Many years ago I stood in the middle of an organic vineyard for the very first time (Aubert de Villaine’s at Bouzeron in the Cote Chalonnaise, since you ask ). I could tell the difference from the conventional vineyard next door with ease. There were flowers between the vine rows; there were bees, butterflies and birdsong. A closer inspection showed the vineyard was teeming with beneficial insects devouring the pests that prey on vines. The vines themselves had a healthy vitality. Afterward a tasting of the wines confirmed their delicious flavour, character and individuality.
From that moment, I was converted from my previously sceptical view of organics. I went back to the wines I had previously enjoyed, now with fresh eyes and palate. I discovered that, whether these came from the Old or New World and regardless of their style, many of them were organic.
Frequently, this was never mentioned on the wine label. At that time, I couldn’t understand why an organic wine wouldn’t proudly state its credentials on the label. As I delved deeper I found that some organic producers found some wine drinkers perceived organics as a new-age fad, and worse, saw organic wines as over-priced and in some way dirty.
Some producers see no advantage in calling their wines organic because they just want to avoid harmful pesticides and herbicides, or wish to pass on their vineyards to their children in a healthy condition. Many still farm their land in the traditional ways handed down to them over many generations, using methods that pre-date farming with chemicals.
Others don’t relish the extra expense and paperwork needed to obtain official organic certification which allows the word “organic” to be used. Some highly rated winemakers are even opposed to certification because they do not want to be pigeon-holed by production methods.
Most of us have grown up with the brave new world of synthetic chemicals brought to us by science and agribusiness; those herbicides, pesticides, rodenticides, fungicides and fertilisers which promise so much and on which modern agriculture has become ever more dependent. Why work in harmony with the land without chemicals when using them can reduce pests and diseases, increase crop yields and profits and cut down on the sheer back-breaking toil involved?
Well this view has led to entire ecosystems being destroyed and it’s an environmental dead-end. Ever increasing chemical inputs are needed to control the pests that evolve resistance, the chemicals are indiscriminate in their toxicity, they kill beneficial insects as easily as the pests, they kill the birds and animals in the food chain, they get into the water supply, and they kill people. Ever seen a vineyard worker in full NBC protective suiting? That’s not an image we readily associate with wine.
There are clear and proven environmental benefits from being organic, which is why more and more vineyards are converting. Don’t get me wrong, there was never some “golden age” of agriculture and it is harder to succeed with organic methods in cooler and wetter regions which increase the risks of devastating diseases and pests. However these days the latest vine management techniques and education can augment natural methods in the vineyard and produce quality grapes even in difficult years.
Artificial pesticides and fertilisers are also left over in the wine as chemical residues. While these may only be present in miniscule amounts and safety standards are set, is it really possible to know what levels are safe? Isn’t it safer not to have them in the first place? Their presence is not even shown on the wine label as wine is legally considered a single item rather than what it really is – a huge batch of complex chemicals carried in alcohol.
The wording “contains sulphites” has recently appeared on labels. Most wines contain them because sulphur dioxide is an essential preservative used to stop wine turning to vinegar. There are laws governing the maximum amounts allowed in wine because sulphites can cause headaches and allergies. Asthmatics are particularly keen to avoid them. If you’ve ever had a headache after just a glass or two of white wine then over use of sulphites may be to blame. Poor wine makers use sulphites indiscriminately whereas organic wines on average use just one quarter of the maximum allowances.
Organic wines are generally defined in law as those that have been made from organic grapes. The laws cover the only fruit production, not the making of the wine; hence not all organic wines taste great! But then again neither do all conventional ones! However if you have spent extra effort in the vineyard why then spoil it in the winery? Modern winemaking techniques, equipment and knowledge complement organic grapes and very often there is then less to do in the winery. The phrase “great wine is made in the vineyard” has become a cliché. However, good, bad or indifferent wine can result from good grapes, but poor grapes will only ever make bad wine – garbage in, garbage out, as they say.
Of all the organic methods used, arguably the most extreme is biodynamics (or BD for short). There isn’t space to explain the details of BD here, but it is essentially a form of super-organics where homeopathic quantities of natural substances are used to enhance vineyard health. BD techniques are now employed by many of the world’s top wine producers as state-of-the-art viticulture. How BD works is still not fully understood and it has its detractors, but it is widely accepted that superlative wines frequently result from using BD methods. As BD has gained ground there are now BD wines available at most price points too.
There are many reasons to seek out organic or biodynamic wines. You might want purity. You might be bored with the big wine brands that all seem to taste the same and want to find more individuality, interest and sense of place. You might look for environmentally sound wines that maintain biodiversity. You might want to try wines on the cutting edge. These are all valid reasons to find and drink organic wines, but ultimately they have to taste great!
If you already eat organic meat, fruit and vegetables then trying organic wine isn’t a big step. According to the Soil Association, sales of organic food increased by 30% in the UK last year and are now worth £1.6 billion annually. Two out of three out of us knowingly buy organic food. Health scares like Bird Flu and Foot and Mouth, resistance to genetically modified crops and increasing awareness of the dangers of junk food all help drive this.
Who sells organic wines in the UK and which ones are worth buying? Well, organic wines come from all over the world, from every wine-producing region and in just about every style imaginable. These days they are no more expensive than their “conventionally” made counterparts and can be found at most price levels.
Organic wines are stocked in many supermarkets, but the ranges are rather limited. You’ll also need to rely on the label and there’s no-one to help you choose. It’s a bit of a lottery. For the hundreds of interesting flavoursome organic wines that are only made in small quantities or that don’t flaunt their credentials you need to look elsewhere.
The best way to start your search is to seek out an independent wine merchant with whom you can develop trust and a rapport. Ask them which organic (and biodynamic) wines they recommend, and why. They’ll know which of their wines are organic because they often source wines directly from the producers. As their business will stand or fall according to their recommendations, put them to the challenge! While you’re buying and trying organic wines look out for organic beers, cider and spirits too.
We wine drinkers have terrific buying power and have the ability to influence how wine is made; it’s up to us to choose. Choose wisely.