I have just returned from the 25th anniversary of Millesime Bio, France’s major organic wine trade fair held in Montpellier (pictured below).
As a reminder, organic wine is made from grapes grown without the use of inorganic fertilisers, synthetic chemicals or Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO). In addition, weed control must be by non-chemical methods. There are some restrictions on winemaking practices but these do allow the use of many additives, notably sulfites.
In those 25 years, the production and sales of organic wine has grown massively, with a three-fold increase in the last seven years. Spain, Italy and France are the largest producers of organic wine, with roughly 10% of their vineyards having converted to organic methods.
Organic wine in France is now a €1.3 billion market and export sales of organic wine grew by a massive 32% in 2016. What is more, the number of vineyards under conversion to organic is three times the level of 2014. There are now concerns that this level of accelerated growth cannot be sustained by the market.
The thing that stood out to me at the fair was how organic wine has gone mainstream. It started out as a hippy movement where the majority of the wines were poor. Over time, the quality of organic wine increased to the point that in some regions, a large number of the best producers are organic.
Traditionally, organic producers were smaller, more artisanal and less corporate. Now there are big companies with very slick marketing, producing wines that look and taste identical to conventional wines, except for their, often prominent, “Bio” label. The market has spread from specialist shops to the supermarkets and chain-restaurants.
According to the organisers of the fair, the challenges on the horizon can be divided across four sectors – the general economic climate, the whole wine market, organic agriculture and organic wine.
Even though the general direction is towards increased desire for organic products and improved environmental farming, there are several risks for the organic wine market.
On the political front, conversion to organics has been aided by EU and government funding in the form of grants and subsidies. If this were to diminish, it may make some producers unprofitable, as organic farming tends to be more labour intensive and use more fuel.
The niche market for organic produce is under threat from increased environmental practice and regulation in the non-organic sector.
With new certifications for biodiversity, sustainable practices, pollution-control and reduction in water and power offering equally “green” credentials, the organic bodies may need to increase their media pressure about the risks of synthetic pesticide residues and GMOs.
The anti-alcohol lobby is just as powerful as the pro-organic one. Promoting organic wine as a healthy choice is a tricky line to take. Also, consumption of wine in general is falling, so will this trend eventually hit the organic sector?
New science and technology threaten to leave organic viticulture behind. While it has succeeded in turning back the clock on the use of dangerous synthetic chemicals developed in the past, testing and scrutiny of agro-chemicals today have much higher standards. New technologies in the winery need to be agreed and certified for use in organic winemaking, requiring debate and agreement.
GMOs pose a conundrum. Organic certification completely forbids their use and yet the development of disease-resistant GMO vines could eradicate the use of any kind of pesticide, making organic viticulture the less environmental choice and more of a health-risk for farmers than those growing GMO vines.
Finally, it may simply become a victim of its own success. The increase in environmental standards across all of viticulture makes organic certification less important. Secondly, the spread of organic certification into the mass-production of “industrial” wines could erode the idea of them being a niche, quality product and lead to the same price pressure that has hurt the rest of the wine market.
There are also concerns that the huge increase in the market could increase the level of cheating by buying non-organic grapes to supply demand, falsifying the purchase of pesticides or using complex company structures to source fruit or carry out spraying.
The burden on the certifying bodies to check and control the whole process becomes increasingly difficult, especially when the wines are being made by large companies who also produce and sell non-organic wines from a multitude
The image of the dedicated organic vigneron ploughing with a horse and tending his vines by hand becomes further from the reality as the market grows.
Jonathan Hesford has a Postgraduate Diploma in Viticulture and Oenology from Lincoln University, New Zealand and is the owner, vigneron and winemaker of Domaine Treloar in the Roussillon – visit www.domainetreloar.com.
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