And it is a question. Organic vine growing is increasing all over France and in Bordeaux in particular; Aquitaine is the third largest region of organic vines right behind Languedoc and Provence. In 2012 organic production in the region increased by 3% compared to 2011 with 735 organic wine producers cultivating 9752 ha and with another 4276 ha in conversion (a three year period). Most of these are in Bordeaux, and of these most are on the right bank.
But not everyone is convinced that this organic trend is a good thing. One of the issues raised is copper residue. Producing organic wines is particularly difficult in Bordeaux due to the humid oceanic climate and the fungal diseases (mildew and odium) that thrive in these conditions. Copper sulphate and lime (known as Bouilli Bordelais or Bordeaux mixture) is the traditional method for treating these diseases and is permitted in organic agriculture. It’s great for roses too.
Although the amounts of copper permitted for use in organic agriculture are less than in traditional agriculture, (4kg/ha/year of metal copper compared to 6kg averaged over five years for traditional agriculture), some argue that, as other options for treating are limited in organic production, it encourages use of more rather than less copper. The rain also washes this mixture off the vines, so re-application rates are high in a rainy year. More sophisticated synthetic treatments absorbed by the vine can continue to combat the problem despite the rain but are not permitted under an organic regime.
However several organic growers have mentioned to me that after several seasons using organic and especially biodynamic methods, they see the plant defending itself better against these diseases as the vines develop their own natural resistance the result being the need for less treatment.
Intensive use of copper has toxic effects on soils especially in light sandy soils. Formerly, doses of 30kg/ha/year were not uncommon, so this new regulation is a huge improvement. Organic producers of course agree that it would be better to stop using this heavy metal completely and research is under way to use other organic fungicides like sulphur or potassium bicarbonate, plant extracts and clay.
One of the issues in a region like Bordeaux, along with the humid oceanic climate is of course mono-culture (vines represent 50% of the agricultural area of the Gironde). The concentration of vines in the region leads to the rapid spread of diseases such mildew, odium, phyloxera and new problems such as Esca. Now the Asian Drosophila are also raising concerns amongst growers. Prevention is always better than cure and part of the ecological and organic movement is to increase biodiversity to combat this, which is a type of poly-culture in itself. You can see this in Bordeaux for example with the planting of wild flowers, in land lying fallow in between planting as well as elsewhere in the vineyards and the creation of hedgerows.
The importance of Biodiversity in the vineyard.
The notion of biodiversity is also about preserving the genetic diversity of the vines. Although only 6 red and a few more white grape varieties are currently permitted in the production of the AOC wines of Bordeaux, it was not always thus. Over the years, the range of varieties and of clones of vines planted has reduced. Through massal selection of vines from existing plots for grafting onto rootstocks for new plantings, many properties can maintain their unique vine profile, hence increasing both their complexity and their specificity. This technique pioneered by properties such as Château Haut Brion and is now more and more common for properties working closely with the specialised local vine nurseries. Some properties such as Smith Haut Lafitte have their own nurseries; theirs is safe from any genetic contamination on the “La Lande” island on the Garonne River. Château Guiraud created a vine conservatory in 2001, housing a collection of hundreds of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc vines from different vineyards that are used for research on massal selection. From this stock they produce 40,000 vines each year used by themselves and other Bordeaux vineyards.
Vine clones ready for planting
There has been an organic wine label in Europe since August 2012 with a corresponding logo. This Europe-wide label includes regulations for cellar management and winemaking as well as grape growing. Previously in existence wines had to be labelled as wine from organic grapes rather than organic wines – a subtle difference but an important one for purists. This new label obviously only allows the use of organic grapes but also limits the use of wine making additives (including S02) and sets the permitted organic wine practices.
The new European organic wine logo
Producers also have the option to use the AB (Agriculture Biologique) logo, which covers all organic agricultural production. This is not to be confused with natural wines for which, as yet, there is no legal European definition but which implies one produced using organic (or biodynamic) principles with a minimum of technological intervention.
Chateau de Seuil in Graves uses both the AB and the new Organic Wine logos on their label
However, not all organic wines producers use the logo. It is not obligatory. Some producers choose to be organic as a part of their philosophy but prefer not to mention it on the label. Too much information on the label? Managing expectations? Or perhaps they just feel that their brand and what it represents speaks for itself.
Many producers feel that the certification either does not go far enough or perhaps too far, in the damp climate of Bordeaux where the threat of mildew and odium are never far away, a slip up or a need for treatment in a tricky vintage (2013 springs to mind), means you are back to the drawing board for another three years.
Organic is not just for classified growths, on the contrary it is very much a grass roots movement (no pun intended) as the majority of properties certified as organic are not classified. There are a few notable exceptions, which brings welcome attention to the trend such as Chateau Pontet Canet in Pauillac was certified organic in 2010 and Chateau Guiraud in Sauternes in 2011. Chateau Fonroque in Saint Emilion has been certified biodynamic since 2005 and neighbouring Chateau Fonplégade is organically since 2013, the owners also have a organically certified vineyard in Napa to name a few.
And it is not just organic; sustainable agriculture and biodynamics are also part of the Bordeaux eco-mix and there are certifications for both.
Sustainable agriculture is a vague term open to many interpretations but is a notion that has a powerful impact on consumers. There is a Terra Vitis certification in France that committed growers can adhere to. Pheromone traps and sexual confusion in the vineyard, ploughing, modelling of diseases and close measurement of climate that allow a much reduced and more targeted use of agrichemicals are all techniques associated with sustainable agricultural methods.
Pheremone wires on vines at Chateau Sigalas Raubaud in Sauternes
Biodynamic viticulture takes organic culture a step further, often characterised by the process of burying cow horns full of manure or using the cycles of the moon there’s unsurprisingly a lot more to it than that. Practitioners consider the vineyard as a complete organism in itself and only use biodynamic treatments on the vines, mainly home made herbal concoctions, self-sufficiency being a key part of both organic and biodynamic principles. Biodynamic certification is subject to European regulations by the independent organisation Demeter and also Biodyvin the international union of biodynamic wine makers, the wine sector leads the biodynamic sector in France; in 2012 more than half of the 450 certified biodynamic French farms were vineyards.
Constant experimentation is a signature of Bordeaux wine making, both in the vines and in the cellars, and nowhere more so than in the sustainable/organic/biodynamic sector. Few properties would launch into a new method of culture or wine making without experimenting first. For example 3ha of the 78ha that make up Chateau Pichon Comtesse de Lalande are currently farmed organically and 3ha are biodynamic. Chateau Margaux is also experimenting and Chateau Latour has also been switching to biodynamic methods as can be illustrated by the horses often seen ploughing the vineyards.
Chateau Smith-Haut Lafitte has instigated it’s own Bio Precision approach, aiming to match the innovative viticulture and vinification techniques respect of the environment, promoting bio diversity through hedge plantation, use of natural grass, production of organic compost, horse ploughing, etc. They carry this through into the new ‘stealth’ wine cellar mentioned in a previous post. So there is clearly no conflict between organic and high tech.
Experimentation is the cellars too. Château Pontet Canet has been certified organic since 2010. They started in 2004 with 30ha and were so convinced they went 100% as of 2005, although with weather conditions in 2007 they were obliged to spray so it back to the drawing board until 2010. They then experimented in the cellars introducing a few concrete eggs or ‘amphorae’ in 2010. As of 2012 they now use 35% amphora for aging the wines alongside 50% oak barrels and the remaining 15% in one-year old oak. These amphorae bring the notion of terroir right into the cellar; the concrete is mixed with gravel stones for the Cabernet and with limestone for the Merlot along with the yellow clay from the vineyard.
The amphorae in the cellars of Chateau Pontet Canet
As I mentioned above the right bank has the greatest concentration of organic properties and it is an area that has been a hot bed of innovation in wine making technology as well as agricultural methods since the late 1980’s.
It reminds me of how when the ‘garage wine’ movement first started in the right bank with a lot of more established producers showing disdain for the ideas but now later harvest dates, cold soaks and selection tables are common place throughout Bordeaux – we are seeing a similar thing with organic agricultural techniques, more and more producers are reducing chemical loads, ploughing, using lighter tractors, growing green crops between plantings and using pheromones in their vines to control the vine moths through sexual confusion. This last practice is also open to some criticism as again not everyone is convinced that having large concentrations of insect pheromones in the air is necessarily a good thing.
Some properties may not be certified or searching certification but the theories and methods introduced by the certification are taking a hold and the results can be clearly seen as you drive around the vineyards. Non certified properties use many of the sustainable, organic and biodynamic principles such as Chateau Clinet in Pomerol, where owner wine marker Ronan Laborde talks of gentle farming methods and uses the biodynamic practice of tying the vines rather than trimming. This works perfectly on the vines that, as of 2004, they raised by 10-15 cm to obtain a larger leaf area to favour the ripening of the grapes. A programme that took 2 years to complete.
‘Living’ soil at Chateau Clinet
It’s now common to see more ploughing going on between vines to control weeds but also to aerate and bring the soil back to life. This is done more and more by horses. Chateau may either have their own horses such as at Chateau Latour, Chateau Pontet Canet or Chateau Troplong Mondot or by using specialist companies that provide the horse drawn ploughing services. Chateau Cheval Blanc uses such a service and yes, when I was there, it was a white horse pulling the plough.
Ploughing at Chateau Pontet Canet
Francois Despagne, owner of Chateau Grand Corbin Despagne, classified growth of Saint Emilion, is one of the most passionate viticulturalists I know in Bordeaux and is certified sustainable by Terravitis and had several experimental plots on the vineyard under organic before converting and becoming organic and is now experimenting with bio dynamics. His brother, Nicolas, owner of Chateau la Maison Blanche up the road in Montagne Saint Emilion, is a passionate advocate of biodynamics.
Bending the vines rather than strumming them – a practice once limited to biodynamics is now seen more often in Bordeaux vineyards
Certification is an expensive and complicated process and not all growers have the money or the manpower necessary to implement it, even if they agree with the philosophy. The CIVB (Conseil des Vins de Bordeaux – The Bordeaux wine council) has devised a way to help such properties. The System de Management Environmental (SME) is a process whereby the cost of a consultant and the certification process is shared between the CIVB and a group of wine makers or chateaux. The members also appreciate this collective initiative as an opportunity to exchange notes and share problems they encounter along the way. Currently 141 wine producers have reached the ISO 14001 environmental certification through this system and another 300 are currently engaged in the process, including wine merchants and cooperatives as well at chateaux, altogether totalling 12 500 ha of Bordeaux vines.
There are other interprofessional schemes; Bordeaux was the first vineyard to have a collective Carbon footprint project for the « Bordeaux Wine Climate plan 2020 » launched in 2010 with the objective of 20% less green house effect, 20% energy savings, 20% renewable energy, 20% water savings by 2020 in line with the European objective of cutting its emissions to 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020, The Bordeaux objective is -40 000 t.eq C by this date. It was 203 000 t.eq C in 2010. On-line Carbon foot print calculator is freely available for the Bordeaux wine community so they can measure and adapt their carbon footprint accordingly.
So where does this leave us? In 2012 over 40 400 ha of farmland were certified organic in France with another 24 351 in conversion (a 3 year programme). This is about 8% of French vines but also 6% of French organic agriculture – so wines are well ahead of the trend and the prognosis for 2013 was over 51 000ha.
Being ecologically responsible might give wine makers a nice warm feeling, but what is the motivation? With the majority of vineyards in Bordeaux being family owned, ecology is taken very seriously as chateau owners often consider themselves caretakers rather than owners, with a responsibility to hand down a healthy vineyard to future generations. Is there a price premium? In certain markets there is but it also gives access to new markets and helps differentiate products in what is a very competitive market, especially in mid-range priced wines. Does the organic or biodynamic product taste better? Well the jury still seems to be out although research shows there seems to be a higher concentration of some tannins as well as having an effect on alcohol levels. However, to produce both organic and biodynamic wines, requires attention to detail and this is clearly one way to ensure great quality.
But what about the market? Wine only accounts for 10% of sales of organic food in France but it’s on the increase; 15% a year from a turnover of 413 M € in 2012, a third of which is sold directly from estates – so better margins for producers. Market data provided by Agence Bio in 2011 gave the revenue from organic wines as 360 million Euros at 4 per cent of all wine sold in the country. This was a higher share of organic than for the total food market, where organic food sales constitute just 2.3 per cent.
The recent publication of 3rd edition of Le Guide des Vins en Biodynamie, by Bordeaux publisher Editions Feret, is perhaps a good indication of increased interest.
What does the future hold? European organic wine certification remains a work in progress with an update expected in August 2015. The various private certification standards are seen as a base for further evolution of pan-European standards looking at themes such as: biodiversity in grape production, soil fertility and soil life, alternative approaches to pests and diseases, sustainability of grape production, wine processing and storage, quality and source of organic wine ingredients, of yeasts quality both including wild yeasts and spontaneous fermentation, limitations on additives including a possible total of sulphites, further limitations on processing techniques, limitations on tools and equipment, etc, etc.
In 2011 8% of French vineyards were organic (61 000 ha) compared to about 6% of the EU as a whole (interestingly enough the UK showed the highest percentage at over 16% – but I know it’s a tiny surface area compared to France) it is notable that the organic vineyards have exhibited far higher growth rates than the overall organic farmland.
In a global context, Europe is by far the largest player when it comes to organic vineyards: Europe’s 260,000 hectares of organic vineyards constitute 89 per cent of the total area under organic vines worldwide and represent 3.7 per cent of all vineyards. Major producers outside Europe are the United States (almost 12,000 hectares in 2008) and Chile (4,600 hectares).
As mentioned above, just like all wine makers organic wine makers love to experiment and the organic wine movement seems to be particularly good at participatory R & D, in both the field and wine cellars. Subjects such as lowering copper input are being looked at in this way and they are also working with other agricultural products where copper use is an issue see http://www.co-free.eu
Everyone benefits; wine is a relatively prosperous agricultural sector –not everywhere (that includes parts of Bordeaux) and it is also a competitive and dynamic sector and research into issues of organic wine benefit other agricultural products too. I think this is where the future lies, along with more closely aligned legislation with export markets so different organic producers from around the world can sell as organic in their various export markets.
The 2015 review of the organic wine certification is around the corner – it needs that time lapse to have a couple of vintages under our belts especially in Bordeaux when wines are often bottled between 24 and 30 months after harvest – exciting times ahead for gentil farmers.