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Debate on green issues in wine must continue

Debate on green issues in wine must continue

Debate on green issues in wine must continue

Earlier this month a debate was held between wine writer Monty Waldin, a specialist on organic issues and Dr Richard Smart, a highly experienced viticultural expert. In May this year was the first Natural Wine Fair in London, organised by Isabelle Legeron MW. During the whole year I seem to have had numerous conversations with both professional and amateur wine lovers about green issues. My view is that there is much confusion, and that the overall debate must deepen and continue.

The London Debate

green issues debate cartoon
This should and could have been the most important public debate on green issues in wine to be held for a long time. The ‘Great Grape Debate’ was a 2-hour debate run to Oxford-style debating rules and deftly chaired by Antony Moss MW of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. Both Monty, the proposer and Richard, the opposition are highly experienced in their respective fields, and known to have opposing views on organic issues.  The motion debated was “The UK Wine Trade should promote Organic and Biodynamic Wines”. The audience was small, but included experienced UK-based wine trade, media and educators. Videos of the debate can be watched in full on WSET’s YouTube channel.

The debate was reported upon as generally disappointing by Anne Krebiehl of Harpers and Richard Hemming of JancisRobinson.com among others. In addition I have read comments by a) Antony Moss, no longer in his Chairman’s role, on his personal Facebook page arguing that Richard Smart won the intellectual debate and b) by Monty Waldin on Jancis Robinson’s forum explaining that although he had ‘won’ the debate, many of his important points had been lost or misunderstood.

The fact that the room was largely in favour of the motion both before and after the debate indicates only, I believe, that the wording of the motion was poorly chosen. It is obvious that the UK Wine Trade should promote organic wines but to what extent and why are the two important questions to debate. In addition, it became clear in question time that many in the audience felt the consumer was not being  properly considered in our debate, which I should stress was largely about wine farming or viticulture, not about wine production, which after all is not Smart’s forte.

Either a more tightly worded motion or a more controversial one could have had a more interesting result. “The UK wine trade should do more to educate the consumer about the benefits of organic and biodynamic wines” might have been very apt for the WSET as host. Not only would the audience have been much more split at the start of the debate, but also I believe Monty and Richard would have put forward their positions much more clearly in their short time. The important issues would have come out sooner, and the audience questions would have been more heated than in fact they were.

Lies, damn lies and statistics
It is clear that no-one knows what proportion of the world’s vineyards are farmed organically (including biodynamically) and those consumers who are particularly interested in seeking out organic wines believe there are far more than is actually the case. For a start, we have the knotty issue of those vineyards that are organically certified by an approved body, and those that are not. Around 10 years ago, the figure stated was around 2% of the world’s vineyards being organic; now I hear 5% is more the accepted figure, but accurate statistics evade my searches.

But, what does this statistic actually mean? Does the figure include the growing numbers of those producers who state they are ‘in conversion’ to organics through a recognised certification system or through just their good intentions (or a few, dare I suggest, perhaps not with such good intentions, but converting for marketing, rather than conviction reasons). Quite a proportion of producers who claim to be ‘natural’ (and yes, I’m one who hates that word, but more of this later) are not certified and some of these do not even farm 100% organically; conversely there are significant numbers of wine producers who do not claim any label whatsoever, but who have been farming organically for many years and would not dream of ever using chemical fertiliser, herbicide, fungicide or pesticide on their vineyards.

Good, bad, organic or natural wine
The term ‘natural wine’ is something I’ve been agonizing about writing a post on most of this year, during which time countless posts and articles have been written on the subject by others, some of which I’ve read and digested and two important books have appeared – Naked Wines by Alice Feiring and Authentic Wines by Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop, neither of which I’ve read yet. I don’t want to be seen as arguing against natural wine for the sake of it, but the following is my personal reasoning.

When I started work in wine over 30 years ago, there was simply ‘wine’ and most UK wine drinkers knew very little about how what they were drinking was made (possibly still the case). Because I became impassioned by the business and chose to make it my career and life, I learnt about it through recognised courses and experiences in working in the business. Thus, I knew – unlike most consumers – about the fact that there was nothing ‘natural’ about wine – fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides etc in the vineyard; sugar, filter agents and most notably sulphur dioxide (SO2 or sulphites) etc added in the winery – this was what was needed to make drinkable wine I learnt. On the other hand, at that time there was still a significant proportion of very bad wine around – oxidized wine, wine reeking of too much SO2 and a host of other faults, not to mention simply hard, acidic or tannic wines, devoid of any attractive fruit.

By the end of the 1980s, the overall quality of wine at every level was improving dramatically. In simplistic terms this was partly due to the rigour introduced by the New World in their wine production methods and partly due to the fact that many more wine producers were trained at winemaking colleges and avoided the most obvious winemaking faults. Better understanding of the importance of hygiene, and technology improved too, allowing in particular less SO2 to be used in the winemaking process, whilst still keeping the wines stable and fresh. At around the same time the organic movement started making some waves. Those of us in the business back then remember the huge quality variations in these wines that succeeded in putting some people off organic completely.

By the turn of the millennium, organic wines had also started to improve dramatically, and biodynamic wines were firmly on the radar. Personally, once I started to understand the philosophies behind the work being done, I found it hugely exciting that at last the environment was being considered in wine production and that some very good wines emerged from producers using these methods. I never once believed these wines were ‘better for the health’ but if they tasted good and at least protected the environment to some extent, why should I have anything but praise and encouragement for them?

The movement for natural wines
For me, the ‘Natural Wine Movement’ has spoilt the party. I was and remain a supporter of well-made, good tasting organic and biodynamic wines (strictly speaking, wines made from organic and/or biodynamically-farmed grapes). I am also delighted when I hear of innovation in wineries aiming to use fewer additives: wineries that shun chaptalization and acidification whenever possible; wineries  who normally use cultured yeasts experimenting with natural yeasts; keeping SO2 levels at low levels through use of excellent hygiene and controlled temperatures; and overall thoughtful winemaking. I have enjoyed over the years explaining these philosophies and methods to consumers whenever I have conducted tutored tastings to wine clubs and other groups. But, the fact that a proportion (anything from 10 – 50%) of any range of self-declared natural wines I’ve tasted has been either faulty or downright unpleasant, or indeed has deteriorated really quickly once opened, frankly upsets me and makes me worried on behalf of the excellent organic and biodynamic producers who increasingly find themselves bracketed with natural wines without even choosing to be.

Organic or ‘biologique’ as the French call it (‘biologico’ in Italian) and biodynamic are terms that are hard but not impossible to explain to consumers, and in my view consumers should be encouraged to support these wine producers. The terms ‘natural wine’ ‘nature’ (in French) or ‘natura’ (in Italian) are highly confusing for consumers and explanations tend to be full of waffle and inexact. Many wine producers have for years used the term ‘natural wine production methods’ in their marketing blurb meaning nothing at all. Then there is the Brut Nature label of sparkling wines with no dosage – I have met consumers recently who have been confused by both of these statements, thinking that the wines would be ‘natural’ when in fact they were not in any sense.

Isabelle Legeron MW, the most qualified active supporter of the natural wine movement in the UK, has done the best job at explaining natural wines and trying to develop a useable definition on her website, but there is no overall accepted definition for either wine producers or consumers to follow. Jancis Robinson MW, who as always is keeping her beady eye on the movement with various comments, wrote that early this month in Burgundy, she found herself trying to explain what natural wines were to Madame Lalou Bize-Leroy, of the famous and pioneering biodynamic wine producer, Domaine Leroy. In my own speciality area of Savoie, the biodynamic wine producer Michel Grisard of Domaine Prieuré St-Christophe whose wines were shown at London’s Natural Wine Fair laughed ruefully when I asked him why – he had no choice really, his importer had agreed to offer his wines for tasting and wanted his support, he hated the term ‘vin nature’ he said. These are great, great wine producers who make the best possible wines they can with respect to the environment – that is the message these producers would like to put across and the term ‘natural’ does them a disservice by associating them with too many faulty wines, risking bringing us back to the days when most consumers thought that organic wines were a highly risky buy in terms of the pleasure they might get.

Conventional wines and sustainability
In the debate in London, Richard Smart told of the fear growing amongst wineries he consults to about whether they would receive unfavourable critique for not converting to organic viticulture. In my own travels I have felt a certain defensive stance emerge amongst wine producers who do not practice organic methods – just one example of an ‘excuse’: in mountain regions with steep vineyards, to shun herbicides completely requires a huge amount of manual labour, that some producers can’t  afford.

However, many producers are being credited with using sustainable practices either with or without local certifications. Up until recently I’ve been very suspicious of the various sustainable accreditation schemes. In most they aim to reduce chemical use in the vineyard, using accurate weather forecasting to ensure only the minimum amount of chemicals is used on a strictly ‘as needed’ basis. However, I felt that most of these systems were limited in the good they did to protect the environment, paying lip-service only to green ideas. Yet, in the debate, from their different viewpoints both Richard and Monty touched upon sustainability as one answer to the future of greener wine production.

Bearing in mind that nearly 95% of vineyards are not entirely organically farmed, then a greater attention to truly sustainable methods along with better policing of such programmes should be highly encouraged. Not only this, but these programmes should address carbon footprint, recycling and use of local resources and people whenever possible.

The natural wine movement was inspired by the fact that organics did not encompass winery practices, therefore if there was a properly policed sustainable movement/accreditation to cover limiting (but not necessary forbidding) use of legal additives in the winery too, then we might be getting somewhere. There is an informal group of young wine producers in France who call themselves “Contains sulfites…. mais pas trop” which means “contains sulphites (spelt in their case the American way), but not too much”. It did made me smile when I saw it, though reading their philosophy in French it could baffle the average consumer (and note, I’m talking about average, not the intelligent, already ‘green’ thinking consumer) with phrases such as “addicted to their terroir” “respect for the environment” and “made only with sweat and passion”.

Considering that wine, relatively speaking, is a luxury item, every side of the wine trade should pay much more attention to the environment, and the consumer deserves to be reassured a) that claims made on green credentials are accurate and properly communicated and b) that they will find a good wine when they open the bottle. This debates must continue, feel free to continue it here in the comments.

Comments (13)

  1. Great article Wink. Thanks for sharing it with us. Yes, the debate must continue and the alleged ‘confusion’ made more clear.

    Dec 20, 2011
    • Thanks, Robert, we must all find better and more constructive ways to communicate the issues.

      Dec 20, 2011
  2. Interesting read.
    Though I know very little about the whole green issue in wine. My wife is a winemaker at a winery (Lapostolle in Chile) Which has over the last 4 years gone from partly organic to registered biodynamic. It has been fascinating to watch (and taste) the process, and as a photographer in the wine industry I have viewed and photographed the changes, which are not slight. One being in Spring there is a lot more colour in the vineyards.

    As for the actual wines. Ask any winemaker and I’m sure they will tell you
    “The wine does not become good because of it’s organic or biodynamic”

    Dec 20, 2011
    • Thank you, Matt. I love your observation that there are more colours in spring from the change to biodynamic growing. One worrying thing I saw last autumn was on a visit to a biodynamic producer in the Aube, Champagne. He pointed out some bright green vines (whilst his and others were changing colours) – these, he explained, had received so much fertiliser earlier in the year, that with the very dry autumn, the vines thought they should still be vibrant…
      That last comment you made is so right too.

      Dec 20, 2011
  3. I’m a simple appreciator, not a connoisseur or aficionado, so perhaps my opinion matters not at all. However, I think its simply ridiculous to pay a premium for wine that isn’t organic. If a vintner really cares about their product and consumer, and puts a lot of effort into growing, selecting, vinting etc, but can’t be bothered to keep poisons off the grapes – well, its insulting to all of us. Its time that consumers demanded an actually high quality product and that would mean organic. Yes, its somewhat more difficult to produce organic. I suggest that a $50 bottle of wine should merit some real effort and care. Heck, a $10 bottle of wine merits it. A few years ago, I started to notice how many vineyards use Roundup as a matter of course right at the roots of the vines. OK, Roundup is supposedly harmless. So what? At these high priced and exclusive vineyards they can’t even pay a farm worker to clear out the weeds??? So then what are we really paying for?

    And right, ‘natural’ is a meaningless term. That’s not so hard to figure out. And ‘biodynamic’ is Steiner voodoo. But ‘organic’ in the US and ‘Bio’ in Euro are regulated labels and therefore, they do mean something. That’s also not so hard to figure out, so I was a bit surprised that Wink seemed to be confused about this??

    Ron Wolf
    Dec 20, 2011
    • Thanks for your comment, Ron. I’m not happy about Roundup either. But in general the situation in Europe is somewhat different to the rest of the world in that large numbers of single estates (some very well known ones) are very small indeed, often under 5 hecatares (12 acres) with only the family working on everything from care of the vineyards to making and marketing the wines – temporary, seasonal staff are taken on usually only at harvest time. Hence why in some cases, even amongst the very best, there may be one vineyard practice, perhaps using weed-killer once a year under the vines, or a systemic fungicide in a really difficult summer, that stops them being organic. I don’t want to speak out in favour of this, but I also don’t want to see some very good estates be penalised either. Even though they demand high prices, their actual turnover is often unbelievably low, working with very low yields.

      I personally am not confused about the different terms, but I can assure you, I’ve met many wine consumers who are, and many who don’t understand or even agree that ‘natural’ is a meaningless term.

      Dec 20, 2011
  4. Interesting article, Wink, and you make a good case about stricter requirements on labeling and classifying wine made using “sustainable” wine practices. I’ve just finished a three-month wine-making internship with one of France’s leading proponents of biodiversity in the vineyard. He uses a minimal amount of intervention in the cellar, and defending my internship report will be challenging as most of his philosophy is contrary to what is taught in our oenology courses. I share your aversion to the “natural wine” label, and it’s truly scandalous that so many such-named wines are flawed. By-and-large, this winemaker’s wines have a liveliness, a complexity and a palate of aromas and tastes that is far superior to any “technical” wine. And if the best that you can say about a wine is that it is without fault, you’ve not much to say about it.

    Dec 20, 2011
    • Thanks for adding to the debate with your comment, Tom and I wish you luck with your report on your stage with Didier Barral in Faugères, whose wines I would love to taste one day.

      I commend anyone interested in these practices to read Tom’s blog, the Vine Route, just click on his name to reach it.

      Dec 20, 2011
  5. Hi Wink

    Thanks for putting in the time to lay this out.

    Crisp and clear and thoughtful. You are one of my most revered experts. And a friend.

    I take a different point of view.

    I don’t see a consumer world wrapped in confusion.

    Winemakers who embrace a definition of natural do it because they want to. Some embrace this as part of how they sell, some don’t.

    Consumers understand that fruit is either organic or not, and often ask for clarity on whether there are sulfites added and does this really matter.

    I think it is the wine industry itself, struggling to understand how to communicate to its customers.

    And certainly, there are idiots who market poorly and misuse terminology. Building a system that focuses on the exceptions is a sure route to bad decisions and poor rules.

    But it really annoys me that the industry (and I say this lovingly Wink) feels the need to state that it may be organic but that doesn’t mean it is good.

    Organic has a legal meaning in the states and Europe. It say’s nothing about quality. Neither does the origin of the grapes, the year of the vintage. Quality exists in the taste of the consumer, no where else.

    People search by category. Place. Year. Grape. Type. And whether it is Organic.

    I wish there was a name for fear of labels and change because this is what this feels like.

    This discussion ignores that people want healthy products including wine. They also want great and interesting wine recommended by people they trust.

    So, how should they find this?

    In the states at least, restaurants, specialty shops, importers, distributors are seeking out producers which, to their tastes and to their definition, are great natural wines. They are gathering the information on the grapes, the additives, and more and communicating that down the line to the consumer.

    We are shopping where that information is.

    Handfuls of wine shops and wine bars and hundreds, possibly thousands of restaurants with the wine lists notated on whether the wine is Organic, Bio-D and Sustainable.

    So…this discussion is not about whether all wine is good. Or all natural wine is good. Or what a definition of natural is that suits most people.

    This is about disclosure and transparency of information coupled with individual taste.

    The market will vote with their dollars and at least in my isolated corner of the world, really great wine shops and bars, innovative restaurants are seeking out great natural wines and steadily (and without confusion) educating and informing and building a fan base for this non interventionist approach to wine.

    Change happens from the ground up, from the consumers, not from the industry or legislative body down. I feel this is happening.

    Thanks again for raising this discussion. It got my blood boiling on a cold winter day.

    Dec 20, 2011
    • Thanks for your comment and thoughts, Arnold – I was expecting my post to provoke a reaction in you and glad it warmed you up!

      I think that you’ve raised some very important points, especially that the industry itself is struggling to communicate – that’s exactly why I want the debate to continue.

      A couple of specific issues you mentioned that I would like to address:
      1) You mention that people are looking for healthy products including wine. There is no evidence that organic, biodynamic, or ‘natural’ wines are healthier for consumption than any other wine, apart from the miniscule number that are sulphur-free being healthier for the small number of people who are medically proven to be allergic to sulphur dioxide (many believe wrongly it is SO2 that causes any bad reaction that they get to wine).
      2) You said “This is about disclosure and transparency of information” and I so agree with this, that is precisely what I was saying about the term ‘natural wine’ being meaningless. Frankly, even with legislation in place, organic and biodynamic labels don’t give much detailed information either – there is a lot of latitude and interpretation about how each certification is interpreted. Sustainable likewise. These are some of the problems that the industry needs to work on in this continuing debate.

      You are lucky in your part of the world with both the demographics you have, the choice of wines and wine stores/restaurants etc available, and with the average spend there must be, that you receive so much information about the wines before you buy. I don’t believe that to be the case for the vast majority of wine purchases around the world including the vast majority (but not all) of the wine purchased in the UK.

      Overall, I know we agree on much more than we disagree upon, and thank you for your compliments!

      Dec 21, 2011
  6. Really good piece, Wink. And I think you are absolutely right to raise the issues and call for further debate. I agree that, in the UK, there is a great deal of confusion around the notion of ‘natural’ wines or ‘authentic’ wines.

    I think I prefer the latter term as it does suggest that the wines are true to their location – respect terroir and use traditional grape varieties – with minimum interference or intervention (as little use of herbicides, fungicides, sugar, sulphur as possible and as sensible, bearing in mind the balancing act that small-scale winemakers have in order to maintain their livelihood).

    ‘Organic’ is a term that is generally understood and is now well-established. ‘Biodynamic’ is certainly understood in France. I’m not so sure about the UK; I think Brits still consider is a bit loopy! But people who are interested in buying quality wines and in health issues will generally appreciate what is involved in the process of making ‘organic’ wines. They are also likely to buy organic fruit, vegetables, milk, bread, etc. And they recognise labeling of food as ‘organic’, ‘bio’ or ‘demeter’. So I don’t agree with Arnie that it is just a matter of ‘disclosure and transparency’. What would one put on the label of ‘natural’ wine? Or ‘natural’ fruit, vegetables, milk, bread? I think that introducing the term ‘natural’ just muddies the water (or wine!).

    Dec 21, 2011
    • Thank you, Carole. It’s true that if the ‘natural’ terminology that you and I don’t like is to continue and to gain greater acceptance worldwide, then some sort of labelling/official terminology will be required, and I believe that the various groups of self-proclaimed natural producers are discussing this, but by the very nature of the most vociferous members, they may have a hard time agreeing on controls!

      Dec 21, 2011
  7. To Carole….

    I didn’t mean to imply that it is ‘just’ a matter of disclosure. We already have a good base what ‘organic’ and ‘Bio-D’ means and as you and I both agree, an identification of the mass market with labels of health. And this implies whether sulfites are added.

    But…I don’t believe that labeling or legislation will happen anytime soon past this. For cultural reasons and because the complexity of wine will create endless debate on what should be ‘certified’.

    So with this base and disclosure we are well started.

    Re: labels of natural or authentic or whatever. They will happen from the ground up, around different groups, different communities and different retail outlets. It’s the ‘natural’ order of things and the way brands develop.

    Me…I love Natural as a superset category and until someone convinces me differently or gags me I will continue to use it:)

    Dec 22, 2011