What does 'organic wine' actually mean?
Ethical wines are a key topic in today’s market. Customers are more aware and more concerned about the origins of their food and drink than any previous generation of consumers. Organic goods in particular are seen as being better both for the customer themselves and the environment. Here we take a look at organic farming and how that translates to the world of wine…
What is it?
The regulations for organic farming differ in each country (EU regulations can be found here if you’re curious), but the overall rule of thumb around the world is that the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers must be replaced with natural alternatives. The aim is to return the natural balance to the soil, allowing the vineyard to flourish with less human intervention.
How does that work?
Natural compost and manure take the place of chemical fertilizers, while crop rotation and mulching control weeds. Insects and pests can be controlled with humane traps, grazing animals or sexual confusion pheromones, which control the population and therefore the damage that pests can inflict in the vineyard. There are also a number of naturally-derived sprays and teas that can be used in the vineyard in place of the chemical alternatives.
In the winery, natural or ambient yeasts are used in place of cultured yeasts, and the excessive addition of sulphites or preservatives is avoided. Practices like de-alcoholisation and must concentration are forbidden. Any additions to the wine, such as fining agents, must have been derived from organic materials.
While organic produce has recently come to the wider attention of consumers, it certainly isn’t a new concept in winemaking, and due to the benefits, many winemakers have practised organic farming, albeit without certification, for many years.
What are the benefits?
We’re not doctors, so we won’t speak to the health benefits of organic produce. However, the beneficial impact on the environment cannot be denied. Cover crops between rows lure insects away from attacking the vines, and as an added benefit they also increase soil structure and fertility, reduce erosion, and increase water stress, which can be beneficial to the quality of fruit in wetter regions.
Water can be reused, because fewer chemicals are used in the vineyards and wineries. While composting reduces waste and doubles as natural fertilizer for next year’s crop.
In following organic practices, it is relatively easy for growers to promote biodiversity in the vineyard; this reduces the impact on local wildlife and increases the natural nutrients in the soil, which can encourage a level of self-sustainability in the vines. Not only does all of this ensure a fruitful harvest for today’s growers, but it means that the vineyards will also be healthy for generations to come.
So why doesn’t everyone do it?
Unfortunately, organic farming isn’t possible in every wine region; some of the best and most prestigious winemaking areas are too cool and damp for organic farming to be feasible. Smaller vineyards can also be influenced by the non-organic practises of their neighbours, which makes it difficult to become certified. The conversion process also takes at least 3 years and represents a significant financial investment, so it’s not an easy change to make.