Updated: Apr 10
More and more often we see 'organic' wine or sparkling wine - not just in specialist shops, also in mainstream and even budget supermarkets. What is that and is it worth it?
First, it was the rise of the organic food
Food is as much a necessity as a means of social distinction. You are what you eat and, more importantly, what you're seen to be eating (not least by your health insurance!).
Over the past few decades the interest in organic food, which, for the purpose of this article, we shall loosely define as food that is not genetically modified and has been grown without the use of pesticides, has soared.
If you're interested in what organic food is in more detail we would like to refer you to our little blogpost of our own which you will find helpful here.
The movement has long outgrown its infancy when only hardened followers of the organic lifestyle bought crumpled, limp, and dirty veggies that were everything but saliva inducing in dingy shops normal people were happy to leave again as soon as possible.
Today's bio-supermarkets are as chic and as fancy as any supermarket could hope to be (well, as their non-bio brothers anyway) and buying products which are labelled 'bio' or 'eco' (and paying 20 to 30 cent extra for it!) has become the new cool.
Then, the rise of organic wine
It is hardly any wonder that this trend has also reached the alcoholic drinks segment, and it makes perfect sense to accompany your organically raised steak and organically grown veggies with wine or beer that's been made according to organic standards too.
The problems with non-bio wine farming are similar to those of many other areas of intensive farming, i.e. they rely on large mono-cultures to allow for a high degree of mechanisation.
While a high degree of mechanisation is beneficial from an economic point of view large mono-cultures tend to be susceptible to pests and diseases.
Such pests and diseases (in the case of winemaking e.g. Harmonia axyrides, vulgo ladybird beetles, or Brettanomyces, an acid-generating yeast that can form on the surface of the grapes) then have to be staved off using pesticides and suchlike.
Many vintners have made tremendous efforts in 'organifying' their vineyards and their results may well make them proud, if the sommeliers are to be believed.
Key appears to be the introduction of biodiversity. As most living entities serve as food for some other living entity unwanted pests such as ladybird beetles will be effectively kept under control by Species B that feeds on them (such as tits), provided that species B finds the habitat to its liking.
Tits, for instance, can gather some 25 g of insects every day - not bad for a bird whose live weight is between 5 and 50 g, depending on subspecies.
By creating suitable surroundings for a large number of different species of both flora and fauna the resulting ecosystem equilibrates itself and allows the vintner to avoid the use of pesticides.
The region of Alsace in the north-west of France has made enormous efforts in moving towards re-introducing lost biodiversity, culminating in the handing large areas of of prime wine-growing land back to nature.
This has given a boost to both flora and fauna diversity with the very tangible effect that most vintners can forego the use of pesticides entirely, even those allowed under bio-legislation. Nowadays, the vast majority of vintners in the Alsace region are certified as bio or even biodynamic.
Alsace wine route
In another corner of the world, in Lodi, California, winegrowers have found together and have, with some external expertise, developed a holistic concept regarding sustainable wine-growing, with respect to biological aspects (management of resources such as water and soil) but also to business and human resources management.
Nowadays, their findings have been codified into the 'Lodi rules' and wine-growers can be certified according to them.
Vineyard in California Napa valley
In yet another corner of the world, in New Zealand, a 'Sustainable Winegrowers Programme' was introduced in 1995 as a framework of industry standards. The aim was to achieve these standards nationwide by vintage 2012.
Nowadays, 98% (by area) of the country's wine is certified as according to this scheme.
What can science do to help?
Apart from 'going back to nature', what can science do to help? Well, that question would beg the next question, i.e. which science?, and the answer to this question is: Various different scientific fields and disciplines have got their role to play.
Biology and chemistry are obviously involved in describing and analysing the effects of sustainable practices, but economics and social science are important to spread said good practices, however, it is of paramount importance that the science is A) rigorous and sound as well as B) well communicated.
What about labels?
From the consumers' point of view there are two major labels to look out for: Organic and biodynamic.
The first one has a legally defined meaning. Wines labelled as 'organic' have to meet certain criteria and carry the relevant label after the vineyard has been assessed, found to conform to the pertinent standards and certified accordingly.
In the US such wine will then carry the seal of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), in the EU it will carry the EU 'organic' seal. This applies to both 'normal' as well as sparkling wines.
That said, biodynamic wines are generally grown to even more strict rules than simple 'organic' wine. To be sure the wine in question actually is biodynamic watch out for the 'BioDyVin' or 'Demeter' seal.
Again, this applies to both 'normal' as well as sparkling wines.
A growing market also attracts shady players. Wines are labelled as 'sustainable' or 'clear' or similar. These terms mean exactly as much as the promises found on various cosmetic products, i.e. zilch; there is no regulatory framework behind them that could tie claims to verifiable facts.
Wine, wine, wine... and Champagne?
Do the above principles and remarks apply to the world of sparkling wines such as champagne as well?
Organic wine farming is not that young any more - some vintners are in the organic business for well over 30 years now and as has been pointed out above whole regions have gone organic.
In the Champagne world the trend is younger and far less pronounced.
Anno domini 2017 not even 2% of the wine-farming area in the Champagne region of France was certified as organic. Why this difference to the rest of the world?
While there are some 2000 champagne houses who make their champagne exclusively from their own grapes there are many, many more houses who buy grapes from other farmers and blend the grape juices.
The bigger the house, the more common this practice becomes.
For these manufacturers it would be extremely difficult to get an organic certification because they would have to get all of the individual farmers whose grapes they buy on board as well.
One of the first big Champagne houses to go biodynamic was Louis Roederer.
Their cellar master began experimenting with biodynamic methods about 20 years ago and had to face criticism and ridicule from his colleagues in other houses.
In an interview with sevenfifty.com he explains:
“Biodynamic works on the top terroir. Biodynamic is no magic, it can fine-tune and really give an extra dimension to top terroir, but in my experience it just doesn’t work on difficult terroir, because difficult terroir is difficult, and maybe on those terroirs you need chemistry!”
While the numbers for organically farmed Champagne are nowhere near those in the general wine world things are stirring in the Champagne region.
So, is the organic wine worth it?
This brings us to the end of this little article. At the beginning we asked whether organic wine is worth it. The answer to this question is a big CAVEAT:
Wine doesn't taste any better just because it's bio(dynamic) - it's just better for the environment.
If that is a key argument for you - go for it but keep in mind that if any given wine tastes good that's chiefly due to the soil on which the grapes were grown and the vintner's expertise, bio(dynamic) or not. Cheers!
1) For a more detailed discussion of bio-labels and what they mean, please see: Our own article "Bio sells - Eco-labels and what they mean"
2) https://www.arte.tv/de/videos/082191-006-A/die-wunderbare-welt-der-weine/ (last accessed 2020.09.09)
3) https://www.lodigrowers.com/certification/ (last accessed 2020.09.16)
4) Santini et al., Agricultural and Food Economics, 2013, 1, 9, and references therein
5) https://www.nzwine.com/en/sustainability/ (last accessed 2020.09.16)