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Cheers To Organic Wine
A Growth Industry
Whether it’s red or white, it must be green. So says a growing number of wine producers while they wait for consumers to catch on to the benefits of organic wine.
Organic and bio-dynamic certification may soothe consciences with relation to health and environment, but the feeling amongst industry members is that consumers are sluggish to recognise the fact.
Hence, some organisations feel that there is no real advantage – at this stage – to going organic from a marketing perspective.
“Five years ago when it was trendy to plant vines, new vineyard owners were ringing us for bio-dynamic advice, which we’re happy to give, but there is no real market advantage unless the wine is of an excellent quality,” says Frances Porter of the Biodynamic Research Institute (Demeter) – a certifier of bio-dynamic produce.
Sam Statham is the chairman of the Biological Farmers Association vignerons committee, and agrees.
“Retailers and resellers need to be educated to the advantages of certified organic or bio-dynamic wine,” he says. “At the moment some typical reactions I get to my family’s Rosnay organic wine is that decisions are made based on dollars rather than health or environmental merit.”
This is disappointing for Sam, who feels that organic wine can be seen as a return to the origins of wine in European culture.
“For centuries the concept of terroir has driven the appreciation of food and wine – it is the terroir that gives food and wine its individuality due to the microclimates, soils and cultural heritage,” he says.
Because organic vines feed purely on soil minerals and farm nutrient cycles, it is argued by French organic vignerons that their wines are a truer expression of their appellation rather than those grown using bagged synthetic fertiliser, herbicides and pesticides.
That commercial decisions are based on dollars rather than ‘sense’ might indicate that resellers of wine are out of touch. A national survey conducted by the Organic Federation of Australia in 2001 found that a third of those earning less than $20,000 per annum still consumed at least some organic foods, suggesting price isn’t a factor for consumers when choosing organic food.
The same survey found that over 40 percent of respondents had consumed organic food in the preceding 12 months, but only eight percent said that half or more of their total diet is organic.
Health and environmental benefits aside, let’s look at some reasons why the other 92 percent of the population should be looking for the organic certification stamp on their next bottle of wine.
The Advantages of Organic Wine
Organic Wines Have Winning Style
Settler’s Ridge winery is testimony that organic wines, long scorned as inferior, are becoming very competitive with conventional wines.
In the past seven years, the Margaret River producer has won more than 50 medals at wine shows. Their wine is compelling proof that organic techniques can produce high-quality wines, with their Shiraz consistently winning gold or silver in open competition.
There are no organic sections in wine shows, so all organic wines compete directly against conventional wines. This suits Kaye Nobbs, proprietor of Settler’s Ridge, just fine.
“Judging a wine as ‘excellent for an organic wine’, is like saying, ‘she did a good job for a woman’,” she says. “No matter what the process, all wines should be able to impress judges regardless of their background.”
The Settler’s Ridge shiraz is even winning reluctant praise from the judges and connoisseurs alike. Wine writer Ray Jordan's comment in his West Australian Guide to Wine 2003/04 is, "Not a bad effort, if you ask me!"
Organic Wines Come of Age
“The amount of preservative in wine doesn’t necessarily determine the length of cellaring,” says Kaye.
“In fact, we still have red wines from our first vintage in 1997 that are still drinking beautifully.”
This long life can be attributed to tannin – a naturally occurring preservative found in the skin of red grapes. In fact, traditional French winemaking techniques saw winemakers relying on this tannin as their sole source of preservative.
“There is no need to shovel in preservative to follow a recipe,” says Kaye. “An organic winemaker is more discerning with what is required to make quality wine.”
Organic Wine = Less Whine
According to one school of thought, fewer preservatives mean less painful hangovers.
Conventional wines contain up to 300 parts per million of preservatives, whereas much less is allowed in certified organic wines.
All the same, not all winemakers are convinced. David Bruer is a chemist who has applied his knowledge to his vineyard and winery in the Langhorne Creek region in South Australia.
“Like anything, if you drink too much you’ll get sick,” he says. “But if you drink a moderate amount of organic wine one night and compare it with the same quantity of conventional wine on another night, you might get sick on the conventional wine.”
Organic wines may have significantly less sulphur dioxide– the culprit ingredient that prevents some asthmatics from enjoying wine.
“We have chosen to work to UK Soil Association standards as they are tougher than the Australian standards,” says David Bruer. “That means we only use a maximum of 100 parts per million Sulphur Dioxide in our wines, compared with 250 parts per million in conventional wines.”
There is no suggestion that Sulphur Dioxide is harmful in the quantities used in conventional wines, but the minimalist approach works best for David.
“Sulphur Dioxide does produce more thyamene, but that is surplus in most western diets anyway,” he says. “All the same, less Sulphur Dioxide does have benefits for asthmatics.”
Dress to Impress
If you’re fussy about the label or perceived status of the wine you bring as a dinner guest, rest easy. Iconic brands such as Cullen Wines in Margaret River have adopted bio-dynamic processes so you can be proud of the bottle you present to your host.
“Every single thing we do in the vineyard and winery is done with a single goal in mind – to make the best wine possible,” says the vineyard manager, Michael Sleegers.
“That our flagship wine – the Diana Madeline Cullen (a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec, petit verdot and cabernet franc) – is ranked by Langtons Wine classification alongside Grange and Hill Of Grace is testimony to the care taken at all stages in production.”
Cullen Wines has 29 bio-dynamic hectares under vine, but does not have ‘organic’ on the label.
“We choose to be bio-dynamic because of health and environment considerations – whether we put the word on our label or not wouldn’t affect our customers at the Cellar Door,” says Michael.
Various studies have shown that wine in moderation is good for your health – a fact that many wineries are quick to recite.
“The consumer perception is that wine is a luxury product,” says Sam Statham, “but the reality is that it is very affordable. Also it’s good for you in that it helps reduces stress, lowers the ‘bad’ cholesterol, and anti-oxidants are good for your heart.”
Sam is referring to a situation known as the ‘French Paradox’ – the low incidence of heart disease in the residents of Burgundy despite a diet rich in cheese, cream, pate de foie gras and other food high in saturated fat and cholesterol.
Subsequent research provides strong circumstantial evidence that red wine may be helpful in combating heart disease. Furthermore, antioxidants found in the skin of red grape skins increases the level of the ‘good cholesterol’ (HDL) in the blood, while simultaneously lowering the level of ‘bad cholesterol’ (LDL).
Certified organic farming practices mean you are consuming a product that is free from synthetic pesticides, fungicides, weedicides and fertilisers. And that, according to David Bruer, is vital.
“Insecticides wipe out naturally occurring insects, spiders and mites which reduce the biodiversity of soil,” he says. “We need all microbial flora and fauna to recycle organic matter and build humus matter in the soil.”
A tragic aside to the wide usage of super-phosphate in conventional farming is the annihilation of earth worms.
“A single application kills 99 percent of worms,” says David. “They are essential for aerating the soil, building moisture tunnels and bringing organic matter from the top soil to deeper down. That’s why you won’t find any organic farmer using phosphates.”
Another Australian wine writer, Max Allen, established an independent online guide to Biodynamic wines in Australia. His rationale in starting redwhiteandgreen.com.au was that biodynamic wines deserve their own place on a pedestal. “Drinking great BD wines is like listening to live music,” he explains.
“The best conventional wines are like a standout performance on CD, played on the smartest audio equipment. Listening to the CD can be deeply enjoyable, even moving – but not as profound, memorable or rewarding as being in the audience at a concert, experiencing the moment with all your senses.”