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Organic, vegetarian and biodynamic wines

Interest is increasing in organic products. We have explored how organic, and other environmental, trends now affect the production of wine. This leaflet sets out to answer those questions that our customers ask us most frequently.

What Is Organic Wine?
The legal definition for wines made within the European Community is “wine made from organically grown grapes”. However, this is not the full story because this only covers the growing of the grapes, and not what happens when they are turned into wine. Defining organic grapes is fairly easy since the same principles apply to any crop, but wine is more than just the basic crop.

So It’s Not Just Black & White Then?
No, and for more reasons than you may care to imagine! Organic grapes are grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and fertilisers. However, Bordeaux Mixture is permitted and it is almost impossible to make wine without the use of Sulphur Dioxide as an antioxidant, though the levels are strictly controlled. You could have one grower who uses the maximum permitted levels of Bordeaux Mixture and Sulphur Dioxide who is able to label his wines as organic, and another who uses no Bordeaux Mixture and less Sulphur Dioxide but refuses, for whatever reason, to go for full certification. The second is unable to call his wines organic, but whose approach is purer?

What is Bordeaux Mixture?
Copper Sulphate. It prevents mildew.

Why Drink Organic Wine?
More consumers are now being choosier about what they eat and drink, while others see it as a way of helping the environment. Most quality conscious producers recognise that you can’t make good wine if you mess about with the basic raw material. Because of this their use of any chemicals is minimised. Organic wine producers follow strict codes on wine production – but then so do many who are not classified as organic.

Is Organic Wine Healthier?
This is not an unreasonable assumption to make but there is no hard evidence to support it. Those who are particularly sensitive to, say, Sulphur Dioxide may prefer the idea of an organic wine where Sulphur levels are more restricted, though with today’s more enlightened winemaking a non-organic wine may have equally low levels.

Does Organic Wine Taste Better?
There is every reason why it should. The main argument in favour of buying anything organic is usually that it tastes better and is better for you. When you consider a simple crop like carrots or tomatoes it’s easy to see why, but wine is several stages removed from the raw fruit. One of the facts often missed is that it is possible to take a crop of delicious organic grapes and, with indifferent winemaking, make poor wine. Just because it says it’s organic doesn’t mean it will taste better – most of that is down to the skill of the winemaker, given that he starts with a top quality crop.

Is Climate A Factor?
Emphatically yes. In a perfect grape-growing and winemaking climate it would be simpler for everyone to be organic, but the world isn’t like that! One producer in Gascony says his climate is not dry enough and has regular problems with mildew and oidium. Another in Spain says that the influence of horticulturists around him (who grow flowers in large greenhouses) prevent him from being organic, as greenhouses encourage particular pests that flourish in these conditions and from which he is forced to protect his crops. These pests are not the usual ones and so the usual treatments are useless against them and no natural predators exist locally. He adds that they are rarely a problem, but it would only take one occasion where he had no option to spray against them to disqualify him for 3 years from any organic status he had gained. Going all the way simply is not worth the risk for many producers.

Anything Else I Should Know?
Yes. Lots of producers support the principles of organic production but see full certification to officially organic status as an unnecessary handicap. Winegrowers all over the world choose to use natural products instead of chemicals but remain unwilling to remove the option of resorting to a chemical option in an emergency. Such growers are referred to as “Lutte Raisonee” which effectively means organic except in emergencies.

What Is Vegetarian Wine?
Most wines need to be “fined”. Fining is the process of clarifying the wine by removing yeast cells and grape particles to leave the wine bright and clear. Some wines that are allowed time to settle naturally are not fined at all, but in this modern age where most wines are made for immediate drinking fining is necessary. The most effective way to do this is to add an agent to the wine which spreads out, like a net, and then sinks to the bottom dragging all the ‘gunk’ down with it. The clear wine can then be racked off leaving the fining agent and sediment behind. It is important to remember that the fining agent does a vital job in clarifying, but does not remain in the finished wine. However, some vegetarians and vegans are concerned about some of the substances used as fining agents. These include gelatine, isinglass, egg albumen, casein, chitosan and bentonite.

What Are These Substances?
Gelatine is made from the cooking or partial hydrolysis of fibrous insoluble animal protein. Isinglass is made up of collagen fibres derived from the air bladders of certain fish. Egg albumen is egg whites, usually dried or frozen. Casein is sodium or potassium caseinate which is the primary protein in milk. Chitosan is derived from the shells of crustaceans. Bentonite is a mineral, also known as Fullers Earth. The vast majority of wines are fined using bentonite these days.

What Is Vegan Wine?
Wines made using no animal products whatsoever. Bentonite will probably have been used for fining.

What Are Biodynamic Wines?
Many would say that these are at the somewhat crankier end of winemaking! Biodynamic producers believe that there are other influences on the earth that need to be taken into account – like the phases of the moon. Each day of the year has a particular planetary rhythm which determines what can, or cannot be done in the vineyard and winery. Its one big advantage is that it does require the grower to see the complete picture within nature. The whole ecosystem is complimentary, not only to the vines, but to anything else that happens to be in the area. It is the art of the grower to achieve the perfect balance of wildlife, crops and environments to the benefit of all and with minimal, or no, intervention.

What Do Wines Of Interest Think?
We applaud the principles of organic production and appreciate the benefits to us all from the environmental improvement it provides, but if the wine is not up to scratch – and very occasionally is not – it’s no good to us or you. One of the reasons that we buy from small producers who respect the land and their vines upon it and their local communities, is that such producers do not make wine for the mass market and as such tightly control their yields and what they use on their crop. Most, however, are not prepared to take the final step towards full organic certification because of the restrictions this would impose. There is much common sense in minimal intervention in the vineyard and letting nature solve as many problems as possible. However, every wine we buy has to pass muster at the tasting table first. Wine must be good first and organic as a bonus, no self-respecting wine merchant should list a wine just because it is organic.

Click here to visit the Organics section of our catalogue


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