Much is being said in recent times about the pros and cons; the taste, flavour and the wheres or whyfores of “sustainable farming”, “organic farming” and “natural wines”.
I am sure you are dying to understand the difference so let me help you.
Sustainable Farming (Agriculture Raisonnée)
This is basically what all wine producers have done in France since the Middle Ages. “Putting back into the soil what you take out of it”.
If we look back to the end of the 20th century the growers in France, Italy and Spain raised their vines taking great care of the soil. Destroying the soil would have been tantamount to destroying their main working tool. No income, no food!
Can you imagine owning a car which you needed for business purposes and not looking after it? Eventually the car would get mechanical problems and then finally you would have to change it.
This was not an option for growers in Europe.
Tending the vines was always done manually and mainly still is. Pruning is still totally manual.
The use of horses in the vines only ended in the early 1970s when tractors took over.
Larger scale wine production as seen in the New World today started in France on a much, much smaller scale in the late 1980s.
Sustainable farming practices are used virtually across the board in France whether or not the grower pays an organisation to be able to say on the label that he uses sustainable farming.
Most small and medium sized wine growers would not bother to pay an organisation to tell them they can do what they have done for centuries. It would not make sense to them.
Sustainable Farming as defined by Wikipedia:
“an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will last over the long term:
- Satisfy human food and fibre needs
- Make the most efficient use of non-renewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls
- Sustain the economic viability of farm operations
- Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.”
Organic Farming (Agriculture Biologique)
It is the farming of the vines, not the winemaking, which is organic. (There is much confusion on this point.) “Organic wines” currently do not exist in Europe today although there is a lobby to include wines as such under that label.
More and more French growers are going organic so that they can compete in world markets today.
It should be pointed out that, although the theory is quite commendable,
- The production specifications are extremely hefty.
- There are very, very active controls in the vines.
- All the bodies involved with granting this sought-after accreditation charge a lot of money.
It still sounds very attractive, other than the fact that the wines are “fragile” (albeit expensive and guess who ends up paying!)
BUT… due to the fact that the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fungicides is not allowed, the only treatment for vines under the Organic Farming charter is …“Copper Sulphite”.
Copper, being a heavy metal, eventually kills the soil.
This is the main problem today for any wine grower who is changing from traditional farming methods to Organic.
“Mildew” and “oidium” are types of fungi which produce a powdery mildew on the grapes. These diseases can wipe out a total harvest in a matter of days. In warm, wet summers the organic farmers use 5 times more copper sulphite than the traditional farmers!
They are, thank Heavens, actively looking for an alternative to Copper Sulphite.
Natural Wines (Vins Naturs)
The name “Natural Wine” is extremely controversial and misleading as all wines are “natural”.
There appears to be more and more of a following of this type of wine, however.
This is basically where the vines and the wines are made with as little intervention as possible. They are left to their own devices and we should like them whether or not they taste good!
When they are young the wines are often cloudy (no filtration), still fermenting in the glass (fizzy but not in a nice way) and, or tasting of vinegar (contaminated vines or wine).
A well-known UK wine critic recently said “at best they taste like off cider”
When they get older there is no knowing which way the wines will go. So opening a bottle is always a surprise – Sometimes not so nice, sometimes very nice!
I very much understand the current “back to nature” leaning of these wine growers and their customers.
However, I am somewhat bemused that wine, a beverage which is no longer necessary to disinfect our food, is being raised in such a way with total disregard to the feel and taste.
Wine today is a pleasure and in some cases a luxury. Surely, we should not have to go through the process of putting on a nice face to front these wines.
In fact, probably the only way they can really succeed in making “natural wine” is by furnishing the cellar as if it were an antiseptic laboratory where no microbe could possibly contaminate the wine. Then we would get some palatable wines!
(A small number of American and French growers are currently putting this theory to the test.)
First published February 2011