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08 November 2010

Organic half-truths

You might have noticed a slight organic slant on these pages and on WineWriting.com. But I'm getting a bit fed up with reading organic winery websites and brochures, or people writing about organic winegrowing even, claiming they "don't use any chemicals." Let's just stop misleading wine enthusiasts about what organic winegrowing is and isn't (admittedly I did recently read one site using the more accurate terms "no pesticides or herbicides," which implies artificial and nasty). Copper and sulphur based "products" might be considered "natural chemicals" - they are elements found in nature and the human organism in tiny amounts - but let's not forget they are also rather toxic if you use too much, for people and the earth. Potions such as copper sulphate solution are sanctioned under organic farming regulations (read on for more on that), so please start communicating the message better to those interested and explain what you use and why. Even so-called "natural" winemakers do use these, although certain people experiment with e.g. SO2 (sulphur dioxide)-free winemaking, some more successfully than others. Ever had one of those wines where the overriding smell / flavour is like real cider, even a red? Or that initially enticing rustic character is perhaps just a little too developed (invaded by brettanomyces, a wild "spoilage" yeast)?
Anyway, it's perhaps worth rehashing, to add a little detail, something I wrote after Millésime Bio organic wine show in 2006 (and I've been going every year since: see this blurb on my other site with links to profiles on two dozen hot organic producers), which still holds true enough:
"Organic: what and why? A few facts and thoughts... Organic doesn't necessarily mean guaranteed or better quality, but overall wine quality is now much higher than say ten years ago. Organic growers rightly claim it's more about a whole way of life, and there's little doubt that this philosophy, coupled with fussy attention in the vineyard, can produce superb grapes. Here are a few facts about certified organic status (said to be more strictly controlled than for "conventional" appellation regs) to highlight the main points: The conversion period is three years so commitment and dedication are required, especially as the vines are probably more vulnerable during this transition stage. No synthetic or systemic (which penetrate into the plant's organism and deep into the soil) chemicals or fertilisers are used in the vineyard, but "natural chemical" substances such as copper sulphate solution (against mildew) and sulphur dioxide (a preservative among other uses) are permitted. However, max levels of SO2 in winemaking are sometimes half that for non-organic (although not always). The idea is to foster living soil, biodiversity in the vineyard and hence naturally healthy vines. It goes without saying that genetically engineered vines and winemaking products, such as GM yeast, are not tolerated. Some organic winemakers might use standard commercial yeasts if necessary; but e.g. full-Monty biodynamic growers wouldn't normally add them, as indigenous yeasts on the grapes are considered part of the terroir. The whole philosophy should carry through down the line, in terms of managing winery waste, water supply, carbon emissions, packaging etc. At the end of the day, it doesn't make a lot of sense to go on about the importance of your terroir, yet systematically destroy it with potent chemicals!" There, I got that off my chest...

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Header image: Château de Flandry, Limoux, Languedoc. Background: Vineyard near Terrats in Les Aspres, Roussillon.