This is a longer version of an article that appeared in The Irish Times, Saturday 23rd February, 2019
More organic wines are being produced than ever, but who decides what is organic and how strict are the rules? European wines are governed by legislation introduced in 2012. Until then, a producer could only mention “wine made from organic grapes” on the label. The legislation includes, for the first time, practices in both vineyard and cellar. This sounds great, but many argue that the bar was set far too low.
While maximum amounts of sulphur were lowered compared to ‘normal’ wine, levels up to 100mg/l for red wines and 150mg/l for white and rosé wines are still permitted. Copper spray is just about the only weapon an organic grower can use against disease. Until recently they could spray up to 30kg per hectare over six years, technically 5kg per year, but often more in wet years and less in dry vintages. This has now been lowered to 4kg per hectare every year, which may cause problems in wetter areas in the future.
Most of us, I suspect, automatically think that organic wine is more natural, and in some ways it is. But it is worth taking a quick look at the regulations (see ecocert.com). Organic producers can still add yeasts, Diammonium Phosphate, tannins and oak chips (they don’t have to be organic) as well as being allowed to acidify, de-acidify, and add sugar. If you clarify with egg whites, isinglass or gelatin, these should be organic – when available it says – although if you add sugar or grape must, this must be organic. Does this really tally with our view of what organic wine should be?
As one rather frustrated Irish importer said to me, “The sad thing is that everyone wants a quick and handy label, and that’s what they tried to achieve with the legislation. I understand that the “greater good” is to try and bring big companies around to the idea of organics as they are the biggest users of chemicals, so even a watered down version might have some merit . But does anybody really think that a cheap organic supermarket chicken is as good as the neighbour down the road who has them running around the field but yet has no certification?” On the other hand, some importers in the U.S. and elsewhere will only buy wines that are certified organic, leaving some producers with little choice.
Many small artisan producers will tell you that they are organic but not certified. Either it is too expensive or the paperwork too laborious. The only guarantee is their name on the bottle. Should we believe them? Generally I do, as mostly they seem genuine and exhibit a real respect for their land. Another importer told me “I’d rather have wines certified organic for my house wines, as I know they must be using less chemicals, but for the others it is all down to trusting my producers”.
Sinéad and Liam Cabot work on both sides of the fence, importing producing and importing wine. Liam comments “We cultivate grapes as naturally as possible (we sprayed with locally sourced whey last year against oidium), we dislike copper, we add nothing in the cellar (so none of that stuff allowed with organics/biodynamics) other than small doses of SO2 (which we consider essential). But even these are well below the levels generally allowed for natural wines – e.g. total 20mg/l (free 10mg/l) for our Blaufränkisch, total 35 mg/l (free 12mg/l) for Furmint. It is not about the numbers, it is about working intelligently to understand when you make the additions; for instance, our 2018 whites are still without any SO2 at all – yet they are completely stable.”
At a tasting given by Marcos Fernandez, chief winemaker for Argentine producer Doña Paula, part of Santa Rita, said “We are now fully certified sustainable, which to me is more than organic.” His argument was that Certified Sustainable programmes encompass far more than simply what takes place in vineyard and winery, and follows the process from start to finish, and including energy use, recycling, environmental impact and long term sustainability. All Santa Rita Estates are now certified. In New Zealand 94% of vineyards operate under independently audited sustainability programmes – and over 10% of wineries are certified organic. Biodynamic viticulture is more of a philosophy or way of living, and many of its practitioners are the kind of people who resist regulation. The two biggest certifying organisations are Demeter and Biodyvin, but some growers disagree with their criteria. Perhaps the answer is to shop with people you trust?
Growers are certainly using far less herbicides and fungicides – in the past the wine industry was on of the worst offenders. Even if the criteria for organic certification is weak, at least producers have to start the process. The use of sulphur and other chemicals must be at an all-time low and most producers are increasingly seeking to reduce unnecessary interventions. Yet if we keep demanding cheap wine, it seems inevitable that producers will have to resort to higher levels of (perfectly legal) manipulation.
Jarrarte 2017 Rioja Joven, Abel Mendoza,14%, €17
Jarrarte 2017 Rioja Joven, Abel Mendoza
Organic but not certified. A full-on full-bodied wine bursting with rounded sweet dark plum fruits and a tannin-free finish. With a rack of lamb.
Doña Paula Estate Black Edition 2016, Luján de Cuyo, Argentina
Certified Sustainable. Medium-bodied with nicely balanced dark fruits and spice with well-judged tannins on the finish. With a gourmet burger.
Di Gino 2016, Rosso Piceno San Lorenzo
Uncertified biodynamic/organic. A charming, elegant, fragrant wine, with delicious juicy dark cherry fruits and very mild tannins. Lighter pasta dishes – cacio e pepe?
Reto 2016, Manchuela, Bodegas Ponce
Uncertified biodynamic/organic. Delightful floral aromas leading on to a rich but refreshing palate with clean mineral lines and subtle peach fruits. By itself or with fish; a mussel risotto?
Stockists: La Touche, Greystones, latouchewines4u.ie; Ely 64, Glasthule, ely64.com; Baggot Street Wines, Baggot Street, baggotstreetwines.com; Blackrock Cellar, Blackrock, blackrockcellar.com; Clontarf Wines, clontarfwines.ie; Green Man Wines, Terenure, greenmanwines.ie; Martin’s Off Licence, Fairview, martinsofflicence.ie; Redmonds, Ranelagh; redmonds.ie; siyps.ie; The Corkscrew, Chatham Street, thecorkscrew.ie; the Wicklow Wine Co, wicklowwineco.ie.