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How To (Not) Go Green (Organic Wines Still Suck)

Dude has seen quite a bit of press regarding organic and biodynamic wines, which are understandably riding the marketing wave of increased consumer demand for healthier, more naturally-made food products.

At industry wine-tasting events, organic and biodynamic viticulture is touted at nearly every distributor's and/or winery's boot,h in order to get a edge over their adjacent competition for eyes, mouths, and wine orders.

Anyone who has had local, organically grown produce, or tasted a fresh hunk of free-range chicken right off the grill, knows firsthand that these products often taste better, are healthier for you, and are superior in quality to their mass-manufactured counterparts.

The story is a bit different when it comes to wines.

That's because most organic wines suck.

It's not just this dude's opinion - in 2005, Tom Stevenson (noted wine writer and critic, and the driving force behind the brilliant Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia and the indispensable annual industry Wine Report) wrote the following regarding the state of organic wines:

  • "When great winemakers... "go green" they produce great organic or biodynamic wines. However, it is quite another matter when others less passionate about the quality of wine are organic. While they may well have a true passion for the environment, the majority of the world's organic producers clearly have no idea how to make a superior quality wine."
Part of this viewpoint undoubtedly has to do with our expectations as consumers of organic / biodynamic products, spurred on by marketing that goads us into automatically assuming that these products are better for the environment (usually true), are healthier for us (also usually true) and are of higher quality (uh... not quite...). That last part still requires skill, and a passion to make something of real quality, no matter what the methods.

As consumers, we're also confused about exactly what organic and biodynamic really mean. In summary, they are both government-regulated terms, meaning if you follow the production standards laid out by the government, then you're allowed to use those terms on the label. At a high level, this is what's required for winemakers to "go green":
  • Organic: the wine is made with the minimum amount of sulfer dioxide, using grapes that have been grown without using chemically-based pesticides/herbicides and fertilizers.
  • Biodynamic: the grapes are grown without using chemical or synthetic fertilizers & sprays; natural yeasts are used for fermentation of the wine, with minimal use of sulfer dioxide, filtration, and chapatalization (the addition of sugars to raise the potential alcohol in the finished wine - which happens much more often then you really want to know about...).
Notice what is NOT represented above - measurements of quality.

So, how have things fared in terms of quality standards for organic wines since the dire outlook penned by Mr. Steven in 2005? Not too good.

Most organic wines still suck.

A great example comes from the Organic Wine section of the 2007 Wine Report: according to the report, Chile (an ever-expanding hotbed of quality wine production) is becoming "a graveyard for failed organic projects" because in order to make quality wine some producers are running organic and non-organic wine growing systems in parallel - a total nightmare in terms of vineyard management.

The problem is that it's much easier to market organic than it is to make great organic wines. And if producers had figured out how to make top quality wine organically, they wouldn't need parallel systems - and certainly would have more certified organic acreage under vine.

Europe has, by far, the largest amount of certified-organic vineyard areas - just under 82,000 hectares, which sounds impressive but is only a "whopping" 2.2% of the total vineyard acreage. Half of that 2.2% is concentrated in just one country - Italy, whose farmers were subsidized heavily by the government to convert to organic! In the U.S., biodynamic conversions are on the rise, but the numbers are equally paltry - 1.7% in California (though Oregon is leading with just under 10%).

The moral of the story, at least for this dude, is not to jump too fast onto the organic bandwagon when it comes to wine. While there are some organic producers making top-notch stuff, if you don't know the producer and it says organic on the label, then it could (in fact, is likely to be) "green" plonk.


Remy Charest said...

I agree completely that organic or biodynamic doesn't make wine better. And actually, it seems to me that the more people advertise their organic status, the less interesting the wines tend to be.

Many producers who care to make the very best wines are biodynamic (Nicolas Joly, Anne-Claude Leflaive, Alvaro Palacios, Tom Lubbe at Matassa and The Observatory, Eben Sadie, the list goes on), but they don't trumpet it with the amp turned on to 11. In fact, their bottles only mention biodynamics in passing, if that.

I am convinced that biodynamics, especially, is a great way to make top wines, improving their character, concentration and distinctiveness. But it has to go hand in hand with great winemaking. It's not a magic bullet. Nothing is.

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