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Taking stock of organic viticulture
Like many wine producers, we are constantly trying to make our wines as naturally as possible with as little use of synthetic chemicals and as intervention as possible. I will be talking more about organic wines next month as I am about to embark on a steep learning curve but this month, I wanted to set the record straight on organic viticulture and its current status.
One of the reasons why organic viticulture has been slow to catch on is because wine consumers do not demand a quality organic wine in the same way as the demand organic bread, cheese, vegetables or meat. This seems to be gradually changing, as organic wine becomes less about green marketing and more about creating a safer and healthier environment.
In the last five years, the rise in organic vineyards in the world has been very encouraging and today it is estimated that 5-7% of the world vineyard is now organic or biodynamic. In Europe, subsidies for organic farming started in the 1990s and were initially aimed at helping farmers during the two or three-year period it took to convert to organic agriculture, and the subsequent drop in yields that they would experience during the conversion period. Since 2004 organic subsidies have been more specifically aimed at rural environment; creating biodiversity with fewer chemical residues and better animal welfare. This has had a wide impact on the way we eat and source our food these days (Mad Cow disease for example cost the EU taxpayer billions of euros as well as human lives). Promoting better farming practices is a more financial efficient way of encouraging change.
Today French organic vineyard surface has more than doubled (7.5%, up from 3.3% in 2007); a more rationalised certification process – Ecocert and Biodyvin – and far more transparency than in the past, has helped the progress. What many growers have come to understand is that organic farming brings life back into soils that have been over cultivated for years. When Claude Bourguignon, the famous soil specialist told Burgundy producers that there was “less life in their vineyards than in the sand in the Sahara desert”, leading growers such as Leflaive, Pierre Morey, Dominique Lafon and Aubert de Villaine took notice. In Bordeaux, the stunning example of classified growth, Chateau Pontet Canet in Pauillac, has given the necessary confidence to many other top Bordeaux estates, including all of the first growths to begin converting to organics.
I have the impression that growers are nowadays more convinced by the success of organic and especially biodynamic farming methods than they are by the marketing advantages of making organic wine. Almost all the quality bio producers I know in Bordeaux do not even bother to state on their back labels that they are organic. Even France’s least organic region, Champagne, has had a change of attitude recently and all eyes are on Roederer who one hopes will do for Champagne what Pontet Canet has done for Bordeaux.
Biodynamics single biggest contribution to organic farming is the stunning transformation that it can achieve in the soil. To see, feel and smell soil that has been brought back to life through microbial rich composts (notably the cow horn manure, known as preparation 500 which is made from fermented cow dung that is buried for several months in a cow horn) is to believe. With some years behind us, the wines that are produced from these soils are showing that they are longer-lived, cleaner, fruitier and richer than in the past. With the organic movement gaining ground, more and more producers seem willing to take the necessary risks. As Lalou Bize Leroy admitted when her 1993 vintage failed in that very wet year, she got her biodynamics right but her basic viticulture wrong. Organic farming is no longer seen as a crutch to hang all our hopes on but a way to provide a healthier, more robust, sustainable complement to the way we manage our land today.
© Fiona Morrison M.W.