Organic, biodynamic, natural, orange – where is the journey headed?
Organic, biodynamic, natural, orange – where is the journey headed?
Never before have there been so many wines with an organic seal as today. And everything points to the fact that there will be many more. In a flood of ever increasing demand, many specialists ride their own wave. Biodynamic, natural and orange wines stand out from the mainstream. The market is becoming increasingly diversified. Where is the journey headed?
“My mother was a nurse. She always said that spraying was not good for children.” Giusi Moretti tells about their family vineyard’s history. Her father made the change to organic farming as early as 1991. It is a great deal of work, but they are happy with their decision. Montefalco is situated in Umbria. Giusi’s story could similarly be told in the Wachau or in California. Many organic winemakers adopt their system out of conviction.
In the beginning of the 1990s, Giusi’s father was still a maverick. Today, organic wine is more popular than ever. In Italy alone, the cultivation area was 83,000 hectares in 2015. With land currently undergoing conversion, this means roughly 13 per cent and the growth rates are still in the double figures, just like in many wine growing countries. Roughly a quarter million hectares are farmed organically worldwide. Global consumption rose by 8.8 per cent in 2015 with US$ 81.6 billion (EUR 75.1 billion), whereby the USA showed the greatest thirst for organic wines with a consumption of US$ 35.9 billion (EUR 33 billion).
“Five years ago, organic products were still a niche in specialised retail,” remembers Peter Riegel, who has been trading in organic wines for 30 years and “is still growing by eleven per cent a year”. As Germany’s largest organic wine importer (turnover of EUR 35 million), he is experiencing how more and more winemakers are making the change. “Organic is growing faster than consumption today, particularly in supermarkets and discounters”. Organic wines are produced equally by large bottlers and top winemakers. In France, the microbiologist Claude Bourguignon aroused sudden attention with the saying "there is more life in the Sahara than in many vineyards in Burgundy". This also prompted many Grands Crus to rethink, as the soil is the vineyards’ unique asset after all.
What exactly is organic?
Organic winemakers basically want to use as few agricultural chemicals as possible. The large groups are herbicides, pesticides and fungicides. Artificial fertilisers are avoided completely. Instead, the plant itself is supposed to develop adequate defences to resist diseases and pests by using suitable measures in the vineyard. Unnaturally increased yields due to artificial fertilisers are not desirable.
The different climates, grape varieties, traditions and also market situations result in every region having its own ideas about what organic means. In chilly Germany, winemakers do not wish to do without sulphur, in California, with its many Mexican workers, the organic seal also includes a promise of socially equitable cultivation.
Horse working at vineyard
The complex problem can be seen by the example of organic certification in the EU. After four years of negotiations, the partner states agreed on banning many synthetic and genetically modified substances. Sulphur remained legal due to pressure exerted by the German industry. Energy-intensive processes that change the wine’s structure are not allowed, reverse osmosis which is used to physically extract water from the must is, though. The bottom line is a very European document that leaves everyone their niche. Agreements in other regions offer similar exceptions.
Even major key points such as sustainability are delicate. At least hardliners are calling for a ban on irrigation, making them ‘popular’ with winemakers on the hot borders of the cultivation zone, who are experiencing more and more difficulties with every year of climate change. In the extreme weather situations that climate change is bringing with it, winemakers are constantly taking a bigger risk since many countermeasures are taboo for them. Despite all the difficulties, more and more winemakers are seeing the advantages: The quality is improving. Organic agriculture has shed its old cliché of being an old eco codger. Domaine de la Romanée Conti produces the most expensive wine in the world – biodynamically.
"When there is nothing left to do for you after the harvest, you need strong nerves"
The three-year conversion phase to organic in particular is a time fraught with many risks. “My dad didn’t like the idea.” Countless stories start like this, including Arnaud Lambert’s. He converted the Loire business nevertheless. “It takes time. And when there is nothing left to do for you after the harvest, you need strong nerves,” he remembers. He represents Château de Brézé at the Millésime Bio industry trade fair in the South of France. Roughly 900 colleagues from all over the world exhibit here – and most of them have similar experiences.
At first, almost all the vineyards are more susceptible to disease. Money has to be liberally spent time and time again. Organic sprays are expensive and consumption is high. Many a pension has already been haggled over in the conflict between generations. “At some point, you are not actually really interested in the money details any more,” says Jan Klein remembering his Staffelter Hof’s steep slopes on the Mosel with a shudder, “and when the neighbour then starts spraying with a helicopter and it drifts over to your vines, you have got a new problem.”
“After converting to organic, the yield dropped but the grapes turned more aromatic,” says Christine Julius from the Julius vineyard in Rheinhessen. That is the point when organic winemakers reap the fruits of their labour. “The wines have more depth and structure. We were able to acquire new customers who place importance on organic wines.”
Fieldwork in the right moon phase
The improvement in quality is the main argument for organic. But a sticker does not really say anything about quality factors such as yield, the age of the vines, plant density, hand picking etc. The winemakers are largely given carte blanche with the work methods in the cellar. Aids such as selected yeasts, enzymes, oak chips are allowed.
Many winemakers set the bar higher for themselves. Demeter, the association of biodynamic winemakers, probably has the strictest rules in the world. Its basic philosophy is that every vineyard is a sustainable system in itself with maximum biodiversity. This approach is based on the anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner’s philosophical ideas. Biodynamic winemakers are therefore not just committing to certain growing methods but also to an ideology.
The methods are not proven scientifically. The winemakers carry out the field work during specific moon and planet constellations and bury cow horns filled with dung. Having said that, many biodynamic winemakers produce very high-quality wines that silence critics.
“There would not be any Champagne next year without spraying,” is a common killer argument. As it happens, winemakers on the damp, cold borders of wine growing regions are facing huge problems due to fungi; but it is possible. “My father was the first one in the region to grow biodynamically,” says Jean-Sébastien Fleury, “there is always a biodynamic option.” Champagne Fleury ranks amongst the top players in terms of quality. The wines are rich and dense
The dynamic history of organic wine
The world view of biodynamic growers is based on traditional knowledge that was just displaced by industrial agriculture. According to their beliefs, wine has always been a natural product of fermented grape juice for thousands of years. A closer look at the history of wine production, however, reveals quite a different story. Even the Greeks and Romans had long lists of additives from aloe to pig’s blood and sulphur.
The origin of biodynamics lies rather in the “back to nature” movements of the 1920s, which is also when Demeter was founded. Few winemakers have been consistently producing biodynamically or organically since then. The remaining majority tend to follow market trends.
First it was the promises of agricultural chemistry in the 1960s. Organic wine growing established itself with various associations as a countermovement to the industrialisation of wine growing. The first EU regulation on organic wine was issued in 1991.
Growing methods have continuously developed since then. The right vine row vegetation binds nitrogen and attracts beneficial insects. Moisture damage is reduced using adapted canopy management. Winemakers have found the best sprays for their vineyards through their own trial and error.
At the same time, technical knowledge about wine production has led to major progress. A wine’s style could be controlled using temperature regulation thanks to a fermentation process with no undesirable simultaneous reactions.
Some people found the crystal clear fruit of many white wines monotonous. Other fads like vinification in barriques in the nineties or the focus on Robert Parker’s mass-market taste also led to less distinguishable styles. The use of agents such as oak wood powder or flavoured tannins gave more and more winemakers cause to reflect on whether they could even still see the technically modified wines as a natural products.
What is really natural?
Natural wine was their answer. Winemakers avoid any interference in cellar work as far as possible. Yeasts or sugar, enzymes, acid or anything else may not be added to the hand-picked organic or biodynamic grapes must during the vinification process, and naturally nothing is allowed to be filtered out or extracted. A shot of SO² is then permitted at the end.
Critics call this “convenient”. Processes like malolactic fermentation are given free rein here. Volatile acids and brettanomyces can also be found in the end product.
Isabelle Legeron calls it “a nostalgic snapshot of what wines were before hi-tech”. Historically rather clumsy but a good claim for the RAW trade fair, which she founded, and where the scene meets in Los Angeles, New York, London and Berlin. “Is ‘natural’ a self-justifying word to cover any sort of accident?” questioned critics legend Hugh Johnson thoughtfully and remembered his experiences in Italy in the 1970s. “Natural wines are going through the same process that the organic movement did 30 years ago.“ says Simon Woolf, one of the most experienced experts on the scene. You have to accept this argument. “Winemakers are learning fast. We're seeing better and better winemaking.”
"Thirty years of organic and now this."
Orange wine even elevates the uncontrolled fermentation process to a principle of style. The must from white grapes is fermented with the skins, like red wine, and often left to rest for a long time, sometimes months. Contact with the air is explicitly desired during vinification; though filtration, sulphurisation and any other kind of intervention is of course ruled out.
This results in bronze to orange coloured wines with lots of tannins, oxidation notes and sometimes vegetable soup or sauerkraut aromas. Most of them are undoubtedly complex. But “we have been striving for cleaner wines for thirty years and now this,” says organic wine merchant Peter Riegel half jokingly.
On the other hand, many orange winemakers are enjoying experimentation. Amphorae and earthenware are used as fermenting vessels based on the model of Georgian kvevris. Concrete eggs are also popular due to their micro-oxidative effect, and because it is assumed that swirling inside prevents the suspended sediment from sinking. “We have not been able to ascertain this, though,” dismisses Dr Michael Zänglein from the Bavarian State Office for Viticulture and Horticulture, who has traced the flow in series of measurements.
The wines are in demand despite or particularly due to their eccentric style. The process is achieving good results in particular with bouquet varieties and in cuvées. Typical flavours such as hyacinths in Muscat or rose petals in Gewürztraminer produce a stimulating tension against the vegetal and oxidative notes. It is not uncommon for wine tastingsof natural and orange wines to be overbooked.
Some winegrowers, on the other hand, show slight reservations. Those who have struggled for many years to find a clear expression of the fruit cannot always easily become accustomed to the lush secondary aromas.
It is often said behind closed doors that: “Our customers kept asking for orange wine. So in the end we made it.” But here too, however, skepticism seems to be giving way. At the upcoming ProWein, the proportion of organic winegrowers will be greater than ever before.