Organic Practices in Modern Winemaking.
Organic, Eco-Friendly, Sustainable Agriculture, Bio-Dynamic… what does it all mean anyway? Are there any real differences? Consumers today are more conscious as to what they eat and drink and are searching out products that are more “green,” that is, products that are produced in as natural a manner as possible. While many winemakers throughout the world have been striving to make more “green wines”, the consumer has become confused by the plethora of different terms used to describe so-called “natural wines.” In this article, I’ll try to clarify the terminology that is used to classify these wines.
The term “organic” is used to describe any agricultural product that is produced by strictly “natural” means. Of course, what defines “natural” is open to interpretation, and different countries have different standards as to what constitutes “organic.” For example, in this country if a grape grower irrigates his vineyard, even though it’s only water, the grapes can not be called “organic”, since according to the USDA standard, only falling rain can be used for the hydration of organic produce. In parts of the world with limited rainfall, where irrigation is absolutely necessary, they will make an exception, and say those grapes are organic. The same applies to fertilizers. If a grower uses commercial-grade fertilizers, even though they may be made only from natural ingredients, the grapes can’t be called organic in the U.S. Only fertilizers in an unprocessed, raw state like manure or compost can be used, if at all. Insecticides are also, for the most part, banned, even though they may be derived from totally natural ingredients such as marigolds or orange peels. Most organic farmers don’t bother with pesticides anyway, preferring to use bio-predator pest control; introducing animals that keep pests in check. Ladybugs, bats, snakes, hawks, crows and ravens are among the organic grape-growers best friends.
To further confuse the consumer, a wine may be labeled as “produced from organically-grown grapes” even though the wine itself is not organic. “Organic wine” has to be naturally produced from organic grapes with practically no intervention, other than crushing the fruit to extract the juice. Only the naturally occurring yeast on the grape skins or airborne yeast spores can be used to induce fermentation, as opposed to commercially cultured yeast strains. The organic winemaker is not allowed to filter the wine to remove sediment. He also can’t add sugar, acids, water, and of course, sulfites to his wine, even though these are all “natural” ingredients.
The use of sulfites in wine has led to a great deal of hysteria among wine drinkers (and a few hypochondriacs as well). Sulfites are a naturally occurring by-product of fermentation. Long ago, the Romans also noticed that adding sulfur to wine helped to conserve and preserve it. The U.S. government no longer allows wines to be labeled as “sulfite free”, although wineries may say “contains no added sulfites”. Since America is the only country that requires a sulfite warning on the label, it would be a mistake to think that the wine one consumes abroad is somehow “sulfite-free”. To cut to the quick, sulfites are harmful only to people who are genuinely allergic to them. (Considerably less than one percent of the population.) If you are indeed allergic to sulfites, it behooves you to avoid fast food restaurants and salad bars as well. (How do you think the lettuce stays green?)
In recent years, wines labeled “Bio-Dynamic” have become quite popular among “green-sumers”. Though not strictly speaking “organic”, bio-dynamic wines are often produced to much higher quality standards. Born from the ideas of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), Bio-Dynamism takes a holistic and homeopathic approach to agriculture, as well as creating a spiritual connection between farmer and land. The bio-dynamic farmer is encouraged to “communicate” with his vineyard. This is achieved by several means: reaping and sowing according to lunar phases and astrological signs, introducing “spiritually powerful bio-ingredients” to the soil, talking to the vines, encouraging wildlife to live in the vineyard, and minimal intervention in the farming of the grapes. “Ideally, the wine should make itself” say the advocates of bio-dynamic winemaking. First popularized in Austria, Germany, Alsace, and the Loire Valley nearly a century ago, bio-dynamic winemaking has spread throughout Europe during the last couple of decades and is starting to gain a foothold in America as well. Though it may seem like a bunch of hocus-pocus and new-age fluff, it’s hard to argue with the results. The fact is that a great many winemakers have achieved tremendous results from vineyards that used to yield mediocre wine by simply adopting bio-dynamic techniques.
In closing, it should be noted that a great many wine producers practice “eco-friendly” winemaking even though their wines are not labeled as such. “We’ve been making wine this way for 800 years,” a winemaker in Chateauneuf-du-Pape once told me. “Why should I all of the sudden label it differently?” Truth is, with the exception of mass-produced, highly marketed wines, most artisan winemakers do strive to make as natural a product as possible. It goes without saying that wine is as old as civilization, and has for most of its history been a natural product, derived from sun, soil, and sweat. A highly prized natural agricultural product in many cultures, it has been an indispensable part of a meal for millions throughout history… myself included.