Organic grapes vs organic wines
For many years in the EU, the only certification was for "wine made from organically grown grapes" as no legal framework was in place for winery practices. But the term "organic wine", defined in EU law since 2012, also deals with use of additives and other practices in the winery, with focus on sulfur additions but also covering enzymes, cultivated yeasts, acid adjustments and so forth.
|Making Sense of Organic Wine|
|Organic Wines Keep it on the Lowdown|
|America vs. Europe: The Organic Divide|
Before 2012, the term "natural wine" began to be used by those who made, sold or drank wines made with no or minimal chemical additives. Given the leeway on sulfites in current EU regulations, attempts are now being made to codify this movement.
The topic of natural wines and organic enological processes will be examined further in the third instalment of this series.
The concept of certification creates much controversy, as do the complexities of the various processes to gain certification. This is tied up with the motivating factors for growing organically or biodynamically.
As mentioned in part one, some practitioners of organic and biodynamic farming say they do it to make the best possible wine and preserve their land for their land in a healthy state for their children. Marketing is based on wine quality, not organic farming per se, so certification could be seen as unnecessary, and some producers even characterize it as a tax on organic farming. Some advocates say organic methods should be the norm, and it should be chemical users who are certified.
Phrases avoiding the word "organic" that often turn up to describe uncertified producers include "farming without the use of synthetic herbicides, pesticides and fungicides", though the consumer must trust in the producer and/or suppliers as to what such phrases really mean.
Certified organic producers often object to wines from uncertified producers being identified as organic in the marketplace. The latter have not gone to the same effort (in terms of paperwork) and expense, or undergone the same scrutiny. They can also spray fungicides if a particular problem arises in the growing season. This debate has led to some quite heated exchanges between the different camps, when one might think they shared many common values.
In biodynamics, Demeter – owned by the International Biodynamic Assocation – is the default certifier, however some producers feel it is too strict on certain areas of enforcement. Meanwhile, Michel Chapoutier in the Rhône feels it is not rigorous enough, and so uses the rival Biodyvin organization, the formation of which Olivier Humbrecht played a major role. The latter focuses on wine production unlike Demeter, and claims much cheaper joining costs. Costs of certification for Demeter certification are ongoing – in New Zealand grapegrowers are charged flat fees according to the area of their vineyards, while wineries are charged 0.5 percent of sales in the first year and 1 percent thereafter.
Demeter USA has caused friction by trademarking the term "biodynamic" in the US, so no one can call their wine biodynamic unless they are certified by Demeter. Biodynamics, however are not directly recognized by the USDA, requiring Demeter to have a sister company (Stellar), which gains NOP-recognized organic certification as part of their process.
In organic farming, 300 or more certification bodies provide a bewildering choice, variation of rules, and potential dilution of consumer confidence. The EU, and USDA's National Organic Program provides a federal regulatory framework for these bodies, and the USDA Organic and EU leaf logo appear on a wine along with the details of the certifier. The German-based IFOAM (Organic International) is a non-profit umbrella body which also accredits certifiers. US wine companies can also apply through the NOP program for funding towards the certification costs.
Some producers practice biodynamics but certify their wines as organic. This may be down to technical issues, or a feeling that organic certification is a stronger sales tool. Milton Estate, in Gisborne, New Zealand, is certified with Demeter as one of the first 10 or so biodynamic wine estates in the world, but is also certified organic with Biogro to facilitate access to new export markets.
This all makes it hard for consumers to differentiate the categories and identify organic wines; some reliance on well-informed distributors and retailers is required. Wine-Searcher has found no useful convention among online retailers regarding identification; currently we have to limit ourselves to identifying those wines that have the words organic or biodynamic in their product name.
Certification is not an immediate process. The various organic agencies typically take three years or more to certify a producer or property. In conversion status usually implies that organic methods have been adhered to for one to two years.
The process for biodynamic certification through Demeter USA also takes three years, or one year from initial inspection if the vineyard is already certified organic. If initial assessment and published report indicates that certification can be achieved within the three-year time frame, and there is a five-year plan for whole-farm conversion, then "in conversion" status may be referenced on labeling and point of sale material.
Recovery from exposure to chemicals
Predicting how long a vineyard will take to fully recover from previous use of synthetic pesticides and other chemicals is an incredibly difficult topic. The typical three-year timescales for certification are based on establishing auditable practices, not absolute effects.
The definition of full recovery for soil may be a moving target in terms of traces of chemicals and biological life. Different synthetic pesticides, for example, can vary greatly in terms of the time they take to break down, and variations in geology, topography, climate and weather can also have a major effect on timescales.
Copper sulfate and sulfur
The acceptance of the use of copper sulfate by organic and biodynamic certifying bodies is a reason commonly given against gaining certification by growers using organic methods, or used to justify working under the lutte raisonée banner. Bordeaux mixture (a mixture combining copper sulfate hydrated lime) has been sprayed on vines to combat downy mildew since the 19th Century.
This is a major contradiction to a definition of organic viticulture as the absence of synthetic chemicals. Also it reminds us that, while the development and use of full range of pesticides, herbicides and the rest progressed towards an orthodoxy in the 20th Century, we have been chemically damaging our vineyard soil for longer (that the human race has been exhausting soil through monoculture and other misadventures since the dawn of farming can be saved for another time).
But excess copper is toxic to many organisms; a build up leaves soil lifeless and without aeration from earthworms, as is the case in many parts of Bordeaux. The mixture was known as perico (parakeet) in the US because it turned vineyard workers blue – and killed many of them. Copper sulfate is slow to break down in fresh water and so can also damage biodiversity in nearby rivers.
In the modern era, growers with access to other chemicals to combat downy or powdery mildew and other fungi might use Bordeaux mixture once a year in the winter, and use alternate options at other times. Organic and biodynamic winegrowers often use it more regularly, as it is their main fungicide option, and the benefits of vine age mean that crop rotation – a key part of disease and pest prevention for most organic operations – is only an option for the inter-row, not the main crop.
While copper sulfate is used against downy mildew, preparations containing sulfur are typically used against powdery mildew in organic and biodynamic farming. This can be at odds with a full organic wine certification from the USDA, or with the concept of natural wine, as will be discussed further in part three.
Scientific reviews of organic and biodynamic vineyards
Many scientific trials have been held comparing organic and/or biodynamic vineyards to conventionally farmed ones. No clear picture seems to have emerged. For example, a New Zealand organic vineyard trial showed mixed results; over three years, three wineries divided two blocks in half and farmed one half conventionally and one half according to Biogro-certified practices. Gibbston Valley Estate in Central Otago preferred their organic Pinot Gris, but thought the two 2014 Pinot Noirs were very similar, and thought a decision to expand their organic program was more about the land than the wines. In contrast, Mission Estate in Hawke's Bay had an overwhelming preference for the Merlot and Syrah from their organic block and felt it warranted full conversion at the end of the project. Wither Hills in Marlborough felt that while other costs broadly balanced out in comparison, the lower yields seen meant that they would not expand their organic commitment.
It is no easier to compare biodynamic and organic vineyards with each other. Modern emphasis on cover cropping, polyculture and crop rotation was not part of Rudolf Steiner's original teachings, and belongs more to the organic movement from the 1940s onwards. As many techniques – both beneficial and problematic – are used in both methodologies, scientific trials comparing the two are often made very difficult. Most studies struggle to identify any distinct benefits to the most unique elements of biodynamic; the preparations.
This returns us to the idea (mentioned in part one) that the main difference might be supplied by the routine provided to the vineyard worker by the biodynamic calendar. However adherents of biodynamics are likely to view the system holistically, not overly concerned with which aspect provides the edge that many of the major estates practicing biodynamics feel they have detected via the tasting of the end product after their own vineyard parcel trials.
An organic grower may be prevented from gaining certification because of the approach of neighbors, for example if chemical sprays drift across the boundary on the wind. It is not uncommon for a move to organic farming to prompt the bringing on board of nearby growers.
Governments (especially in France) have tended not to discriminate between organic and non-organic vineyards when it comes to fighting problems in wine regions. In a 2014 high-profile court case, Beaune-based Emmanuel Giboulout, whose 10 hectares (25 acres) have been farmed organically, then biodynamically, for decades, was convicted and fined for flouting a law requiring producers to use a chemical pesticide against the leafhopper insect, which spreads the deadly flavescence dorée virus.
Similarly, in 1994, helicopters sprayed large parts of the Languedoc to combat the same pests. An organic grower whose vineyard undergoes such aerial bombardment can only promise that they personally have not added chemicals to the vineyard. The only non-chemical counter-proposals to guard against this virus involve a long-term encouraging of biodiversity to increase natural predators of the leafhopper, and sprays, which equates to asking neighbors to go organic.
Production costs, bottle prices
Adolfo Hurtado of Concha y Toro estimates that the production costs of organic wineries are around 30 percent higher than those of conventional vineyards. Reasons include the price tag of some organic preparations, such as the predatory fungi Trichoderma, which is used against mildew. Labor costs associated with composting is another key component affecting the bottom line, as are requirements for specialized equipment. In the previously mentioned New Zealand project, more money was spent on weeding, but this was compensated by lower spending on herbicides. Yield reductions can put off many businesses, as mentioned above, though generalizations are difficult.
Biodynamics requires perhaps 10-15 percent higher labor costs to conform to follow the schedule of the lunar calendar and produce the various preparations and composts, and deploy them. Any available pre-made materials are likely to be expensive, in part due to economies of scale. Then, for both methodologies, we can potentially add on the costs of certification, as mentioned above. However some costs, such as those associated with canopy management, might be reduced in some vineyards.
However the picture is still murky. For example it seems vineyard size can have a major impact when comparing production costs of biodynamics to conventional farming. A 2010 study from the University of Adelaide suggested economy of scale and methodology costs have a complex relationship, with small vineyards 12 percent more expensive to run biodynamically, medium-sized biodynamic vineyards (3 to 9.9 hectares) 63 percent more expensive, and vineyards bigger than 10ha actually slightly cheaper on average to run biodynamically.
Space prevents an overview here of statistical trends for demand organic and biodynamic wine. Not only does this seem to vary by market, but it is also difficult to isolate wine – a subsidiary segment of the greater organic beverage sector, which is in turn a minor part of organic food and drink demand as a whole.
Many comments link demand to increases in the number and area of vineyards being farmed organically, though this is not done only to meet demand. Rate of increase is hard to pin down, but it does seem organic and biodynamic wine production continues to increase.
In my own experience, only a tiny percentage of customers saw organic – in an ecological sense – as a primary buying criterion, and many of these tended also to be value-oriented buyers. For those willing to pay the price premium, the emphasis on organic or biodynamic credentials was inseparable from requirements for quality. This does however echo the motivations of many wine producers.
In my last retail stint in the early 2010s far more people asked me for natural wine, concerned about possible links between sulfite levels and health risks, or the short-term symptoms they encountered when drinking wine. In the final part of this series we focus on organic and biodynamic practices in the winery, the concept of natural wine, and the health concerns of wine drinkers.
Comentario de / Comment of Wines Inform Assessors:
Ya hace años como productor agrario tuve que enfrentarme a la realidad de que los controladores de productos orgánicos son más un negocio que una actividad de ilusión y mejora del mundo y a que la complicada normativa pierde el hilo del objetivo fundamental de ofrecer a los consumidores productos garantizados y de calidad
For years as producer I had to face the reality that organic product controllers are more a business than an activity of illusion and improvement of the world as the complicated rules lose the thread of the fundamental objective of offering to consumers guaranteed products and quality
Wines Inform Assessors
Origin information: Wine Searcher