera Champagne. Most fine Champagnes get their complexity from aging of the base wines in oak barrels and/or extended aging “on the lees” in bottle after the secondary fermentation (where the bubbles come from!). But there’s a third approach called “solera.” This week’s featured R Dumont Solera Reserve Brut is a good example: After harvesting their 1991 vintage grapes, the Dumont family filled a single stainless steel cask with their remarkable Chardonnay. Each year, they took about a third of the wine out and used it in their NV Brut, replacing what they took with Chardonnay wine from that year’s vintage. After ten years, they released their first solera, and the release we’re featuring was pulled in early 2016, so it includes wines from 25 vintages!

So while drinking “real” Champagne is a treat – and something we all should do more often! – it’s not surprising that many other sparkling wines have emerged to try to slake our thirst for fine fizz at more reasonable prices.

France’s Cremant. The term was originally used to denote wines from Champagne that had a little less fizz than regular Champagne, but that style and usage have fallen away today. Now the French use “Cremant” to designate sparkling wines made outside of Champagne using the Champagne method of secondary fermentation in bottle. You’ll find Cremant wines from all across France, many – like Cremant d’Alsace – using very different grapes from Champagne (e.g. Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, or even Riesling).

Sparklers from Italy, Spain and the U.S. Many Americans start their sparkling wine adventure with crisp, fruity wines from Italy like Moscato di Asti or Prosecco. We love them both, but neither uses Champagne grapes or even the Champagne method to create fizz. These wines undergo secondary fermentation in a large tank and are then bottled with the fizz already in the wine. It’s a less expensive process that won’t give you the same texture or toasty flavors found in méthode champenoise wines.

The best of Spain’s sparkling Cava wines can deliver much more Champagne quality at a fraction of the price. These wines are made using the méthode champenoise (although they’re not allowed to use that term on the label – nothing to suggest competition with Champagne is allowed!), and can show some of the creaminess and yeasty, toasty notes we love in Champagne. But Cava is usually made with different grapes – macabeu, parellada and xarel·lo are most common – which give the wines different flavors and often a nuttier, more oxidative character.

Most top-notch American sparkling wines are made with Champagne’s fermentation methods and Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, and in many cases, the companies and even the same winemakers who make the best wines in Champagne create these American wines. But most grow in warmer climates and in richer soils than you find in Champagne, so they tend to be a bit heartier and seldom quite as finely textured as true Champagne.

If you have questions, please feel free to ask more about the wonderful world of sparking wines.



Thanksgiving Selections


Clement ChampagnesWe love great Champagne on Thanksgiving, whether it’s sipped at breakfast, enjoyed for refreshment in a hot kitchen, paired with the feast, or savored after all the clean-up is done. And you won’t find better value Champagne for turkey than these featured wines from Charles Clement.

And we think most everyone will love our recommended Thanksgiving white and red: Steininger Grüner Veltliner Grand Grü 2017 and Dom Jean Royer Le Petit Roy 17eme 2017.

Looking for additional Thanksgiving wine recommendations? We’ve got you covered there as well. There’s no “right” way to pick Thanksgiving wines. In general, we prefer to avoid overtly oaky wines (they can fight with the food) or overly subtle ones (which can’t fight with the food – they lose!). But in all honesty, no one wine is going to pair well with savory dressing, earthy sweet potatoes and tangy cranberry relish. So, when in doubt, drink anything you find delicious and want to share!

Thanksgiving tableThree Strategies
But if you’re looking to maximize your Thanksgiving wine and food pleasure, we have three strategies to suggest – and great wines to fit all three approaches. To see our recommendations in each category, click on the link:

All American – It’s an American holiday and bold American wines can make a great choice to match up with bold Thanksgiving flavors. Here are a half-dozen favorites – including an unoaked Chardonnay from a state you’d never expect!

On the Lighter Side – It’s a heavy meal, so lighter wines can provide a nice contrast IF they are flavorful enough to sing out with the food. Here are six that keep the alcohol lower but the flavor amped up to the max.

Go Big or Go Home – Big flavors in food deserve big flavors in wine. And these wines from France, California, Sicily and Spain will more than keep pace with the most savory dressing and roasted bird.

Browse the recommendations and choose any that appeal. Or email, give us a call at 703.356.6500 or stop by the store. We’re here to help you find the perfect wines for your Thanksgiving table to match any menu or budget!

Aglianico – The Best Grilling Grape You Don’t Know (and a grilled ratatouille recipe)

AglianicoGrown in the steep hills of Italy’s Basilicata, inland from Naples, Aglianico is the best grape in the world that nobody knows (or, if you know it, don’t drink enough of). Wine writers try to get drinkers to pay attention to it by calling it “the Barolo of the South.” Because, like Piemonte’s Nebbiolo, it’s wonderfully aromatic, full of bracing acidity, laced with sharp, firm, tannins, and can live and gain complexity for decades.

But “Barolo” it ain’t. It’s much more fun than that, especially when grown on the old lava flows of the extinct volcano, Monte Vulture. For one thing, it’s darker, fleshier, and more powerful than Barolo, serving up fine concentration of black raspberry and blueberry fruit to Nebbiolo’s fine cherry and strawberry.

Mt VultureAnd it’s wilder than Barolo, with a direct, assertive, ready to party by the grill, boldness and layer upon layer of summer-friendly wild herb, black olive, violet and earth notes. And while Aglianico from more famous Taurasi needs years in bottle to be much fun, many Aglianico del Vulture (like this one!) are delicious and ready to rock out on the deck as soon as they arrive in the USA.

While this is fun to hang out with and drink, growing fine Aglianico is serious work – work no one has done better over the last 40+ years than d’Angelo. Lucio d’Angelo’s ancestors had grown Aglianico for centuries before he started his winery in 1971. And Lucio and his children, Rocco and Erminia, almost single-handedly created the DOCG and set the standards for what great Aglianico del Vulture is all about.

The hard work starts in the vineyards, where the Basilicata’s high altitudes and low latitudes mean days can be brutally hot and nights chilly to frigid. Aglianico can’t really be grown successfully under any other conditions because it buds very early – when frost is too likely in lower sites – and needs to hang for months and months to develop flavor and soften fierce tannins. By the time the d’Angelo family harvests their Aglianico in late-October/early November, essentially all of Italy’s Sangiovese, Nero d’Avola, Bordeaux varietals, and even Nebbiolo are already bubbling away in their fermenters.

Once the grapes are painstakingly picked by hand – as they must be on these mountain slopes – they are crushed and ferment warm and vigorously to extract color and flavor to match naturally high acids and tannins. Then comes the wait: 20 months in huge, old, oak casks to allow the tannins to soften and full, fleshy, flavors to emerge.

d'Angelo Aglianico del Vulture

And, when all that’s done…the wine still releases at just $25 vs the $50-$150 Barolo gets. Which makes this gloriously fruit-filled, complex, powerful red a steal all the time, but especially from $17.98 this week.

Come on by and try it – we’ll keep a bottle of d’Angelo Aglianico Del Vulture open to try this week through Friday’s free tasting. And if you want to taste Aglianico’s perfect match, check out my recipe for Grilled Ratatouille. We think you’ll enjoy them both!

Doug’s Grilled Ratatouille

Grilled RatatouilleSauternes and foie gras. Ribeye steak and Napa Cab. Meursault and lobster. Fine Bordeaux and roast lamb. Every wine has a perfect pairing, a match that elevates both the food and the wine. And for Aglianico, my perfect pairing is anything laced with salty/savory olives, roasted peppers, basil, and/or capers.

You and make that match happen with something as involved as a hearty southern Italian lamb stew or as simple as an antipasto platter of olives, peppers, cured meats and cheese. But with summer’s bounty starting to arrive at farmers’ markets all around town, my favorite pairing with southern Italy’s Aglianico is a riff on a classic from the South of France: Grilled Ratatouille.

This started off as a somewhat fussy recipe from Cooks Illustrated, but now it’s more of an approach than a recipe per se. Sometimes I have more eggplant, sometimes less. Sometimes I grill everything until it’s mushy, sometimes I leave things more crisp. And sometimes I leave it rich and dense and other times add a big jolt of lemon juice for freshness. It always seems to come out great, though, and as long as you make sure to have enough capers/olives and basil, I promise it will taste great with Aglianico!

Note: This makes about 6-8 servings as a side dish. I usually double it, but you can futz with the mix anyway you like and it will still come out great.

  • 1 red onion peeled and quartered, leaving enough stem to hold the quarters together
  • 2lb eggplant sliced about 1 inch thick
  • 1.5lb zucchini sliced in half or into thick planks (depending on how big your squash is!)
  • 2 bell peppers cored and quartered (yellow or red are fun)
  • 1lb tomatoes cut in half along the equator (more is good, too)
  • ¼ cup chopped basil (more is ok)
  • 1 tbsp chopped thyme
  • 1 tbsp capers or 2 tbl chopped black olives (or both – just watch the salt)
  • 3 tbsp sherry vinegar
  • 1 clove garlic grated or mashed into a paste
  • ¼ cup really good olive oil plus more for tossing/brushing
  • Salt & pepper
    Lemon juice


Brush both sides of the eggplant slices with a little oil and sprinkle with a little salt.

Put the other veggies in a large mixing bowl (in batches) and toss with oil to coat; lay out on baking sheets and salt lightly.

Get your grill hot; with charcoal, do a two-level fire; with gas, leave one row/side off

Get grill marks on the onion over direct heat and then move to other side of grill to cook until soft

Put the eggplant over the direct fire and grill, turning frequently, until they are softening (your choice of still a little toothsome or full on mushy)

Put the bell peppers, zucchini, and tomatoes (in batches) over the hot side of the grill, turning until both sides show grill marks; either continue turning over direct heat or move to other side until they are as soft as you want them.

When the veggies have cooled, rub the skins off the tomatoes and peppers (don’t worry if some stays on – no one will care).

Chop everything up to the size you like – I go pretty chunky, but it’s up to you – and put everything in a big bowl with the olives/capers, thyme and basil

Make a dressing of the sherry vinegar, ¼ cup olive oil and garlic (I use an immersion blender but you can go old school and whisk it together), and pour on the veggies and toss.

Taste and add more salt and pepper if you like and a squeeze of lemon juice if that’s your thing. Serve warm or room temperature with Aglianico!