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conventionalwinemaking

Education Life

OUR BLIND LOVE AFFAIR WITH ORGANIC WINES

Châteauneuf du Pape vineyard soil
Photo credit: Jasper Van Berkel

When I was a kid, it wasn’t uncommon to see people throw bags of leftover McDonald’s wrappers out of their car windows on the highway. Recycling was a new and little understood concept. And we regularly left the tap running while we brushed our teeth or did the dishes.

We would never have spend good money on bruised, mis-shapen produce or sprung 5$ more to ensure that our meat was grass-fed and hormone-free.

How times have changed.

I often find it curious how we as a society swing from one extreme to another before finally reaching a middle ground.  Today’s eco-conscience, Western consumers are increasingly dogmatic in their quest for organic goods. They spend the extra time and money to procure them, and pat themselves on the back for their efforts. I should know. I am one of them.

Do you sense a vaguely sarcastic tone? Oh, it’s there alright. For, what is often lacking in this right-minded behaviour is a sense of critical thinking. It is a drastic over simplification to assume that a product is truly environmentally friendly because it has “organic” stamped on it.

It is a drastic over simplification to assume that a product is truly environmentally friendly because it has “organic” stamped on it.

How good for the planet are organic bananas, wrapped in a plastic containers, flown up from Central America? Sure, you could argue that they beat the same fruit sprayed with pesticides that kill the soil and surrounding flora and fauna…but again, there is more to the debate than this.

I regularly hear wine lovers and professionals alike enthuse about a winery, citing its organic or biodynamic status as the primary reason for loving them. Shouldn’t taste be the n°1 criteria for liking one wine more than another? And how sure can you be that the estate in question is truly behaving sustainably from the vine to the bottling line? Your reasons might include the following:

They are certified. There exist a vast number of organic wine certifying bodies around the world; each with different rules and regulations. The common thread is a ban on artificial chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. However, not all certifications cover the products used in the winery. Furthermore, the levels of heavy metals permitted in organic viticulture can build up dangerous levels of soil toxicity, leading to “dead” soils that require regular fertilizer additions for vines to grow.

Domaine Fondrèche of the Rhône Valley recently joined an increasing number of French winemakers by dropping his organic certification (Eco-cert). Speaking to Decanter magazine last year, estate owner Sebastien Vincenti said: ‘I will reduce the copper build-up in the soils by changing my treatment programme to one that is more balanced between organic and synthesized products. The amount of oil used for tractors will also be halved, as I will not need to apply the treatments so regularly, so I will be lowering my carbon footprint’.

…the levels of heavy metals permitted in organic viticulture can build up dangerous levels of soil toxicity…

I have been to the vineyard and seen the soil health and biodiversity first-hand. This is certainly a solid and compelling argument. Growers committed to thriving vineyard environments are definitely worth favouring, but one should still ask themselves…to what extent are these ecological principles practiced? I recently saw footage of helicopters swooping back and forth over the vineyards of a revered biodynamic estate in Burgundy to ward off frost. I make no judgement as to the detrimental environmental impact of hours of helicopter fuel. Even the wealthiest domaines can little afford to lose a whole years’ crop and damage the latent buds for the following seaon. I just think consumers should be aware of these contradictions.

And what of irrigation? California is often held up as a gold standard for sustainable vineyard management. Yet, the bulk of wines produced in this frequently drought-stricken land are entirely dependent on irrigation. High-end wineries selling wines at premium prices are increasingly making efforts to reduce water usage, but the real volume of wine production comes from the entry to mid-tier level wines (sub 20$). A 2016 University of California Davis study shows an average of 300 litres of irrigation water used to produce a mere 1 litre of wine. The vineyards might look healthy, but at what cost to the planet?

As you can see, the subject is not as cut and dry as one might assume. Some wineries’ environmental efforts are little more than empty marketing ploys, while others are quietly making earth-friendly choices, without plastering the evidence of their good deeds on their labels.

…an average of 300 litres of irrigation water is used to produce a mere 1 litre of wine in California…

This is why I have always been more attracted to wineries that speak about sustainability rather than strictly defined organic practices. My ideal wine producer makes ecological choices holistically and pragmatically; weighing out environmental impact at each juncture (within feasible economic limits) rather than following a pre-set guideline. They also consider the social aspect of their enterprise. An estate that treats their grapes better than their employees surely doesn’t deserve our patronage?

Don’t mistake my meaning. I am not against organic certification; many adherents truly are leaders in vineyard ecology. And I certainly champion any efforts a winery makes to become more green. I merely suggest that wine drinkers beware of putting blind faith in estates’ organic claims, and not jump too quickly into assuming the moral high ground for these wines over their ‘conventionally farmed’ peers.

Life

THE PURSUIT OF PURITY

Condrieu - glass & vineyard
Photo credit: Condrieu vineyards, Jasper Van Berkel

Purity. This simple six letter word conjures up profound connotations of flawless perfection. In recent years, it has become a buzzword for the natural wine movement. It is bandied about freely in winery literature, press articles and the like. In a recent Meininger’s article, Canberra-based natural winemaker Bryan Martin reckoned that his pét nat sparkling Riesling offers, ‘the most pure expression of Riesling that you can get’.  Isabelle Legeron asserts that, ‘natural wines have purer flavours…’ in the Basic Introduction to Natural Wine on her excellent website.

Let me start by saying that I am an enthusiastic supporter of growers that strive to create healthy, balanced vineyards free of chemical poisons. I actively seek out producers crafting singular wines that stand out from the crowd. I therefore applaud natural winemaking and its laudable principles. However, I take issue with the community’s appropriation of the notion of purity.  This act has tacit implications for other winemaking styles. It also calls into question the true motivation of its admirers.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, purity means ‘freedom from adulteration or contamination’. The majority of low interventionist wines are made without additives. In this sense, deeming them pure is a fair assessment. Wild yeasts are allowed to spur spontaneous fermentation, acid levels are not adjusted, commercial enzymes are eschewed and sulphur dioxide, if used at all, is kept to a strict minimum. In ideal conditions: impeccable winery hygiene, scrupulous oxygen management, precise temperature control from fermentation right through to the moment of consumption, these wines can be divine. The complexity, elegance and, indeed purity, of well-made natural wines is, to me, a given.

But ideal conditions are rarely achieved in winemaking, as in life. Naturally occurring yeast colonies often struggle to complete fermentation as alcohol levels and temperatures rise. Stuck fermentations are common leaving the must at risk of exposure to all manners of yeasts and bacteria that can significantly alter aromatics and flavours. This isn’t always a bad thing. In certain cases, the result is a heightened complexity that gives the wine infinitely more appeal. Be this as it may, microbial infection is a form of contamination, rendering the affected wine impure if we are to take the dictionary definition literally.

…ideal conditions are rarely achieved in winemaking, as in life.

This idea takes on additional significance if we consider the most common usage for this term. More often than not purity, as relates to wine, is a descriptor for the character of the fruit. In the glossary section of the Wine Cellar Insider, purity is likened to ‘tasting a sweet, ripe berry off the vine’. And yet, the heady raspberry bouquet of Grenache is muted in the presence of pungent Brettanomyces-induced barnyard aromas. The acrid pitch of high volatile acidity levels overshadows the fruity vibrancy of even the spriteliest Gamay. To me, wines protected from microbial and oxidative reactions, with precision and restraint, show far brighter, more expressive fruit.

The reputed natural wine advocate Pierre Jancou, speaking though his website MorethanOrganic.com, purports that natural wines have ‘purity and honesty of expression’, while wines made in a conventional way ‘taste of the same few manufactured flavours’. The term conventional is murky. For many adherents to the natural wine movement, any manipulation in the winery equates to conventional winemaking. Following that logic, the simple act of chaptalising, commonly practiced in most cool vintage for even top Burgundy estates, renders wines conventional. I don’t know of many fortunate enough to taste the exquisite wines of Domaine Leflaive that would claim they lack complexity or a true sense of terroir.

The notion of honesty of expression is also troubling as it stakes out a moral high ground for natural wines. The insinuation is anything but subtle. Wines made with any form of vinification aides or antioxidants are dishonest; those that imbibe are being duped. So does the practice of egg white fining at Château Margaux make their wines less sincere? With the softening of the tannins, does the pure expression of this storied wine lessen?

The notion of honesty of expression is troubling as it stakes out a moral high ground for natural wines.

American writer Calvin Trillin once said, ‘the price of purity is purists’. Time and again, I have found myself staring down zealous sommeliers who swears only by natural wines. They have an almost religious fervour about them, blithely filling their wine lists with offerings that only a handful of customers will actually enjoy. They condemn other wine styles and patronize those that dare to offer a differing opinion.

The thought that intrigues me is, deep down, do enthusiasts truly love the wines, or is it the idea of experiencing so-called purity that has them hooked? Every field has its share of purists. My musician brother told me of audiophiles that go to insane lengths and spend upwards of 50 000$ on sound systems in the pursuit of ‘the perfect sound’. Where does one draw the line between passion and obsession? And what is the virtue of purity for purity’s sake?

The danger, as I see it, is a narrowing of scope. Purists often have a limited view of what is acceptable, and what is not. Applying a strict set of doctrines to winemaking seems a step backward. I often hear natural wine advocates claim that the wines hearken back to the days before industrialization. And yet, I am quite sure that if our forefathers, who watched in dismay when their wine turned vinegary, could have flipped a switch to cool their tanks, or restarted fermentation with cultured yeasts, they would have. The winemakers I admire most embrace both tradition and innovation. They step back when they can and step in (with a gentle touch) when necessary to preserve wine from spoilage.

The danger, as I see it, is a narrowing of scope. Purists often have a limited view of what is acceptable, and what is not.

For all the well-crafted natural wines out there that truly embody a notion of purity, there are as many top class conventionally made wines that can justly make the same claim. The term cannot simply be brandished by one camp as a distinguishing feature of style.  Firstly, because the assertion is often inaccurate. Secondly, as applying the word to a specific winemaking philosophy carries the insinuation that wines not made in this manner are impure and therefore less worthy. This powerful implication could well be the reason that many wine lovers have become such die-hard fans. Perhaps it is time for natural wines to lay down the banner of purity and let drinkers decide for themselves?