Without doubt, there has been an increasing focus in recent years on organic winemaking and sustainable viticulture, but there are still some big issues to iron out before they become truly meaningful concepts within the wine trade, the food service industry and beyond.
Amongst the key consumers of wine, including restaurants, corporate customers (often with a serious Corporate Social Responsibility agenda) and particularly those drinking at home, I believe that the number who really understand, or even care about, these green issues in wine is still surprisingly small.
The first key question to ask ourselves about organic wine is why those involved in wine, including end users, should even care about the issue. Most of us have views (and buying habits) when it comes to organic foodstuffs, of course, but why highlight the concept in relation to wine in particular?
There is certainly now a consensus amongst winemakers that overuse of chemicals in the past has caused serious problems in the vineyards, from the ground upwards. The damage that has been done to the complex ecosystems of vineyards, including the chemical balances of their soil and increasing resistance in pests, is undoubtedly a very significant concern. However, if we were going to simply assume for a moment that organic winemaking is worth striving for, how many of us actually know what were really aiming for?
Broadly speaking, a working definition of organic winemaking might be the production of both grapes and wine without use of synthetic treatments or additives. An issue that goes beyond the wine trade, though, is the lack of global consensus on what organic actually means. There are multiple definitions of the meaning of organic wine(making), in Europe, the United States and elsewhere, and even these can vary depending on their context. In fact, organic wine is still not a legally recognised term.
As an example of the confused state of things, take the use of sulphur: a natural substance which most winemakers consider indispensable in the winery as an antiseptic and antioxidant and which is also produced as by-product of the fermentation process. While producing quality wine without sulphur is undoubtedly much tougher (maybe even impossible at some levels), there are many organic purists in the wine trade who firmly believe that sulphur, as an artificial treatment of sorts, shouldnt be used at all.
Within its legislative framework on organics, the EU allows certain quantities of sulphur to be used (but generally around one third of the amount used in conventional wine production), with stricter rules applying in the US but, at present, the term wine made from organic grapes is the most that a winemaker is permitted to put on his or her label as far as the law is concerned.
I am not convinced that most consumers would actually feel strongly against the judicious use of sulphur in the winery but, where we dont even have consensus on what the term means or what it
should mean, this issue alone shows that were still some distance from really understanding (and actively seeking out) organic wine.
Sustainabilityin winemaking doesnt set the bar quite as high in some respects as organic practices and so represents, to a degree, a more achievable goal. I know some argue that the concept simply means going organic unless something goes wrong but I believe we should all support winemakers who are aiming to achieve practices which are both economically viable and ecologically sound.
There are very sound reasons for improving dramatically on mistakes that have been made with chemical treatments in the past and there is very clear evidence that innovative ideas can work, in the interests of both winemakers and consumers. As part of the practice now known as Integrated Pest Management (IPM), ideas as simple as the introduction of ladybirds as alternatives to insecticides, for instance, have been shown to be effective, both from a financial and environmental perspective. However, in common with the term organic, sustainability also has a plethora of meanings within the wine trade and accreditation schemes vary within both countries and their grape growing regions. The term can mean anything from carbon offsetting, to saving water, to relevant staff training and such inconsistency can be of no help to the typical wine drinker who is at least willing to try to be more environmentally aware in his or her buying habits.
So if winemakers themselves, and the accreditation schemes under which they operate, arent consistent and transparent, and may actually be setting themselves very low ecological standards in certain parts of the world, then how on earth can well-meaning consumers be expected to proactively change their habits?
The bigger picture
I would also question precisely how much wine drinkers are ever likely to care about organic (or nearly organic) wine. Many people perceive wine to be a greener product and also, almost inevitably, put health considerations to one side when it comes to alcohol, almost certainly why organic wine isnt nearly as big an issue as organic foodstuffs. Value for money is still a key issue in wine, particularly at lower end where the fixed costs are greater and particularly in these less certain times. Any sort of a price premium reflecting the additional, short- term costs usually involved in producing wine organically or sustainably (although it is important to note that in the longer term those costs are likely to reduce and even fall below those of conventional methods) these may simply be too much for many
Of course, there is a bit of a chicken and egg to all of this: consumer habits may change as the range and quality of organically- and sustainably-produced wine on offer expands. There have already been serious improvements in this respect and, in some cases, winemakers have been making critically acclaimed wine (even some of the very best, in fact, including the white Burgundies of Domaine Leflaive) organically for decades.
I believe that sustainably produced (if not fully organic) wine, is an achievable and laudable goal, but we wont get there unless we can reach greater consensus and ensure that the whole issue is significantly more transparent.