Why French drinkers are turning to bio wines

French wine drinkers are increasingly turning to bio (organic) wines after years of snubbing them as being good for the planet but bad to drink.

25 December 2019
Hermès heirs Renaud and Laurent Momméja are converting their wine-making operation in Bordeaux to bio
By Brian McCulloch

Interest is so high that France is the world’s biggest consumer of bio wine, with 195million bottles consumed.

That figure represents one in five of all bottles opened, according to a study by British marketing intelligence company IWSR, a world leader in the alcoholic drinks market.

The growth has been spectacular – in 2013, the total global market amounted to only 75million bottles.

Olivier Goué, organiser of the Millésime Bio trade fair to be held in Montpellier at the end of January, said: “The study confirms what we see on the ground, that the French public are increasingly turning to thesewines and that more and more vineyards and producers are turning bio.

“It is true that for some years, especially in the 1980s, bio wine got an unfortunate reputation in France but that has been turned around.

“Now competitions have shown that the wines win just as many medals as non-bio wines in blind tastings.”

Most bio wines in France are sold directly from the vineyard gate and account for 42% of the bottles sold.

Specialist organic shops and wine sellers account for 21% and 20% respectively, and supermarkets and hypermarkets 17%.

“Demand is strong from the supermarkets, but because most bio producers are small, they cannot produce the volumes which the supermarkets say they need before placing an order,” said Mr Goué.

“The big chains are obviously interested because all of the studies show that customers are willing to pay around 35% more for an organicwine than a conventional one.”

Much of the early bad image of French bio wines came from old regulations which said wine could be sold as bio if either the growing of the grapes or the production of the wine followed organic principles.

That started to change in the 1990s.

By 2004, all French bio wine had to meet common EU standards, both for the growing of the grapes and transforming the grape juice into wine.

Producers must not use synthetic chemicals as fertilisers or pesticides, and are banned from using genetically modified vines.

They must also use products and methods to increase the vine’s natural resistance to disease, and control weeds using mechanical methods.

Another requirement is to manage and increase the fertility of the soil by natural means and to preserve the quality of any water sources.

In the wine cellar, all the agricultural products used must meet strict criteria, including the grapes, sugar, alcohol and concentrated must.

Some physical treatments, such as using very fine filters, removing alcohol and electrodialysis are banned, and other additives must conform to bio standards and preferably be organic themselves.

It takes three years for a conventional vineyard to convert to bio status, but not all those who qualify put it on the bottle.

Both in Burgundy and Bordeaux regions, some prestigious wines have used organic methods for years without advertising the fact. “It is unfortunate but it is the way it is,” said Mr Goué. “The early reputation of organic wines meant if they put the label on, the price would actually fall. Hopefully, they will soon be proud to be bio.”

Overall, the highest concentration of organic producers in France is in Bouches-du-Rhône department, with 25% of vineyards, followed by Drôme and Vaucluse.

 

We are doing this both for our health and our drinkers

Chateau Fourcas Hosten is in the final year of the three-year conversion to organic for its white wines and its second year of conversion for red wines.

The decision to go full bio, after experimenting with techniques since 2012, was taken “for the health of our workers, the environment, the vines and the ground, and also of the people who drink our wine”, said the general manager of the property, Caroline Artaud.

The biggest problem during the experiments was controlling attacks of mildew, a fungal disease which thrives in the warm humid climate around Listrac-Médoc in the Bordeaux wine region.

At Fourcas Hosten, mildew mainly attacks in the early part of the growing season. “We found we had to change the way we work, with more workers on hand, and be able to intervene quickly when an attack is discovered,” said Ms Artaud.

“We need skilled tractor drivers and good equipment and the key is to spray the whole area very quickly, in one day or even half a day, to stop mildew spreading.  Looking at the vines every day and reacting fast is key.”

She said the treatments were limited as much as possible, but it sometimes happened that after a treatment, a summer storm would wash the copper-based treatment off the leaves and it would have to be redone.

Various ways to increase vine resistance to mildew are also practised, including spraying with plant-based tisanes, and the domain has worked to boost the biodiversity of the soil.

Brothers Renaud and Laurent Momméja (main picture above), who bought the property in 2006, say the decision to go bio was an ethical one but they understand why others decide not to do the same.

The brothers are among 70 inheritors of the Hermès luxury goods family and worked for Hermès and in property investment and management before investing in Fourcas Hosten.

Ms Artaud said it was difficult to put a financial value on the bio initiative, especially as they were still in the conversion stage. “Although we have been using bio techniques, especially with our white wines, since 2012, we do not get a centime more, let alone a euro more for the bottle when we sell it,” she said.

“That might change when we can put the label on the bottle from 2020, but the financial reasons for going bio are small compared to the environmental ones.”

 

‘Going fully organic would be restrictive’

It is an open secret that some fine wines in Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy use organic techniques but do not seek the AB bio label.

One of those is Champagne Lancelot Pienne, whose wines sell in the €27 to €65 range.

Gilles Pienne (pictured left), who took over the eight-hectare vineyard spread over a number of plots in 2005, said: “The move to be fully bio with certification would not be possible for us.

“The climate here, especially for some of our plots, is such that we have to fight against mildew or oidium.

“But we have found that using bio techniques, such as spraying the leaves of our vines with a mixture containing essential oils from orange tree bark, is very effective in reducing fungus attacks, and so we use as few chemicals as we can, but we cannot go full bio as it is too restrictive.”

In the winery, the processes used are mostly also those laid out in the bio requirements. “We do not use any products to clear the sediment, for example, and we limit sulphur use.”

 

Does the AB label lower the price of fine wines?

The idea that fine wines do not use the bio label because it lowers the price is now a myth, says Ludovic David, managing director of Château Marquis de Terme, a grand cru classé of 1855 in Margaux.

“It is true that, in the 1980s, organic wine had a bad reputation and having a label did nothing for the price – and even made wines hard to sell,” he said.

“But now there has been such a transformation in wines in general and bio wines that it’s no longer the case.”

After experimenting with full bio techniques on half the vineyard for seven years, Mr David decided that seeking the label was not the best for his wine – for environmental reasons.

“For me, there are two problems, especially here, in Bordeaux: the use of copper as a fungicide and the subsequent increase in CO2 emissions,” he said. “Copper accumulates in the soil and even with the reduced levels for bio wines, that is not good.

“Here in Bordeaux, we have a warm, wet climate and need to protect against mildew, and doing so with copper means lots of spraying because it washes off with rain, which in turn means more tractors in the vines, and more carbon dioxide from the tractors and more compacting of the ground.”

Instead the vineyard uses products certified bio-control by the French government and the EU, which exclude them from the AB label.

At the same time other bio practices, such as using natural fertilisers, improving the soil, boosting vines’ auto-immunity to fungus diseases, and increasing biodiversity are used.

Bio wines have been a tremendously good thing for French wine,” he said.

“They have made every responsible winemaker question their practices and boosted the level of wines overall. They have my full support, even though I decided not to join them.”

 

When bio is not enough

Some winemakers think the bio label does not go far enough and embrace biodynamic principles.

These were set out in the 1920s and contain mystical and religious elements, such as using the energy flux of the earth, moon and stars to determine when to treat and carry out operations.

Guidelines include “using plants to heal plants”, using tisanes of various sorts to boost resistance to disease and as treatments.

Additives are limited and the clearing of the wine is done by letting sediments fall to the bottom, rather than filtering or fining.

The main label for biodynamic vineyards is Demeter, and the organisation’s website lists 346 vineyards which have achieved it.

All Demeter’s label-holders must first have obtained the AB bio label. 

Those with a vin issu de raisins Demeter label are made with bio-dynamically certified grapes but not subject to restrictions in their vinification.

Those with the highly prestigious vin Demeter label face more stringent regulations.

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