Talk of terroir and its impact on the wine we drink is a mainstay of wine chat, yet how that land is farmed has, in the past, seemed a secondary consideration. The revolution that brought us intensive forms of agriculture didn’t stop at wheat, and agrochemicals have been a part of viticulture for decades. Now there is change in the air, with a steady increase in the number of organic and biodynamic wines on the market seemingly matched by growth in consumer interest and the perception of their quality.
Every winemaker will tell you that what matters most is what happens in the vineyard, and there’s plenty of evidence that such a mindset is now resonating with consumers. Waitrose reported an increase of 47% in sales of organic wine in the UK last year and the OIV (International Organisation of Vine and Wine) predicts that global sales of organic wine will hit 1bn bottles in 2022. Farm-to-fork thinking is extending to grape-to-glass.
As is often the case with wine labelling, however, the terminology and definitions around such categories can be confusing for the consumer. The terms organic, biodynamic (and – more controversially – “natural”) all vie for our attention, with a few wines probably having a claim to all three descriptors.
“Organic and biodynamic are now buzzwords,” says Freddy Bulmer, a buyer for The Wine Society. “People think such wines are better, but that’s not always the case,” he cautions. “It’s not a designation of quality, but the consumer is starting to think that it is.”
In wine terms, organic wine denotes that the grapes are grown without the use of artificial pesticides, fungicides or herbicides, while certain additives are also prohibited in the winery, and lower permitted levels of added sulphur dioxide are imposed. Growers wanting to switch to organic status must go through a three-year conversion process, considered necessary for the land to be cleansed of chemical residues. It’s fraught with risk, with so-called ‘spray drift’ from a non-organic neighbour potentially wrecking a grower’s efforts.
Though some producers might claim that they use organic methods, they need to be officially certified by country-specific bodies – in the UK, it’s the Soil Association – to be able to use their recognised organic logos. This requirement, along with the higher cost of farming without chemicals, tends to make organic wines a touch more expensive than their non-organic equivalents.
Biodynamic wine producers go much further than their organic counterparts, with wineries adhering to the principles of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who promoted the creation of a balanced, harmonious ecosystem for agriculture. Following a calendar of activity on specific root, flower, fruit and leaf days, related to the phases of the moon, the approach promotes biodiversity and crop rotation for optimum soil health. In place of crop sprays, there are ‘teas’ made from natural products like blossom and nettles, and – raising a few eyebrows – the burying of cow horns filled with finely ground quartz or fermented manure. Wines can be certified biodynamic – usually by Demeter – though some producers are deterred from such a step due to the cost, while others prefer not to use the descriptor for fear that it might be offputting or misunderstood.
“My personal feeling is that biodynamic yields more consistently good results than just organic alone, says Bulmer. “It’s a much bigger commitment from the winemaker, so those who work that way are among the most dedicated. There’s a lot of elements that people – myself included – are sceptical about when it comes to biodynamic viticulture, but I do think that winemakers who follow those processes are probably closer to their product. And it’s the attention to detail that is the most important thing.”
Natural wine is a thornier issue because the term is not strictly defined and, unlike organic and biodynamic, there are no internationally recognised forms of certification. But as an ethos, natural means minimal intervention in the production of the wine, the avoidance of additives, filtration and inoculated yeasts, with sulpher dioxide kept to a minimum, or left out altogether. This can result in cloudy wines and unusual – sometimes described as “funky” – flavours.
As such categories slowly become more widely understood, awards are one way to filter out the quality renderings from those that merely tick boxes in terms of the method of production. Among those winning medals at the 2020 IWSC awards, Marlborough producer Giesen began to use organic methods in 2009, ripping out wines and leaving the land fallow for a year before replanting. It’s a long process – 11% of its vines are now certified organic by New Zealand’s BioGro organisation. Among the resulting organic wines, both ‘The Fuder’ Clayvin Vineyard Chardonnay 2015 and Giesen Organic Syrah 2016 from the Southern Valleys garnered silver medals.
Closer to home, Languedoc legend Gérard Bertrand is reaping the rewards of his decision to embrace biodynamics. All Bertrand’s 16 estates, spanning over 800 hectares of vines, are now either fully converted or in transition. His Demeter-certified biodynamic Château L’Hospitalet Grand Vin 2018 took an IWSC gold medal last year, with the judges singling it out for its elegance and purity.