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It may have its roots in the flower power generation of the 1960s and 70s, but organic viticulture has come a long way since then – and, says Julie Sheppard, you can taste the proof in the wines
Any self-respecting foodie makes an effort with organic produce these days. But what if you’re a wine lover? Is it possible to pay the same amount of attention to what’s in your glass as what’s on your plate?
The answer is yes. Organic winegrowers can be found all over the world but most people are sceptical about the fruits of their labour because the winemaking process still remains a bit of a mystery to most of us. An organic potato is pulled from the ground and that’s that until it arrives in your local shop. But an organic grape has to be crushed, fermented, matured and bottled before it appears in the wine aisle. Putting aside the winemaking, there are plenty of other questions about organic wine. How does it taste? Is it really better for you? Is it better for the environment?
To answer these questions it helps to go back to the beginning. Like the organic food movement, organic grape-growing has its roots in the back-to-nature ethos of hippie culture in the 1960s and 1970s. And like organic food, organic wine was a niche product throughout those decades and on into the 1980s, bought by the beardy Birkenstock brigade as a lifestyle choice, not because it was actually any good.
In the UK, things started to change in the 1990s thanks to food scares such as BSE. Ethical and sustainable farming hit the headlines and organic products suddenly had mainstream appeal. This had a ripple effect for wine. ‘We started in 1986 with 12 wines on our list,’ says Neil Palmer, co-director of specialist organic importer Vintage Roots. ‘In the early days only our friends and family ordered, no-one else knew what organic wine was. They had no idea of the concept. Was it made from carrots? But 1999 saw an upsurge in interest and there has been another upsurge in the last couple of years.’
This increasing interest has led to increased demand and competition, which has made organic producers up the ante. ‘The quality of organic wine is much better than it was 10 years ago. Now people understand that they have to make good wine in an organic way, not just make organic wine,’ explains French producer Jean-Pierre Fayard of organic winery Château Sainte Marguerite in Provence.
So what makes a wine organic? First off, you need grapes grown without the use of pesticides, herbicides or chemical fertilisers. Then you use minimal intervention in the winemaking process. ‘Organic wine is produced using the wild yeast of the grape. That is to say, there is no use of chemical products or synthetics,’ explains Alvaro Espinoza, organic winemaker at Viñedos Emiliana in Chile. The whole process is then certified by a national body such as Ecocert in France or an international body such as IMO (The Institute for Marketecology).
To complicate this definition, some winemakers use organically grown grapes but practise interventionist winemaking. Their wines will be labelled ‘wine made from organic grapes’ rather than ‘organic wine’, so it’s worth checking the label.
Given that non-intervention is fundamental to organic winemaking it is perhaps surprising that organic wines cost more to produce. If growers aren’t spending money on costly chemicals, shouldn’t
their wines be cheaper? ‘It
costs to grow organically because you need to do a lot more by hand,’ explains Fayard. Organic growers will spend much more time in their vineyards, weeding by hand and checking for pests and disease – and time is money.
As with organic food, the argument here is that you’re paying more for better quality. ‘It’s not an easy sell; sceptics think organic wine is too expensive, a rip-off. But because the quality’s there, you are actually getting good value,’ explains Palmer. Higher prices also reflect the fact that organic wine is still a niche product in the UK, accounting for only 1% of the total wine market. But according to analysts TNS there has been a 42% rise in sales in the past year, meaning that prices should improve. ‘As the variety of organic wines on the market increases value for money for will improve,’ predicts Marleen Stumpel, director of AdVintage Wines, who is increasing her organic list.
That said, there is already plenty of organic choice for under a tenner. Look for supermarket own-labels such as Sainsbury’s So Organic range or find organic lines from mainstream producers such as Chile’s MontGras, whose juicy Soleus Cabernet Sauvignon is up for grabs in Asda for £5.99.
If price isn’t a deciding factor, why should you be choosing organic wine? Producers will tell you it’s all about taste. ‘We expected to produce finer wines through organic growing,’ says Eileen Crane of California’s Domaine Carneros, which received organic certification earlier this year. ‘The surprise was just how much better the wines were. The balance, aromas and length on the palate all evolved up several quality notches and continue year after year to be enhanced.’
Christophe Mittnacht of Mittnacht Frères in Alsace, who has been a certified organic producer for 10 years, agrees. ‘Over time our wines have become more complex, less linear and more balanced.’ Like many organic producers he also feels that organic wines are a more accurate reflection of the place where they are grown – the French concept of terroir – because more of the goodness from the soil is absorbed by the vine.
More of that goodness should also pass on to you when you drink the wine, which is another reason to choose organic. A report by the French Ministry of Agriculture identified 15 pesticides that are transferred into wine during conventional winemaking, while an investigation by the Pesticide Action Network found residues of carcinogenic pesticides in non-organic wines.
Some believe this absence of nasty chemicals means that organic wine is less likely to give you a hangover. There’s some truth here: sulphur dioxide is used as a preservative and disinfectant in wine and is one of the major causes of headaches after drinking. Some certification bodies, such as California’s CCOF, outlaw the use of sulphites altogether, which obviously reduces the risk of ill effects. But others do permit it; EU legislation for example, allows organic producers to use two-thirds of the usual amount of sulphur dioxide. However since 2005 all wine containing sulphites has to say so on the label, making it easy to check if your organic wine is more or less likely to leave you feeling sore tomorrow.
So organic wine can be better for you. But is it also better for the environment? At a vineyard level, the answer is yes. ‘Organic viticulture leads to the improved health of the soil since organic methods build organic matter and increase soil biological activity,’ explains Georgia Chubb of Californian producer Bonterra. Organic growers will encourage biodiversity in the vineyard, creating a healthy and sustainable ecosystem. ‘If we are sustainable we can be sure that we can cultivate in the future. If we aren’t we can never be sure,’ warns Jose Zuccardi of Familia Zuccardi, who converted a big part of his Argentine vineyard to organics in 1998. ‘The main objective is to think in the long term. Our fathers and grandfathers were cultivating vines, we want out grandchildren to be working in the same conditions they did.’
However as David Berry Green, wine buyer at Berry Bros and Rudd points out, environmental impact isn’t just at vineyard level. ‘You need to look at the issue holistically. Organics, pesticides, herbicides, closures, bottle weight – they’re all part of the environmental picture.’ To this end scientists at the University of Siena in Italy compared the eco-footprint of two wineries in Tuscany, measuring the resources used to grow, package and distribute their wines. The results, published by New Scientist, concluded that a bottle of wine from the organic winery had half the eco-footprint of its conventional neighbour, making organic wine twice as good for the planet.
So whether you’re doing it to save the planet, save yourself or just to try something different, there are plenty of reasons to give organic wine a go. If nothing else, it may just be the perfect match for your organic Gloucester Old Spot sausages and mash.
Berry fruits, spice and a hint of dark chocolate, with spicy cherries on the finish. £9.99; Majestic, Waitrose
A dry, aromatic rosé with a pretty pale pink colour. Packed with redcurrant and pear flavours, with crisp limey acidity. £8.25; Nicolas
Amazingly concentrated Syrah-dominated blend oozing with black fruit and herbaceous top notes. £12.50; Vintage Roots
An off-dry style balanced by refreshing acidity, with intense sweet grapefruit flavours, a honeyed nuttiness and masses of minerality. £15.95; Berry Bros & Rudd
Fresh lemony palate with herbaceous notes of thyme and a medicinal tang. £10.99; Vintage Roots
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine - Autumn 2008