If we are to be absolutely accurate, the term organic wine does not have a legal or technical basis. What we refer to as organic wines are wines produced by organic viticulture. All organic agriculture involves very strict control over any treatments used in the vineyards, avoiding synthetic treatments, chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers. Stripped to its essentials, the transformation of cultivated grapes to must, using natural yeast, is an organic process. It was Man’s efforts to grow grapes more efficiently, more successfully, which moved away from a wonderful, natural simplicity, thence to a growing number of interventions. Although very much to the fore today, the philosophies underpinning organic viticulture date back to the early twentieth century and the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. Steiner introduced the idea that man, playing a part in the harmony of the cosmos, must strike a balance in seeking higher production.
Steiner’s philosophy evoked further thought and what can be recognised as organic agriculture started to emerge between the wars, with an increased awareness and anxiety over industrialisation and its effects on farming. Nitrates, hitherto used mainly for explosives, started to be used in synthetic fertilisers. Replacing manure, these proved cheaper, easy to use and very effective, significantly increasing production and saving man hours into the bargain.
The counter arguments highlighted the destruction of rural tradition and a distancing from understanding and respecting the natural ebb and flow of a living vineyard. By the end of the Second World War, various organic movements began to emerge and, indeed, some biodynamic. It is important to note how counterintuitive it is for a farmer deliberately to reduce yields and expose his vines to attack from disease when there are relatively simple, solutions available. The organic argument is based on healthy vines, healthier due to the lack of chemicals in the soil, and healthy enough to withstand attack. Healthy living soils, rich in micro-organisms and worms allow the roots of the vine to dig deeply in search for nutrients, gaining optimal levels of minerals. Even the most ardent purists however, do allow that some additives are really essential and there is a list of approved treatments, the most notable being copper sulphate and sulphur.
There are organic methods quite apart from the use of biodegradable sprays – biological controls such as introducing pests’ natural predators. Ladybirds, for example, are particularly partial to aphids.
It is possible to gain certification in recognition for three years of demonstrable and tested conversion to, or continuation of, organic viticultural pratices. Certification is strictly and rigorously administered. Synthetic and chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides are absolutely forbidden and growers can be inspected at any time. Certification is run by the relevant country's examining bodies. France’s certification is Ecocert.
Biodynamic registration is through the Demeter Association.
nb.There are many growers who elect to farm organically or biodynamically but who have no desire for certification, their reasons for converting from conventional practices being health and sustainability related not marketing inspired.
nnb. Further confusion: There is another discipline called lutte raisonnée . Cynics are wary of this as it is rather grey as a philosophy. Essentially growers adopting this regime have stopped treating systemically and essentially follow organic disciplines, but they reserve the right to treat the vines if faced with a particular problem. At its best this is just a common sense decision to farm as safely as possible, adopting organic and often experimenting with biodynamic viticulture, but remaining free of dogma. It can however, from the cynics’ perspectives, be seen as a rather cosy way of allowing the grower to do whatever he likes.
Harvest at Domaine Rossignol-Trapet, Côte de Nuits, Burgundy
Green harvest at Muddy Water, Waipara, New Zealand