Wine is perceived as one of the most natural and healthy of alcoholic beverages. Consumers might be surprised to discover that the majority of everyday wine is produced using a wide variety of chemicals, both in the vineyard and the winery, traces of which can end up in the final wine (ever wondered why cheap wine gives you such a headache)? A vineyard is almost unique in that vines cannot be crop rotated, and cannot be left to lie fallow. As a consequence the use of agrochemicals over time leads to a build-up of pathogens and a depletion of soil health. This weakens the vine, creating a cycle of dependency on chemical treatments. As vineyards become “green concrete” wine-makers are waking up to the fact that high input farming using synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers is becoming unsustainable. At the same time consumers are becoming more aware of the ingredients in the food and drink they buy, looking for healthier, additive free options. The coming together of these two phenomena has resulted in a number of alternatives for the thoughtful and environmentally conscious wine consumer, but what are the difference between the various classifications, and which, if any, has any real meaning?
Organic producers will only make good wine if they also made good wine before becoming organic. This may seem self-evident, but organic certification is - at its simplest - adhering to a list of chemicals not to add to your vineyard. Tick the list and you can be certified organic, irrespective of the quality of what you produce. An oven pizza may be labelled organic but it’s not exactly haute cuisine. Requirements for organic certification vary widely around the world, with many countries not “recognising” each other’s accreditation, so there are plenty of grey areas. To add further confusion, in the EU organic accreditation covers only the grapes, and not what happens in the winery. Hence you will only ever see an EU wine labelled as “made from organically grown grapes”. Think of the organically grown lettuce that is treated with chemical preservatives to keep it fresh on the supermarket shelf. Organic therefore is no guarantee that a wine has not had chemicals used in the processing of it. There are many superb example of high quality organic wineries, but the term should be treated with caution unless you know the producer in question, or trust the place or person you buy it from.
Biodynamics requires a much greater commitment from the grower and is often referred to as “super-charged” organics. Rather than simply reducing chemical inputs, biodynamics is a proactive attempt to bring life to the soil by the use of composts and organic preparations. Practices take into account the seasons as well as lunar and solar rhythms, which would not have seemed strange to our ancestors. For many it is a practical and sustainable farming solution, and as such you will not always see it written on the label or used as a marketing tool. Biodynamic certification is a sound guarantee of responsible environmental practice, the wines should always have a clear sense of place (terroir) and quality can be exceptional.