Supermarket and cave shelves can contain a baffling array of wines from around France and it is understandable if you just head for the bottle with the gold medal sticker from the Salon de Paris.
However, a new green sticker is starting to appear on more wines, and even world-class ones; the Agriculture Biologique logo shows that the wine has been made organically, or more correctly, it has been made from organic grapes.
As the wine harvest is in full swing and the vignerons collect their grapes and head for the vats, the vendange itself has changed little over the decades, apart from increased mechanisation, while the rearing of the vines has changed markedly. That has now sparked a fightback by growers who want to use fewer chemicals.
Organic or bio wines are taking off as wine-makers become concerned at the amounts of pesticides, weed killers, fungicides and other chemicals being sprayed on the land, the vines and the grapes.
Grand cru vineyards, such as the most world’s most famous Burgundy producer, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, St Emilion’s Château Fonroque and Pauillac’s Château Pontet-Canet, have made the switch, along with myriad smaller vignerons in the belief that what goes on the grape goes in the wine.
The organic movement says nothing should be added to the wine to change the natural flavour, but the reason so many chemicals were added in the first place was because vines and grapes are susceptible to fungal attacks and infestations.
In the late 19th century, France was rocked by a hugely damaging powder mildew attack, followed by the phylloxera aphid, which destroyed 2.5 million hectares of vines, bringing total wine production down from 845m litres in 1875 to 234m litres in 1889.
Once phylloxera-resistant vines became available, vignerons moved from the age-old farming methods – such as having compatible plants growing beside vines to deter insect attack – and started using chemicals to stop weeds or insects and to maintain production.
Organic farmers, on the other hand, have gone back to the old methods that focus on feeding the soil, not the plant.
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC) has produced some of the world’s most exalted wines – the 1978 Montrachet is the most expensive on the market today and its 2005 vintage sells for $16,000 a bottle in the US – but it has been organic since 1985.
The wine has lost nothing by the change: the 2006 vintage was described as a classic, “driven by mineral and earth rather than fruit”.
DRC uses compost made from crushed vine roots, fermentation residues and grape skins. It has also reintroduced horses in place of tractors to stop the ground becoming compacted. Now it has gone further and is using a biodynamic regime, where natural products are applied to vines based on a lunar timetable.
Owner Aubert de Villaine admits organic farming produces its own problems; in 2005, they faced a “year of extremes”, with a July heatwave, a cold and wet August when botrytis developed, and finally a warm, sunny and windy September that helped clear the noble rot. Conventional vignerons would have used fungicide.
Organic wine production is based on nourishing the soil to maintain its natural characteristics and getting the vines to push roots deeper into the ground to find vital minerals.
Producers say using fertilisers, pesticides, and fungicides has stripped the land of its natural minerals and weakened the soil. The vines have been left with shallow roots and the poor soil means poorer grapes.
Working the soil to improve it means that organic production is more expensive compared to chemical aids, which are relatively cheap, but, unlike fruit and vegetables, there is no extra mark-up for bio wine to pay for it.
The bio industry is still a tiny fraction of overall French wine production (last year: 480 million litres), but it is growing steadily, from 1.5 per cent in 2005, to 2.6 per cent in 2007 and 3.3 per cent in 2008. Many more growers are in the process of switching, but it can take four years to get certification.
With no price advantage, bio vineyards are aiming for quality wines to win sales as people become aware of the need to change.
That need could come from the likes of the French Institute of Environment (IFEN), which says pesticides are present in 90 per cent of water checks in French rivers
France is the world’s third heaviest user of pesticides, spending e2billion in 2006 and 20 per cent of the chemicals went on vines, which are just five per cent of the farmed land.
Research body Inra wants pesticide use cut by 50 per cent by 2018.
Leading guides recognise the new reality
INCREASED organic wine production has brought increased recognition, with Gault Millau producing a dedicated book, Guide des Vins Bio 2010, and Guide Hachette des Vins introducing a special logo for the 300 bio wines in its latest edition.
Gault Millau director Bertrand Clavières said they started the organic guide because more and more people were interested in the movement, especially women.
“Organic wine had a bad reputation in the early days – it was unstable and did not keep well – but as vignerons have learnt more about what is needed, the wine has become much better. You cannot say a vineyard like Domaine de la Romanée Conti is not producing world-class wines and it has been organic for decades.”
The Guide Hachette des Vins, on the other hand, treats bio wines just like any other: wines are judged on their own merits.
Director François Bachelot said: “We highlighted more than 300 organic wines with a special logo in the latest edition, but they should not get any other special treatment. There are good organic wines and bad and they should not be stigmatised, nor blindly lauded.”
Mr Bachelot said that the switch to organic production was a positive and logical move.
“Wine quality has improved in recent years, as scientific research allowed better control over the vines and production, but also because of an awareness that only good wines would help the industry financially.
“Heavy drinkers of table wines are disappearing, leading to more occasional consumption based on curiosity and hedonism.
“However, advances in winemaking have also had their share of disadvantages, with a standardisation of wines, vintages which have become too ‘techno’.
“I think we are starting to come out of this problem; at least, some hope is allowed.”
No such thing as organic wine, says EU
Strictly speaking, organic wine does not exist in the European Union, only “wine made from organically grown grapes”: the rules do not cover winemaking, just cultivation techniques.
EU regulations on organic farming ban chemical fertilisers, synthetic pesticides and genetically modified organisms.
Products that meet the specifications can carry the new organic leaf logo, left. Vineyards have to use organic techniques and wait four years before they can apply for certification as having organic grapes. They face tighter controls than conventional vineyards, with certification every year and one or two checks per year.
However, the ban on chemicals does not apply to the use of sulphites, which are preservatives added to stop the wine oxidising – turning into vinegar – a fault of some bio wines.
Many people react badly to sulphites, especially asthmatics, but restrictions on how much can be added are complicated because sulphites are a natural product of making wine.
Red wines contain up to 10mg per litre of sulphites given off by tannins in the skins and stems during fermentation. EU law allows up to 160mg/l in reds, 200mg/l in whites and rosés and 400mg/l in sweet wines. Any wine with more than 10mg/l must be labelled Contient sulfites, but without indication of quantity or quality.
Some cheap wines have sulphites added to cover up shoddy techniques, but some of the fault also lies with the cork, which lets in more oxygen than artificial corks and screwcaps. The newer ways of sealing bottles give less chance for oxygen to get to the wine, and less need for sulphur to be added.
It’s hard work ... but our product is good
VINEYARD owner Sean Feely of the Chateau Haut-Garrigue in the Dordogne moved into organic production as soon as he took over in 2005. He said: “When we said what we were planning, the chambre d’agriculture was horrified, as were our neighbours and many suppliers: they all said we would be too difficult.
“It was difficult, a lot more difficult. We could not use pesticides or synthetic chemicals, and we have to be much more active.
“We can only use natural chemicals; copper is the most important, as it is the only thing that kills the mildew. However, it is also toxic, so there are limits on how much you can use.
“The maximum dosage is 8kg per hectare per year, but we started off with 6kg in 2005 and have now got down to 2kg in our bouillie
bordelaise natural pesticide. It’s almost at homeopathic levels but we want to get down to 1kg.
“One thing we would never use is herbicides, because they are known to be carcinogenic and to cause hormonal problems. I can’t understand why it is allowed. It gets into the vine roots, then the sap and the grapes. Why would you want to drink a herbicide cocktail?”
As for his land, he said: “We see conventional vineyards, and their soil is so parched and baked compared to here. We have a lovely soft, crumbly soil and the roots get down easily to get the nutrients they need.
“That gives us a wine that tastes good. Although organic production doesn’t guarantee better-tasting wine, it will be better for you because of the lack of added chemicals.
“Having said that, our white sells out every year, so that makes us feel good about things.
Mr Feely said the risks in organic winemaking were many: “I have to work a lot harder to make sure nothing goes wrong, or, if it does, I catch it before my wine turns to vinegar.
“A sticky-tape smell tells me the yeast is losing out to bad bacteria, so I have to give it a bit of heat to help the yeast cells multiply: you just have to be observant and attentive.
“You do the extra work but there is no premium on bio wine – although some bulk buyers paid a bit extra this year – but my costs are 30 per cent higher and the price stays the same.
“On the plus side, the demand for organic wine is strong and we hope to get some benefit from that.”