It’s only natural.
I am often asked to take clients to a “boutique winery” and it is so easy to oblige; in the Loire Valley there are very few major producers. The average vineyard holding is just 10Ha (less than 25 acres) producing around 70,000 bottles of wine. Often they are third, fourth or even fifth generation family affairs, passionate about their wines and concerned about the quality of the environment in which they live and work.
Most growers recognise the importance of nurturing and protecting the environment and a number of those who do not use organic methods subscribe to systems of cultivation which use only a minimum amount of pesticides and fertilisers.
Interestingly, only about 15% of French vineyards are currently registered organic – Bio in French – but the trend is an upward one, with large numbers of growers under conversion.
Why is this important?
The vine suffers from a large number of pests and diseases and in the 18thC European vineyards were nearly wiped out by the devastation caused by the Phylloxera insect and Mildew diseases, both imported by accident from the United States. Since then, vineyards have been subjected to regular and heavy chemical spraying to keep them pest and disease free.
These days many of our foods – including wine – contain detectible levels of pesticides, some of which have known harmful effects, while the health impact of others are not yet fully understood.
In reaction to this increasing reliance on chemicals in agriculture, many growers are choosing alternative, low-input methods to reduce or avoid using them. Research into the effects of agrichemicals on our health suggests this is an important change.
Certification of environmentally friendly wines.
There is was no legal definition of organic wine In Europe until 2012, although grapes could be grown organically and labelled as such. Since then the framework on organic wine production has been adopted throughout the EU and an AB (agriculture biologique) symbol adopted.
Organic and Biodynamic wines are now certified. To be a producer with the ability to place the word “organic” on the label the wine maker must use only organic farming techniques for a minimum of a three year period. Certification may be granted from any of the French Ministry of Agriculture regulated agencies: Ecocert, Qualite France, ULSAE, Agrocert, Certipaq and ACLAVE. Once they are certified as Agriculture Biologique vineyards they can use either the EU or the official Organic logo.
Biodynamic Certification is granted to estates that for a minimum of a three period farm their vineyards utilizing the techniques proposed by Rudolf Steiner. The same bodies that certify organic producers also certify Biodynamic estates although additional or different certification is available via the Demeter organisation. Producers with SIVCBD – Biodyvin on their label are members of The Syndicat International des Vignerons en Culture Biodynamique.
There are a number of different views about the best way to produce fine wines with low environmental impact – natural wines. According to “More Than Natural” a web site promoting such ideas, most good winemakers see themselves as non-interventionist, or natural. They try to use as few additives as possible and as little manipulation as they can.
Often they have to compromise at some point. Where and why they make that compromise depends on what they are trying to achieve and how much they are prepared to risk in order to achieve it.
More Than Natural tell us a natural wine is a wine made –
- in small quantities,
- by an independent producer,
- on low-yielding vineyards,
- from handpicked, organically grown grapes,
- without added sugars or foreign yeasts,
- without adjustments for acidity,
- without micro-oxygenation or reverse-osmosis.
Most natural wines are neither filtered nor fined. The few that are will either be filtered extremely lightly or fined with organic egg-white.
A natural wine contains no more than,
- 10 mg/l total sulphur if red,
- 25 mg/l total sulphur if white.
If sulphur dioxide is added, it will be only at bottling and only in the tiniest quantities. Many natural wines are made without the addition of sulphur dioxide at any point.
In a perfect world all natural wines would be unfiltered, unfined, and completely unsulphured. In reality this is not easy to acheive. The perfectly natural wine is seen as the goal towards which the natural winemaker is striving. Sometimes he will get closer than others. Just occasionally he will achieve it. The winemakers that interest us are those who get closest most often.
Exactly how a wine is made is not something that can be decided in advance. Each year, and each wine, is different. The winemaker has to improvise. There will always be times when, however reluctantly, he has to intervene to prevent it from spoiling.
Natural wine types.
Terra Vitis. Proponents of “viticulture raisonnée” or sustainable viticulture. According to this organisation of over 500 growers, all Terra Vitis certified estates are committed to observing nature and deploying natural vine defence mechanisms (e.g. : the introduction of typhlodromus, a vine pest predator).
The Terra Vitis approach includes a full range of measures to maintain and enhance biodiversity, the beauty of our viticultural countryside and a living earth:
Measures to safeguard fauna : counting grape berry moth larvae to avoid any unjustified insecticide treatment, the use of products that cause no or little damage to the fauna is mandatory (the list of products prohibited by Terra Vitis is updated every year), no use of herbicides on tracks, ditches, walls, water sources, hedges and woods is allowed;
Measures to safeguard flora : grassing between the rows of vines, it is forbidden to fully clear the vineyards of grass and wild plants as well as to destroy tracks, ditches and hedges;
Measures to safeguard viticultural countryside : sorting and recycling of waste in approved areas (plastics, oil, waste fluids), upkeep of the outdoor areas of the business, water sources, walls and woods and the reduction of doses applied compared to recommended dosage are included in the requirements.
Organic. At its most basic level, organic wine is made from grapes that have been grown without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides.
Winemaking techniques should be organic as well; little or no manipulation of wines by reverse osmosis, excessive filtration, or flavour additives (such as oak chips). Many organic winemakers also prefer wild yeasts for fermentation.
Certification requires a producer to study the organic standards, which cover in specific detail what is and is not allowed for every aspect of farming, including storage, transport and sale.
Compliance – farm facilities and production methods must comply with the standards, which may involve modifying facilities, sourcing and changing suppliers, etc.
Documentation – extensive paperwork is required, detailing farm history and current set-up, and usually including results of soil and water tests.
Planning – a written annual production plan must be submitted, detailing everything from seed to sale: seed sources, field and crop locations, fertilization and pest control activities, harvest methods, storage locations, etc.
Inspection – annual on-farm inspections are required, with a physical tour, examination of records, and an oral interview.
Fee – an annual inspection/certification fee (currently starting at $400-$2,000/year, in the US and Canada, depending on the agency and the size of the operation).
Record-keeping – written, day-to-day farming and marketing records, covering all activities, must be available for inspection at any time.
Biodynamic. Biodynamics takes organic farming to a new, higher, spiritual level. The father of the movement is widely regarded as being Rudolf Steiner who gave a series of agricultural lectures in 1924 setting out the broad principles.
His best known follower since then has been Maria Thun (1922-2012) who published an annual biodynamic gardening calendar.
Nicolas Joly was one of the earliest French vigneron proponents of the biodynamic movement, since when the idea has spread widely in Alsace, Burgundy and many other parts of the world. Joly studied at Columbia University and subsequently started to work for J.P. Morgan in New York as an investment banker. He was later posted to London, but in 1977, he left banking to take over his family’s wine estate Château de la Roche aux Moines in Savennières.
Dementer rules require the conversion of the entire farm (incl. secondary crops, animal husbandry, areas producing products for home consumption, etc.) Ruminants must be present in arable enterprises – the minimum requirement is 0.2 livestock unit/hectare.
At least one application per year of cow horn manure and horn silica is required, as well as the spreading of prepared manures on all areas of the enterprise. All organic manures (stable manure, compost etc.) are to be treated with the compost preparations. A composite preparation (such as cowpat prep, barrel compost, prepared 500 etc.) may be spread as a substitute on all areas of the enterprise which receive no prepared manure in the course of a year. Chicken manure may only come from certified organic farms. GMO free declaration is required for all inputs at risk from genetic modification.
Vine plant material quality has to be to Demeter standard if available and, if not, then of organic quality. Conventional quality may be used only with prior written permission of Demeter-International. Treated seeds are strictly forbidden and crop imports are restricted to a prescribed list.
Clear separation of product flow in all steps of production is required to trace a product back to the farm at any time. This includes transport, processing, storage and export, with the introduction of a lot number system.
It usually takes three years conversion time to achieve Demeter certification. The conversion time can be shortened if it can be proven that previous farming methods were organic or extensive. A valid certificate from an accredited organic inspection body is a precondition.
Biodynamic farming incorporates ideas about a vineyard as an ecosystem, and also accounting for things such as astrological influences and lunar cycles. Key to biodynamics is considering the farm in its entirety as a living system. To this end, biodynamic farms are supposed to be closed, self-sustaining systems. Biodynamics also sees the farm in the context of the wider pattern of lunar and cosmic rhythms.
In this holistic view, the soil is seen not simply as a substrate for plant growth, but as an organism in its own right. The idea of using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides is thus an anathema to biodynamic practitioners. Instead, they use a series of special preparations to enhance the life of the soil, which are applied at appropriate times in keeping with the rhythms of nature. And disease is seen not as a problem to be tackled head-on, but rather as a symptom of a deeper malaise within the farm ‘organism’: correct the problem in the system and the disease will right itself.
While they tend to agree on the big details, each grower can and will develop biodynamic methods to suit their own particular situation. Winegrowers drawn to this philosophy tend to be inventive types, always experimenting and refining their practices to see what works best for them. As a result, there are many different flavours and variations around this common theme, and it’s hard to define biodynamics in any sort of rigid way.
For the consumer, all this concern and attention to detail can only be a good thing, which ever flavour of culture takes your fancy. While pseudo-scientific apologists complain of lack of scientific proof, wine lovers are increasingly enjoying the fruits of the labour of growers and winemakers – organic, biodynamic and culture raisonnée.
These trail-blazing producers risk much to protect the environment and give us wine of this quality – yields are generally much lower and the danger of pests and disease far higher. 100% crop failures are not unheard of, when a grower refuses to spray to control Mildew in a wet summer, for instance.
Is the risk worth it? For these growers it is, and with the market for their wines rising alongside the awards they win, there are plenty of supportive anecdotal observations backing them in their effort to produce fine wine without destroying the environment in the process.