We’re all going to the organic ball
Imagine giving a party where you invite everyone you know and tell them to bring their friends. “Be prepared to strip down to the bare essentials, or less.” A lot of them find a good excuse to stay away, right? But those who show up can’t stop crowing about it afterwards. So you give a second party and, bingo! more of your friends are braver than you thought! There’s a messianic air to their tales of nudity, purity and pleasure.
Who, given the circumstances, could resist throwing a third party? And in they swarm, getting naked as fast as they can, although a few cheaters hold onto their g-strings or flip-flops, arguing that they are nearly naked.
There’s an organic wine orgy going on in Europe right now – elsewhere, too – and it feels a lot like the strippers’ ball. “Bio” in French (please note: organic in English) is the latest wine buzz word in Europe (see About organic). Five years ago an organic wine tasting was a rare event; today organic is news and people who sell wine are gushing about it and rushing you to their organic labels. Wineries that not long ago pooh-poohed organic as wacky, quaky or worse are now extolling its virtues, some saying that while they are not certified as organic, they really are, or nearly. Getting rid of those cumbersome and no longer stylish insecticides and herbicides, planting something green between the vines, revamping the labels –
Organic in perspective
This is the point, at the orgy, where you need to start thinking for yourself.
There’s nothing new about organic wine, just more articles being written about it, wine merchants suddenly telling us they’ve discovered it and wineries that are going organic overnight – which should be your first red flag. A shift from what the industry calls conventional to organic winemaking takes a few years.
A common misperception is that going organic is about stripping down, getting rid of the bad stuff; that’s part of it, but it’s more about building up: the nutrients in the soil, the vine’s strength and more.
Organic wineries that have been struggling for decades to explain their admirable work, many of them pioneers, must feel a bit like the indigenous people in the US when they learned that Columbus discovered America. Oh? And what about us? Last month, at a wine event, I heard just that – a producer from Valais who grumbled, “We’ve been making organic wines for nearly three decades, and no one was interested. And now we’re seeing a flurry of instant experts for a process that takes time.”
Four key trends
The organic wine buzz isn’t the result of one trigger; it’s is a conjuncture of trends. One is recent consumer awareness of the negative side of genetically modified crops, albeit often based on faulty information, and this can spill over rather confusingly to include grapes. It’s part of a new concern about what we are feeding our bodies. There is in general more awareness of the widespread use of what Syngenta, an international agricultural supplier, like to call “crop protection”. The Guardian, like many media for the general public, last year promised us an almost saintly approach to drinking if we imbibe organic wines.
Organic and French, Swiss
Another trend is that a significant number of wineries in France, including some big ones, are going the organic route. When French wine sneezes, the wine world catches the bug, to borrow an old saw. Wine writer Monty Waldin, author of books on organic wine, has suggested that France’s organic wines were about 1% of the total in 1999; a dozen years later his estimate was 15%, and in the past five years the changeover appears to have speeded up. France is a nation that loves a good political fight. It was given one in 2015 when one well-known vigneron bio, Emmanuel Giboulot, refused to follow government orders and spray his vines against the deadly suzukii infestation. The court case garnered world attention.
The Swiss wine world is justifiably proud of its record for pioneering “integrated production”, a little cousin of organic that has been adopted by the vast majority of wineries in the past 15 years. But that pride is starting to feel outmoded and the question today is: so why aren’t more wineries making the move to organic? If your French is up to it, David Moginier in 24 Heures last week reviewed the situation, suggesting that while 27 out of 530 organic producers in canton Vaud, 10 of them newly certified next year (for 7% in 2017) isn’t a huge number, it shows good growth.
It’s easy to think, as consumers, that we’re the ones driving the change, demanding organic wines, with vague notions that they are cleaner, more pure. Moginier notes that sales of organic wines at supermarket Coop, have doubled (without saying over what period of time or what the base was – but it’s still a strong increase). The Swiss Federal Research Station Agroscope this week published a press release on the problems mildew has posed for the 2016 harvest, noting that many growers respond to mildew with more frequent treatments of copper in particular. “To the consumer, protective [chemical] products are synonymous with danger to health and environment.”
Making the workplace safe for growers, winemakers
The real drive, and this is a third and key trend, is coming from the people who grow grapes and make wine. “We’re interested in our own health first!” I’ve been told by a chorus of winemakers in Switzerland and France in the past two or three years. Working with herbicides and pesticides is safe if all precautions are taken, say the companies that make them. Many growers take exception to this, citing cancer rates and other health problems as reasons to avoid products that are banned if you want to make organic wine. The first time I heard this was at Raymond Paccot’s La Colombe winery in Féchy in 2007, when I sat in on an informal meeting of a handful of growers from the area who were meeting with an organic specialist from France. Making their work environment safer and respecting the land as their grandparents had done: these were the priorities. The benefits trickle down to consumers.
Consumers, prices, tasting – a conundrum
Sadly, it costs about 15% more to make wine organically, I was told during the September 2016 harvest in southern France. Consumers need convincing that the wines are good and the higher prices are justified.
Groups of producers organize tasting sessions, as a starting point. The first one I attended was in 2010, in Bordeaux. A group of Bordelaise outliers attracted attention, but not all of the wine was good, and the widespread notion that organic wines had a different taste profile and were often mediocre seemed justified. I’d just visited Château Angelus for the Bordeaux primeur spring tastings in the region and I felt like I had landed unexpectedly at a small, friendly but definitely down-market country fair. Only two of the wines passed muster for me.
Vinum, the European wine magazine produced in Switzerland, hosts an annual Swiss organic wine tasting session every spring at the Carlton Hotel in Lausanne. The result tends to be mixed, with some very good ones and some mediocre wines, but at least there I have learned to forget the idea of a different taste profile and simply look for good wine.
The organic muddle
The biggest problem with these is that organic producers still represent too small a percentage of total growers. You can’t generalize fairly from small samples. Privately organized tastings of organic wines are growing in popularity, but they are sales based and they mainly add to the muddled thinking about what we should expect from an organic wine. Wine writers often write for the industry more than the public, and they can get bogged down in technical debates over chemical versus natural solutions. The poor wine-lover who barely knows how wine is made in the first place is at a loss over the whole business.
The change to organic isn’t a fad, but it’s not quite a movement, either, in France and certainly not in Switzerland. The most convincing overall argument for organic in France, as elsewhere, is fear that we are wearing out a natural resource we won’t be able to replace, a conviction that is taking root slowly. Reto Michelet, one of the owners of Domaine Gressac in the Pays du Gard, a cellar that has produced organic wines for four decades, showed me around the ancient property he and his wife Laurence took over seven years ago. The old vineyards are scattered around the 115 hectares, edged by thick woodland and neighbour’s fields. He worries about the land being worn down, literally. When nearby woods were cleared next to a field, it became apparent that the neighbour’s flat cropland was several centimetres lower than the woods, simply from years of erosion caused in part by using chemical products and not maintaining the integrity of the soil.
The younger generation of French wine producers has learned about soil conservation and treatment options at their wine schools. Growers and producers are traveling more and wine has become an international business on a scale not imagined 50 years ago. Customers are no longer just the winemaker’s neighbours, but people who live abroad, with new ideas that have to be considered if a winery is to remain commercially viable.
While visiting growers during the 2016 grape harvest near Orange, in southern Chateauneuf-du-pape, I stopped by the Cave des Vignerons Chusclan/Laudun on the right bank of the Rhone. I was told that 14% of this large (200 growers, 3,000 hectares) local cooperative’s growers are now providing organically grown grapes. Managing director Philippe Amphoux put the conventional versus organic dilemma into perspective. “The number of our growers who are organic is going up but it’s still small, even though going this road is the future. Those who aren’t interested aren’t budging. And the gap between them is huge. For me, the big challenge is how to help move this big group that’s in between the two extremes in the right direction.” This requires setting up stringent and clear controls, but it will also take time, he says, and maybe a new generation. If growers aren’t ready to go organic – “and these are small family businesses that sometimes have to fight to survive” – but they’re willing to embrace some of the methods, “that’s a good start”.
Zealous organic producers scoff at this, reinforcing the missionary attitude that may long have worked against their wines reaching more than a small niche group of consumers. Organic or bust meant you proudly labeled your bottles as such, arguing that organic equals quality. Meanwhile, some quality organic producers who believe this approach can but doesn’t always equal quality were leaving off any mention on their bottles in order not to be sullied by those missionaries whose quality was not great. They usually don’t state it baldly. Instead, they insist that the winery’s reputation, and not the word “organic” sells their wine.
And that brings us back to the orgy, for with the new interest in organic wines and more information available to consumers, and a larger field of wines to choose from, organic is now a sales plus. More producers are saying that while the word organic may not sell the wine, consumers should have easy access to this information when they choose their wines.
A longing for what wine once represented
There is a fourth factor that plays a role in the growing interest in organic. I don’t think we can call it a trend – it’s more like a wave of longing that is hard to measure. I write for and speak to consumers more than to the wine industry, and my sense is that this longing is very strong.
Back up for a moment to terroir, the previous buzz word. Terroir wines sounded wonderful for a while, holding out a promise of the wines we used to read about. Hemingway’s beloved Margaux, Baudelaire and Dali’s treasured bottles from villages in France or Italy or Spain where the wine and the cultural heartbeat couldn’t be separated. In other words, the good old days of wine with a dose of tradition (a word wine producers are maybe too quick to use, says Swiss writer Alexandre Truffer). You had to take earlier generations’ word for it that the wines were actually good.
There’s a leap of faith here, for in fact all over the world wines have improved tremendously in quality in the past 30 years. Switzerland is a good example, as is Sardinia in Italy, where I’m currently visiting wineries. Quality is markedly up in many ancient, small French wine areas where maybe the knowledge and skills of the good old days were for a while forgotten. Or maybe they were never the purveyance of every winemaker. Terroir is thus now an entrenched marketing tool, since it is within reach of any determined wine producer with decent land for vines.
Enter organic, now maturing into an earthy temptress, something that could give back to wine-lovers what the heavily competitive wineselling world risks overlooking as it vies for control over the next generation of wine buyerstr.
We’re longing, many of us, for wines with some tradition, romance, simplicity. Wine is the one agricultural product, worldwide, that gives us a rich blend of history, farming, social culture, culinary and other arts, a complex bundle in a bottle.
Organic has much to offer us. I suggest we, the drinkers of the world, embrace these wines – just not stupidly because they’re suddenly everywhere. Tune out the sellers’ barking and listen to the wines themselves – and ask producers to mention “organic” on their bottles so you can taste freely and decide for yourself if they are different, better, better for you and for the world.
- Basic bumpf on organic wines
- Organic wines along the southern Rhone river
- Domaine de Gressac, oganic wines as part of mixed farming