By ALICE ALECH
Wine consumers today are more demanding than they were ten years ago; they are more health-conscious and more aware of sustainability issues affecting the planet. What they want is good, healthy wine produced under carefully planned organic practices. This noticeable shift in attitudes towards wine quality and health also exists amongst many winemakers. They have become concerned about chemicals being sprayed on their land and worried about pesticides robbing the soil of its natural properties.
Much has happened over the years in organic viticulture and viniculture (grape and wine agriculture, respectively), noticeably more professionalism and improved know-how. This has led to organic wine production taking off in a big way and more quality wine for consumers while still protecting the natural balance of vineyards. And, as consumers need to know what they’re buying, many countries have organic standards with organic claims stated on the labels.
The statistics for organic wine production and consumption in France, one of the world’s biggest wine producers, are encouraging: According to Agence Bio, the French governmental body for organic affairs:
- Organic vineyard cultivation has tripled over the last ten years with more than 5,263 organic grape growers listed in 2016.
- French households spent nearly 800 million euros on organic wines in 2016.
- Young people between the ages of 18 and 24 are particularly interested in organic wine and represent 14 percent of organic wine consumption. What’s interesting is that consumers under 35 represent 21 percent of organic wine consumers but only 14 percent of general wine consumers.
- One out of three wine consumers regularly drink organic wine.
Why do traditional wine growers turn to organic wine production?
According to Sudvinbio, the Inter-Professional Association (from the Occitania region of Southern France) initiated by wine growers to promote their organic wine, here are the main reasons:
- Winemakers make the switch because they are seriously concerned about the risk to their health: illness and death due to constant exposure to pesticides are real concerns for winemakers. Farmers are the first victims of chemical-intensive agriculture.
- They rediscover the meaning of their work. Winemakers give ethical reasons for their choice: respect for the land, for the environment, fauna and flora, biodiversity. They care about the environment and water resources.
- Today a real market exists for organic wine, and winemakers want to be a part of the movement; they have a strong desire to protect wine consumers.
Importance of a healthy soil for organic grapes
Organic wine starts with grape growing, a science that vintners must master – especially if they are aiming to produce organic wine. That, of course, starts with the soil. To comply with organic farming regulations, owners must refrain from using chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. They must use instead 100% natural products. Nonorganic viticulture allows the use of these chemicals which have degraded the soil over the years.
At Domaine Murennes in La Mole, France, the vintners understand that soil is key to their organic wine production; they work hard and continue to win awards for their red, rose and white wine. All their wines proudly carry the green organic label with the logo of the European Union. The family estate near the Mediterranean Sea is in an ideal location for grape growing: fifteen kilometres inland from glitzy St. Tropez and at an altitude of 300 metres. The winters in this region are mild with no frost, which means that unlike other vinicultures, the family does not have to worry about frost damage to their grapes.
Ivan Greslé who runs the estate says his family decided to convert to organic because of “our conviction and respect for the earth.” More than anything, they wanted to produce quality wine and to stop using pesticides on the land.
Greslé explains that organic farming has two main disadvantages; it can be costly and time-consuming.
As good weed control without using chemicals needs special tools, Greslé has had to throw out his old set of tools and invest in new ones. Harvesting is entirely by hand, it can be time-consuming as well as costly. Ecocert, the certification agency, visits the domain twice a year to inspect and ensure that all the organic regulations are carried out.
It took three years for the vineyard to be converted from traditional to organic wine production and Greslé’s primary task now is to continue nourishing his soil without using chemicals.
The question of sulfites – are they good or bad?
When discussing winemaking, the question of sulfites (or sulphite) often comes up. Sulfite is a preservative which winemakers add to keep the wine fresh – a useful additive to stop oxidation and decomposition of the juice. Basically, sulfites stop wine from going bad. They are a recognized preservative used in many foods such as dried apricots, which prevents the fruit from growing brown.
But some say sulfites cause people to suffer from headaches. Although this has not been proven, sulfites can trigger allergic reactions for some people.
Winemakers, on the other hand, have a point when they say that they cannot risk their wine having a shorter shelf life.
What’s important to know is that organic wines made in the U.S. have different standards than those in Europe.
European standards allow the inclusion of sulfites in the following proportions:
maximum sulfite content set at 100 mg per litre for red wine (150 mg/l for conventional)
150mg/l for white/rosé (200 mg/l for conventional).
With more people embracing the idea of organic wine, the market is developing steadily, becoming more sophisticated and allowing us to serve more organic wines at our tables. One thing is clear, the more caring organic farmers we have, the better the environment.
Cendrine Vimont from Sudvinbio aptly describes organic practices: “They don’t just spray some chemicals and leave. We consumers are looking for more pleasure with a good wine without jeopardizing anyone’s or the planet’s health!”