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What’ll yours be... Organic, biodynamic or natural?

There’s no shortage of choice of wines in Southern France. Just as you manage to learn the names of the many grape varieties, you suddenly discover wines promoting themselves as organic or biodynamic, or the new buzz word 'natural'. But what does it all mean?

 

The answer reflects the broader shift we’ve seen in food production over the last decade or so; a movement away from processed, mass produced foodstuffs to fresh, unadulterated produce with respect to its origins and the methods of cultivation. Today we make more informed choices about our bread, eggs and meat — now it's the turn of the wine that we drink with them.


Organic Wine

The first step for somebody growing grapes, if he/she wishes to reconsider their method of cultivation, is to choose to go organic. In the same way as organic farmers eschew chemicals and synthetic treatments on their land, so too the vignerons stops using anything artificial on their soil or vines. Since 1980, the French government recognises the efforts of organic farmers, allowing these practitioners to label themselves as Agriculture Biologique and apply this green label to their produce. You will find this certification label on the back of every wine bottle made by an organic vigneron.

Note that this certification applies only to the way the grapes are grown, but not to the resultant wine. It’s a brave first step for a vigneron. The transition to organic farming can be huge and the risks enormous. Without the safety net of preventative chemicals, developed over years of scientific research in laboratories, it's possible that your entire crop of grapes may be wiped out by a fungus or mildew. Then there is a three year transition period; the time it's assumed to take to rid the soil and the vines of any artificial influences.

 

Biodynamic Wine

Some vignerons have decided to go a step beyond organic cultivation of grapes by seeking a more holistic approach to the land and its produce.

Biodynamics is a system of beliefs, principles and practices drawn up by Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian scientist, in 1924. It sees the earth as a living organism which breathes and has energy or life force. There are cycles and rhythms, from the sun, the moon and the stars. We recognise these as day/night, seasons, phases of the moon or the signs of the zodiac. According to Steiner, these all impact the earth and the crops that grow in its soil.

These various life forces have been combined into a biodynamic calendar to guide farmers as to the best days for various agricultural activities.

A fruit day may be a good day for harvesting, or root day for winter pruning. Marks and Spencer’s wine buyers even organise their tastings to be on the most favourable days of the biodynamic calendar; believing that wines taste better on fruit or flower days. The biodynamic vigneron will also use different preparations on the soil and vines made from minerals, manure and medicinal plants. The largest certification body is DEMETER, an international association, and wines that meet their standards have this symbol on the bottle’s back label.
The jump from organic to biodynamic is not as huge as the first step towards organic cultivation.

Certification requires full use of biodynamic methods for two years, but this can mean as little as six extra days work a year. Biodynamic wine producer Vincent Rochette, at Domaine Roche- Audran explains "Organic brings life back to the soil, but biodynamics also bring the sky and the cosmos. I cannot prove it works, but I can see increased populations of soil organisms and my vines have thicker roots and branches. Above all, the wine tastes more alive to me."

I regularly take my guests to visit Roche-Audran, and no one can fail to notice the noise in summer from the vineyards as birds, bees and the provençal cicada compete to be heard. Its also important for biodynamic vignerons to have animals near their vines to generate life force — and good manure. The horses in the paddock are used to gently plough the fragile soils, while many biodynamic vignerons also keep a cow or two. Biodiversity is encouraged.


Natural Wine

Lastly a word on the natural wine movement. These are a group of, at present, undefined and non accredited winemakers extending the organic/ biodynamic principles of low, natural intervention in the vineyard, (as outlined above), into the winery itself. They eschew the wine technology of the last 30 years which has introduced controlled cellar practices and the use of additives to manage the wine. These practices have often been developed in countries like Australia by larger wine conglomerates to make a mass produced, fault free wine. The term natural has divided the wine world; what exactly is acceptable as natural? A natural winemaker is a purist who shuns any additions to the wine, including yeasts, sugar and allows only a minimum of sulphur. Others accept that sometimes the wine 'needs a hand' in their making, but would still describe their wines as a natural product. For me, the real test of any of these practices is the taste of the wine in the glass. I hope you will now think a little longer about your choice of wine, be it from a supermarket shelf or from your neighbouring vigneron.

 

 

If you would like to meet some of these wine producers, or want to learn more about wines www.aubergeduvin.com

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