LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND – Lavaux is about to put to rest forever the idea that organic wines are second-best, following a decision by a group of growers-producers Wednesday evening to stop using all synthetic products and to sharply curb the number of vine treatments by helicopters, from 7-8 a year to 4.
The vote by producers from three communes who met in Cully follows a similar decision a week ago by another group of communes, meaning that the entire Lavaux region will now seek certification from Biosuisse, the official body for organic products.
Biosuisse is the federation of Swiss organic farmers, with 6,000 members. Certified farms, including those with vines, are allowed to use the “organic bud” symbol.
Lavaux’s white wines, notably Chasselas, are considered some of the best in Switzerland, and the area, with its magnificent terraced vineyards that overhang Lake Geneva, is also known for some notable red wines. A large percentage already produce wines that meet many of the requirements for organic or biodynamic wines, but certification would make a clear statement about the region’s wines.
The producers have been in discussion with Biosuisse for some time about how to continue treating their vines using helicopters, while meeting requirements for certification.
The group that met in Cully Wednesday night represents vignerons in Villette, Cully and Grandvaux; other Lavaux communes voted 25 November. Last night’s decision will reduce from 7-8 treatments a season to just 4, and the three helicopter companies that work with growers will no longer spray with synthetic chemical treatments. One of the producers told me that every year the number of acceptable synthetic products is reduced, “so why not just go all the way and ban them”?
Considerations are philosophical and pragmatic – working with synthetic products carries a risk for the land but also for humans. But in Lavaux there are a number of special management considerations.
Helicopters are used because of the difficulty of manual treatments to fight grapevine diseases manually on the very steep slopes, and because they can have less of an environmental impact than smaller machines. Vine parcels are often small and one producer might have several parcels in different communes. If the vines are treated organically and they are bordered by vines treated with synthetic products, a border of 5 metres is officially required between the vines for organic certification. A producer who wants to be certified organic needs all of his or her vine parcels to meet requirements, not just some, and if they are not contiguous it might not be possible.
Helicopter sprayings also cause a public relations problem in Lavaux, which relies on tourism; the region to the west of Vevey was named a Unesco World Heritage site in 2007 for its millennium-old terraced vineyards.
If the producers do succeed in obtaining organic wine certification, they will still have work to do, educating the public: organic vines are still treated, albeit with organic products, as part of a broader approach that encourages biodiversity and long-term development of the soil, so critical to quality wines.
The sprayings start in late April or May, once there are at least five leaves on the vines. Biosuisse and Lavaux’s growers now have the winter to consider if the helicopter treatments can be allowed, for the area to be certified.