A Rant About Organics
There’s a huge amount of emphasis placed on the term “organic” but what does it actually mean for wine production, and the end product that we drink? Having fielded a few questions about the wines I choose to list, and why they aren’t labelled as certified organic is bright bold lettering I thought I’d create a broader explanation.
We can break this down into two parts, viticulture (grape growing) and vinification (winemaking), the later being where the majority of “organic” wines on the market tend to fall away from their billing.
Grape growing, just like pretty much every other form of commercial agriculture, underwent a chemical revolution in the post-war era as agro-chemical companies pushed into the market with full force and global agricultural output roughly tripled. There are a multitude of consequences of chemical farming, the most obvious being lower natural soil fertility and lower natural biodiversity and related disease resistance. Think of a common vineyard image of carefully manicured vines in straight rows as far as the eye can see with nothing growing in between said rows - this is a vineyard managed with the use of chemicals with the aim of increasing yield and decreasing the impact of vintage variation. There is obviously a place for this kind of agriculture, it would be overly evangelical to suggest otherwise, and there are some very good wines produced by these methods of farming, as well as the vast majority of supermarket style wine brands.
Now onto Organics.
You’ll see a couple of terms bandied around in regard to organic farming, namely “certified” or “practicing”. I’ll begin with certified as it forms the backbone of the whole process. Pretty much every country around the world has a certifying body for organics, one you may be familiar with is Agriculture Biologique (AB) in France, with rules centred around the fundamentals:
no use of synthetic chemical pesticides or herbicides
no use of synthetic fertilisers
no use of genetically modified products
Synthetic is the key word here, as you can use chemical products in organic farming as long as they are approved, and used in the correct dosage. These act via contact, and only have an effect for as long as contact lasts, rather than synthetic chemicals which are absorbed into the vine. Copper and Sulphur are two examples of contact products widely used in organic farming to fight varying fungal diseases.
Practicing is an interesting term, and a far more pragmatic approach for smaller producers. Certification is expensive, and doesn’t allow much room to manoeuvre in a terrible vintage, so many producers will not bother going down that path. They will instead farm according to organic principles, and in many cases going even further, however will use pesticides in order to save their crop.
If you’re producing wine in an area where healthy grapes aren’t consistently achievable in favourable conditions then maybe you shouldn’t be growing grapes there.
This is the grey area, and my greatest point of contention with the plethora of “organic” labelled wines gracing the shelves of your local supermarket. As we’ve already established, organic refers to farming, not winemaking. So, is this a misleading term? In my opinion the answer is yes, of course the same could be said of using the term “natural”. Just about anything can occur in the winery, with chemical manipulation, synthetic starter yeasts and various filtration techniques used to produce wine to a recipe more often than not. This is by no means to say that every producer who labels as organic is producing wines in this manner, far from that, it is a definite minority, yet one that controls a vast proportion of the “everyday” drinking market. Think of brands such as Coca-Cola, there is no variation here, as people want and expect a certain consistent product, and mass-produced wine is no different in this regard.
There’s currently a big push for ingredient labelling on wine, it being the only commercial beverage that has so far avoided having to do this. Whilst I think labelling is overkill, I do believe that ingredients should be listed, and it would make very eye-opening reading. I was reading a Jancis article in the FT about this topic (her longer one can be read here) and there was mention of an online database - a far better solution. The reinvigoration of the QR code ought to help in this regard!
So back to the original question that brought this writing on, which of the wines I list are organic…. 99% of them go above and beyond, and you can be sure that these have also not been manipulated and filtered to shit in the winery. I want to taste a wine, see the variety, see the region and also see the conditions in which it was grown. The day that stops I’ll just drink water.