The mood barometer in the organic wine industry has never been so good.
Importers and traders specializing in organic wines enjoyed two-figure growth rates again in 2006. But not only the sales figures are rising; in contrast to conventional wines, the suppliers’ turnover figures are also right.
Organic Wine is One Ball of Confusion
Organic as a concept applied to wine can be vexing proposition to sort out. It can separated into two elements—organic viticulture and organic wine production. One part entails producing the grape while the second involves the making of wine. If you want to avoid a headache or don't want to get muddied in a bottomless bog of perplexing bureaucratic definitions and regulations, stop reading here. However, if you are stubborn and insistent, read on, but keep the aspirin handy. Suggestion, if you get dizzy it is recommended that you read this with a glass of Oregon Pinot Noir to help put things in perspective.
What are Organic Grapes?
Any prospect for producing a glass of organic wine starts in the vineyards. As a concept or a philosophy, food is organic when produced in an environment that uses renewable natural resources and seeks to conserve soil and water. Grapes, and other organic foods, are grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers made from chemicals, sewage, bioengineering, or unnatural means. Natural predators are used to control pests; cover crops are grown among the vines and then plowed under to organically enrich the soil. The ecological objective is to conserve and enhance the environment's natural quality for future generations. And coincidentally, removing inorganic chemicals and mutant genes from your diet may also enhance your living quality and enhance prospects for your future generations. Enough proselytizing. Suffice to say that farmers who take on the organic viticulture challenge are earnest stewards' intent on preserving their natural living bio-systems.
Bio-dynamic Gaining Importance
An increasing number of winegrowers in the international wine market are backing organic wines. Organic agriculture has two cultivation methods: the biological-organic and biological-dynamic management methods.
Biological-dynamic is the production method named after the anthroposophical doctrines of Rudolf Steiner. This method not only takes material substances and the physical forces of nature into account, but also aspects such as moon phases. In bio-dynamic winegrowing, for example, the astrological calendar is also consulted when the wine is moved from one vat to another.
Future Trend to Organic Wine
Consumers are increasingly demanding organic wine – and worldwide. According to industry experts, organic wine is also gaining more and more fans among sommeliers and customers in countries like the USA and organic wines from the USA are finding a growing number of supporters in Europe. In the difficult year 2006, for example, the largest US organic winegrower Bonterra Vineyards, which uses both organic and bio-dynamic methods, suffered no drop in turnover in Europe and developed positively particularly in Germany.
Experts say it is only a matter of time before the European winegrowing cooperatives devote more attention to this issue than up to now. The number of conventional cooperatives that market organic wines and thus pursue a two-fold strategy is already rising. This is also advisable in view of the climate change, which is confirmed by the Rhinehessen winegrower. Particularly the use of bio-dynamic means makes the grapes look better and they ripen earlier.
When the grapes are ideally ripe for processing, they have a lower degree of alcohol than corresponding grape qualities from conventional cultivation, which must hang on the vine longer. According to industry experts, the alcohol content of wines is constantly increasing as a result of the climate change and correspondingly difficult weather conditions, which does not please wine gourmets and should be avoided. The arguments that support organic winegrowing are varied.
Organic Farming vs. Organic Wine
Organic is definitely the buzz word of the 2000s. Given the option, I bet at least 5 out of 10 people will buy an organic product over one that is not deemed organic. With the rise in popularity of organic products though, must come some education! Let’s apply it to the wine industry; there is an important differentiation…Organic Farming & Organic Wine. They are not always one in the same. Does all wine made from organically farmed grapes get made into organic wine? Is all organic wine made from grapes that were farmed organically?
Vineyards have been grown for centuries upon centuries, and age old farming practices have been in place to ensure quality. The wine market is much younger than the production of wine and the meshing of tradition with technology has only strengthened the ability to make wines of a place (to borrow the French term terroir is appropriate). How did organic farming come to be? Why has it become so popular? Advances in the biochemical and engineering worlds in the early 20th Century changed age old practices and opened many doors to new techniques in the farm or vineyard. Gasoline powered engines took arm power from the equation and ushered in the age of the tractor. This freedom opened the mind of the farmer, sometimes to ideas that were not favorable. Introduction of synthetic pesticides cut costs and also helped to ensure a high crop yield. In grape growing, quality wine is actually made from vineyards that yield fewer grapes per acre. So these new practices created a hurdle for solid grape growing and ultimately for making a wine of high quality.
Now, it is imperative that no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides are used in organic farming - and it goes much further! It starts with crop selection. In many vineyards are also planted trees, vegetables, flowers. This diversity influences the introduction of other natural wildlife and also increases the strength of roots. When vines struggle to find nutrients, they produce more concentrated fruit (which in turn produces a more concentrated wine).
Let’s take a step back. What does any of this mean? And how are we supposed to be educated on the matter? Magnanimous Wine Group (MWG) has shown more of a dedication to education and dedication to the principles of Sustainable, Organic, and Bio-dynamic farming practices. All the farmers they buy fruit from and work closely with are encouraged to join the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance - a coalition of farmers and wine professionals who promote the benefits of Sustainable winegrowing practices through education and ultimately through commerce. MWG has instances of Sustainable, Organic, and Bio-dynamic farming in their wine program. Now, getting a certification of organic vineyard status is very different than being a certified organic wine. The main difference is ability to say you are an organic vineyard, and the ability to write “organic wine” on a label. Certified organic farming practices often go unnoticed, because there is no stamp other than oral affirmation. The organic wine stamp on a wine label comes at an expensive price and often is rewarded because there are no sulfites added. It is not a guarantee of quality.
I challenge you to do your own research. Look into the farming practices of your favorite vineyard or winemaker. See if they have wildlife on their vineyard, if they have an herb garden and vegetables among the rows of Pinot Noir in the vineyard. If so, it’s quite likely they are organic farmers and look for no other affirmation of quality than you continuing to buy their wine.
What's the Bad Rap on Sulfites?
One of the hurdles to make organic wine seems to be sulfites. Wines with more than 10 ppm of sulfite must bear the label, "Contains Sulfites." And while the label connotes a warning, the fact is sulfites happen and the chemical actually occurs naturally during fermentation, primarily coming from the skins. Sulfites are nothing new and have been used as a food preservative for decades, often with fruit and vegetables. Winemakers have been adding small amounts to prevent oxidation and spoilage which is particularly helpful for aging wines. But sulfites have been used as a scapegoat for many wine drinkers as the source of headaches or cause of allergic reactions. And while there are a small number of people who may have sulfite allergies, sulfites are not responsible for the headaches. Actually, sulfites are helpful in producing stalwart wines that age well. Unfortunately, it is one ingredient the organic certification police watch with a careful eye. Adding sulfites automatically invalidates any organic claim.
Is it Worth it?
Debatable with no universal consensus. Producers have struggled to make wines with character and depth. Reducing the sulfites to practically nil can handicap many wines from developing a rich and profound personality. But many producers are improving techniques and their winemaking processes and turning out excellent and flavorful wines. And, similar to other food products, the supply and demand for organic wine is growing worldwide. As you would expect, the largest percentage of organic wine in the U.S. is coming from California, particularly from Mendocino. Around the world, organic wine is taking hold in France, Spain, Italy, Argentina, Chile, Australian Wine /Australia, and New Zealand and the trend should continue. Interesting point in the growth of organic wines: many winemakers are not making a concerted effort to get their wine labeled as such. One reason may be the certification process pain. Another issue may not be organic grape production, but rather in the winemaking. Many of the processes such as fining, filtration, and handling still have issues in need of qualification and regulation. Then again, the term, organic, may carry a negative stigma in marketing that wineries want to avoid. As consumer demands grow that should turn to a positive.
Sustainable Wine Growing
Sustainable winegrowing gives growers and vintners educational tools to increase adoption of sustainable practices and to measure and demonstrate ongoing improvement.
Building on major trends and successful regional efforts, the wine community joined together to create the Sustainable Winegrowing Program. A comprehensive workbook and educational workshops provide how-to information on sustainable winegrowing.
Participants self-assess their vineyards and wineries and voluntarily contribute data to measure adoption of sustainable practices. The statewide Sustainability Report documents results, identifies strengths and opportunities for improvement, and sets goals to increase use of sustainable practices. New workshops targeting the most challenging areas are underway, and follow-up reports will track ongoing progress. Partners from government, academia, and community and environmental groups contribute resources and expertise.
• Long-term viability of land and business
• Long-term cost savings
• Improve wine quality
• Prepare for potential future International Trade Certification needs such as ISO14001
• Enhance value of real estate
• Maintain and improve market value of wine produced in California
• Enhance relations with specific demographics such as European markets and domestic Green consumers
• Long-term viability of land
• Stewardship of unique and specific land
• Conservation of natural resources
Social Equity Benefits
• Health and well-being of farm and winery employees and neighbors
• Enhance relations with neighbors and communities
• Enhance relations with consumers and tourists
• Enhance relations with regulators and public policy institutions (Government, Media and Educators)
The Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Project
The Wine Institute and the California Association of Wine Grape Growers (CAWG) have teamed up on a statewide program to:
• Develop a statewide Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices (SWP)
• Produce accompanying winegrower and vintner workbooks to facilitate implementation
• Build a credible measurement system to document and communicate statewide adoption of sustainable practices by voluntary subscribers
The desired outcomes for this program are:
• Voluntary adoption by the entire wine community of the high standards for sustainable practices presented in the Code
• Widespread use of the winegrowing and winemaking workbooks in business planning, training, execution and analysis
• Use of the statewide measurement system to provide science-based information to evaluate progress in the adoption of sustainable practices by the wine community, neighbors, and the larger public and private stakeholder communities
• Validation that self-governance, education and an open dialogue with neighbors, communities and other stakeholders will enhance the economic viability and future of the wine community
This program defines sustainability as winegrowing and winemaking practices that are sensitive to the environment, responsive to the needs and interests of society-at-large, and are economically feasible to implement and maintain.
Sustainability as defined by the three overlapping principles of Environmentally Sound, Economically Feasible, and Socially Equitable.
Terroir is commonly used in English, and so may be seen either italicized or not. While the full extent to which the taste is affected by the plot of land grapes or coffee beans are grown on is disputed, most connoisseurs consider terroir to be an important part of both the wine and coffee experiences.
Exactly what constitutes terroir is also a matter of some debate. Most people include such things as soil type, sun exposure, altitude, weather, and drainage as being integral parts of a wine or coffee’s terroir. Others also include aspects of technique, such as spacing of plants, how the fruit is harvested, methods of drying or aging, and even the social history of the plot of land.
For the French, terroir is the defining feature of wine, with the grapes used being a secondary concern. This can be seen in their labeling and promotional practices. The fact that a wine comes from Bordeaux is substantially more important to the French than the fact that it is predominantly made from the Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Cabernet Franc grape. The fact that it comes from a terroir demarcated as being Granc Cru Classé is even more important.
Terroir is central to the idea that a wine cannot simply be reproduced anywhere in the world, just by using the same grapes and a similar set of practices. While one reason the French so strongly defend their exclusive use of terroir-based terms such as Champagne and Beaujolais is undoubtedly economic, another is just as surely philosophic. Terroir is viewed by many wine lovers as the essence of a wine, and by incorrectly applying a terroir term, something important is lost.
It is, of course, important to recognize that terroir plays only one part in the ultimate quality of a wine. Many critics of the terroir system have pointed out that sub-par wines are often sold to unsuspecting consumers on the virtues of the terroir printed on their label. A terroir can best be viewed as an assessment of the full potential an area can grant to wines produced there, but that potential may not be utilized fully. Certainly, there are producers even in some of France’s most important Grand Cru areas that put out wines that are consistently worse than those made in areas with an objectively worse terroir.