What is organic wine?

Until fairly recently, organic wine had quite a negative image. Partly because early organic wines on sale in the UK were chiefly entry-level, large volume branded wines, and perhaps more recently because of the often hefty price tag applied to organic products in general.

But this tide is now turning and organic is often seen as a marketing advantage. At its most basic organic means wine made from grapes grown free from man-made chemicals. It seems to be a pretty simple concept, however, as with many themes within the wine industry, it’s not always that straight forward…

Organics in the vineyard

This is where the concepts of the organic wine movement start, and it means that grapes must be grown without the use of:

• Artificial fertilisers

• Chemical herbicides

• Synthetic insecticides and/or pesticides

• Genetically modified products.

So what are the alternatives?

The below methods are used instead to treat and prevent pests and diseases, and improve soil health.

Some options include:

Canopy management

Canopy management is about removing leaves and shaping the way that the vine grows so that more sun and air can reach the fruit. In cooler regions you need to open up the canopy for good air flow to prevent mildew. Organic vineyards rely on prevention. Leaf pulling lets the vines naturally defend themselves against mildew.

Cover crops

There are lots of advantages to planting other crops in and around the rows of vines. They can increase microbial life within the soil, which in turn helps with soil structure.  This makes the soil better able to retain water and minerals, prevents erosion and compaction. They also provide competition for the vine and can help to attract predator pests.

Hedges

200,000km of hedges were removed from France in the 60s to aid mechanisation, however they can have considerable benefits to a vineyard. They act as wind breaks, can help regulate
temperatures, provide a habitat thus increasing biodiversity, and their leaves are a natural fertiliser.

Sexual confusion

This rather clever technique involves releasing pheromones to attract the male of a given pest species. This prevents them from finding and mating with a female and reduces their population and therefore potential for damage within the vineyard. 25% of Champagne is now protected against grape worm in this way.

Predator pests

By introducing a new species into a vineyard that is harmless to the vine but is a predator of those species that do cause damage. Cover crops are useful in attracting them. For example, planting flowering buckwheat will attract wasps, which will in turn kill leaf roller insects that feed on blossoms and berries.

Natural remedies

Known as PNPP in France, these are naturally made products, such as plant extracts, that can be used as compost teas and sprays. They can be used for a variety of reasons; to strengthen vine health and improve their natural resistance to diseases, or to prevent or treat diseases. For example, seaweed extract is said to increase a vine’s rate of photosynthesis and improve its natural defence system. It can also contribute to soil health.

It's all about soil

Essentially organics is about changing attitudes to soil. Moving away from the conventional view of soil as just made up of physical properties, to one that considers the life within it. Insects and microbes living within the soil help contribute to the soil’s humus content. Humus is dark, organic material that forms in soil when plant and
animal matter decays. As they break down they return to their most basic chemical elements, most of which are valuable nutrients needed by plants to grow. Humus
also adds to soil structure (which should apparently be like couscous(!): airy and porous allowing air and water to move easily through it).

In conventional viticulture where there is a deficit of nutrients in the soil, chemical fertilisers are used. However, they upset the natural balance within the soil and wider vineyard, decreasing life and with it soil fertility. Organic viticulture focuses on increasing biodiversity and reviving life.

Can anyone practice organic viticulture?


Understandably it is easier to practice organic viticulture in warm, dry climates where mildew and fungal diseases are less of an issue. However that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to achieve in cooler, damper climates. Possibly more important is the size of the vineyard and proximity of non-organic practicing neighbours.

Larger estates have the advantage as there is less risk of contamination from nearby farms spraying chemicals. The average size of an organic vineyard is 13.5ha vs 8ha for a conventional one. Likewise there are some methods used in organic viticulture, sexual confusion for example, that will only work in vineyard areas of 5ha or more.

Organics in the winery

In 2012 the EU introduced a new labelling term ‘organic wine’ as a point of difference from ‘wine made from organically grown grapes’, which reflects organic practices in the vineyard only.

This new category introduces rules for organic winemaking for the first time, limiting the use of certain additives and controlling practices. Some of the main stipulations are that the authorised maximum amount of SO2 is lower than for conventional wines, and additions such as yeast, gelatine and egg white should be derived from organic materials. It also prohibits manipulations like de-alcoholisation and concentration of the must.

Certification

Anyone can practice organics, but producers need to be certified in order to label their wines as organic. In EU countries, specific companies are authorised by government to issue certificates, control and inspect vineyards for compliance. For example in France, 80% of certified organic vineyards are overseen by Ecocert. They carry out between one and five inspections annually at a cost of €300
for the certificate.

Being 'official' isn't for everyone

Not everyone chooses to pursue certification though. Some object to it in principal, stating that those using chemicals ought to pay for certification rather than the other way around. Others object to the red tape or process involved. Most though choose not to certify for pragmatic reasons – giving themselves the flexibility to resort to conventional methods in challenging
years.

Meanwhile over in the USA, there are few certified organic producers due to the stipulation that the addition of sulphur at any level is not allowed. Again, they can label their wine as ‘wine made from organic grapes’, but many are instead choosing to pursue biodynamic practices and certification.


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