All wines are natural but some are more natural than others!

13 November 2015

Organic Wine

For some time my wife has expressed her desire to drink organic wine or even biodynamic wine on the basis that they must be better for our health in general and kinder to our heads the morning after!

Whilst we both try to eat as organically as possible, our traditional drinking habits tend to veer towards the traditional areas of Europe. The problem with this is that historically these areas have been behind the New World in becoming organic although our selections have been very much on the basis of minimum intervention, and also the best of terroirs. I agreed however, that I would look into the topic in greater detail in order to try and ascertain whether organic or biodynamic wines do indeed outweigh the quality of other wines. We could then rationally take some decisions on the future of our drinking habits.

The first thing is to briefly establish what constitutes the differences between ‘natural’, organic, biodynamic, lutte raisonee wine. There is also the question of commercial branded wines which focus on ensuring a consistent product but which generally lead to a less interesting wine and one which I don’t intend to consider here in any detail. Suffice to say that they also use all the commercial methods and products available.

Natural Wine

‘Natural’ wine has no official or legal criteria but it’s generally accepted that they will be wines that are organic/bio, use no manufactured yeasts, have a maximum addition of 70 mg/l of SO2, no chaptalisation or acidifcation and minimal fining and filtration. The resultant wines generally have more character and can appear unusual in both taste and appearance but are not always to everybody’s taste.

Organic Wine

The central principles of Organic viticulture are to use naturally occurring substances and feed the soil, not the plant and without the need of synthetic treatments or herbicides.Therefore, no foliar feed fertilisers which can increase yields and unbalance soil ph and potassium levels. Minimum cultivation also preserves the topsoil which retains carbon in the soil rather than releasing it into the atmosphere.The use of cover crops and weeds help retain the structure of the soil and organic mulches can improve nitrogen levels and reduce trunk diseases. Natural predators such as wasps, caterpillars etc are used to attack vine pests. Bordeaux mixture can be used against mildew and fungi. The International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movement defines organic viticulture as a “holistic production management system which promotes and enhances agro-ecosystem health including biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity.” Vineyards need to be certified for their status to eb authentic. For example, by the Soil Association in the UK or Agence Bio in France.

organic wine

Château Pontet-Canet

Biodynamic Wine

In principle, everything organic but with a holistic approach to Planet Earth, the plant being sensitive to ‘life forces’. Therefore its cultivation must take cosmic aspects into account and planting and plant care will be influenced by the position of the sun, moon and planets. Also by using specially prepared composts which have been ‘dynamised and energised’ with the aim of stimulating strong plants that will defend themselves, better absorb nutrients, enhance drought resistance and ultimately produce ripe healthy fruit. Interestingly, Bordeaux mixture and sulphur can still be used. Again, growers need to be certified by Demeter to gain authentic Bio Status.

Lutte Raisonee or Minimum Intervention or Sustainable Viticulture

A ‘third way’between organics and conventional viticulture. The principle is that “the needs of the present must be met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. By using an approach to viticulture which minimizes the application of agrochemicals, so that they are used only when absolutely necessary and not as a matter of routine.

I think we then need to consider what dictates the quality of a wine and whether an organic or biodynamic producer automatically makes ‘better’ wine. The following will all influence the quality of a finished wine; Terroir, Geography, Climate, Grape Variety and Yield Viticultural Practices Methods used in the winery. The terroir, geography and climate (and its micro/meso climate) are all crucially important. Good grapes cannot be grown and good wine cannot be made if the climate, soil and position are lousy and the wrong variety is planted – organic / bio principles will not help.

It is no accident that the most well known wine growing areas have become the most sought after and indeed why the New World is experimenting so much to establish the best sites for the best grapes. Skill and methods of the grower in both the vineyard and the winery are obviously important factors. In the vineyard, most growers will try to limit the use of pesticides/additives/chemicals by using alternative methods such as planting cover crops, an integrated pest management system, using composts to improve soil etc but fungal disease will sometimes need to be sprayed with a copper solution.

Green harvesting helps both to reduce problems with rot through better air flow and thinning bunches of grapes leads to greater concentration in the remaining ones. Hand harvesting obviously offers better control than machine but is more expensive and can sometimes take too long. If, for example, rain is forecast or the climate is very hot, picking and harvesting may take place at night.

Many are trying to restrict the use of sulphur dioxide as much as possible but few are brave enough (or some would say foolhardy enough) to eradicate its use entirely. Oxidation is a danger that is unacceptable for many growers and most consumers. The aim has to be to produce healthy grapes as naturally as possible, minimising the environment that pests and diseases thrive within and targeting any interventions as specifically as possible. In short, a holistic, sustainable environment.

This does not have to be restricted to organic growers. Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop in their book “Authentic Wine” conclude that “organic and biodynamic farming will likely remain the preserve of relatively small, high-end wineries and that they won’t significantly lessen the environmental impact of vineyards worldwide” whereas “sustainable winegrowing” could make a huge impact. Sustainable growers will move towards integrated pest management practices and the use of biological control methods, taking an interest in soil fertility, adopting composting, manual tillage and the use of cover crops, maybe embracing organics and biodynamics”. They conclude however, that there needs to be some sort of certification that reassures consumers, that they can rely upon and therefore be willing to pay a premium for such wines.

In the winery, there are all sorts of intervention that can occur, but for a naturalist the less that occurs the better. The whole topic of yeasts is huge but simplistically divides between natural yeasts and cultured yeasts. The latter are more predictable but can lessen the individual character of the wine. Methods of maceration, fermentation, maturation, clarification/fining will all play their part in the final wine as will the use of additives. Whilst bottle labels must warn of the inclusion of sulphites many wines anyway contain natural sulphites produced by yeasts during fermentation.

There are different levels of Total SO2 that are allowed under EU regulation and taking red wine as an example can vary from 70mg/l for natural wine, 110mg/l for bio, 90mg/l for organic wine and up to 150mg/l as a limit.

Carbon dioxide and nitrogen can also be used and are again controlled and whilst many wines are now produced anaerobically, sometimes oxygen is needed to help the yeasts start the fermentation. This leads to a problem for those organic growers whose vineyards are not in the correct place. Having said that, organic, bio growers will generally take more care and put more passion into their wines.

Money also plays its part – take some of the larger wineries for example such as Vina Real in Rioja whose entire winery is gravity fed.

Organic wine

Vina Real

Organic wine

Château de la Jaubertie, Bergerac

It is an example of sustainable wine making but not necessarily organic. I could go on but I confess to a degree of confusion. Essentially, I cannot think of any reason not to chose organic wines except that it would mean forsaking in excess of 90% of the world’s wines as well as paying significantly more when they are available. Also, there is little doubt that it is easier to be organic in a dry and hot climate such as Spain or Chile. There has been some conversion in Europe but more to do with EU subsidies than conviction.

The tendency for the majority of good growers to become much more organic without certification has meant that many wines are now well made with the minimum of additives and are very ‘authentic’. But for me the main issue is that of terroir (and I include climate, geography, soil and position in the use of this word). ). For me, many of the best wines of the world are produced by growers whose vineyards are in cooler climates and have the best terroir, making wines of elegance and beauty which are not picked at such phenolic ripeness to take alcohol levels above 14%. I cannot forsake such areas, but organic conversions are increasingly available so I can and will enjoy the pleasure of sourcing organic wines (and maybe biodynamic wines) from these areas as well as others around the world.

This is not to say that every wine we drink has to be organic, but the fun will be in the tasting and tracking them down. It should take many hours of pleasure! I’m also going to start to compile a list of organic producers near to Les Milandes which can expand into other areas over time.

You can read an earlier blog about Bergerac wine here.