As featured in the April issue of Longevity: Organic wine. It’s attractive in terms of food safety (no harmful residues or additives) while also appealing to your conscience (good for the planet). Unfortunately, organic wine is necessarily a tiny category, if not an entirely empty concept.
At stake is a subtle but important distinction between wine made from “organically grown grapes” and “organic wine”. The former covers practices in the vineyard alone and not in the cellar, and can be defined as grape growing that shuns the use of manmade pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or fertilizers. Full-blown organic wines, meanwhile, require a particular approach to the winemaking, with restrictions placed on how the grapes are processed. In particular, the permitted levels of sulphur dioxide (a preservative and disinfectant) are lower.
Making wine with no added sulphites has its adherents (who argue that this leads to the most authentic product possible) but the resulting wines often have a rather unusual taste profile and are prone to premature development. Locally, there are very few examples of wines that are entirely organic or “natural” as they are sometimes termed and these typically don’t go into the mainstream.
Those concerned about “green” issues will be glad to learn that the organic farming movement, though at a relatively early stage, is gaining converts all the time. Organic farming is premised on the idea that nature is self-balancing. Encourage biological diversity and the vineyard will develop natural defences against attack from pest and disease. Soils, meanwhile, will be preserved and enhanced. There are thus economic gains to be had as a result of less expenditure on chemical treatments while it is also the morally responsible course of action, not to mention the marketing advantages.
There are, however, a few obstacles to the growth of the organic farming movement. For one thing, acquiring official certification has its own set of expenses and can be burdensome. Neighbours that farm according to conventional methods can easily contaminate organic vineyards while practicing organic viticulture is also hugely risky: in the face of a severe downy mildew epidemic, for instance, organic methods of fungicide will be inadequate and could lead to the loss of an entire crop. And finally, of course, it presumes a level of engagement with the issues from the consumer that often isn’t there.
However worthy the notion of “organic” might be, it is important to note that while it might be related to “environmentally sustainable”, the two are not synonymous: sustainable production needs to be broadly defined and includes social and economic dimensions.
South Africa leads the way when it comes to a partnership between the wine industry and the conservation sector. this taking the form of the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative. This project sees producers committing to conserving a portion of their land according to prescribed standards, BWI members being allowed to carry a sticker featuring a sugarbird on a protea. In addition, the Wine and Spirit Board, the official regulatory body of the industry, issues a seal certifying “Integrity and Sustainability” which also bears a graphic of a protea. Look out for either when next shopping for wine if you want to contribute to conserving the Cape Floral Kingdom, the smallest and richest of the six on earth.