Organic wine has really taken off in recent years and consumer reports predict healthy growth over the next decade. In Germany and France, the category has been growing by about 18% and 14% annually over the last decade. In the Netherlands too, interest is on the rise: a recent survey suggested 89% of people who drink wine regularly had tried organic wine and thought it had a positive image.
If you live or spend time here in Spain, you’ve probably noticed things are increasingly pointing in an organic direction. There are more than 120,000 hectares of organically-certified vines planted in Spain. That’s around 12% of the total vineyard area and represents close to one-third of the global total. If you add in Spanish wineries producing, bottling, and selling organic wine, the country accounts for about 29% of the global organic wine market.
What is organic winemaking?
That all sounds very good and healthy, but what exactly is organic winemaking? Well, it essentially breaks down into two parts. First off, in the vineyard, the grapes have to be grown using organic viticulture. And second, in the winery, the wine has to be made following specific organic standards.
In the vineyard
In the vineyard, the focus is on protecting and preserving ecosystems and biodiversity and working for the long-term health and fertility of the soil. That means a ban on man-made, chemical-based compounds like fertilisers, fungicides, pesticides or herbicides. It also means no genetically modified material can be used.
Instead, organic producers use natural additives like compost to stimulate and improve the quality of the soil. In fact, one of the key differences between organic and conventional viticulture is that organic growers focus on caring for the soil to promote and support healthy vines, whereas conventional growers focus more on the plant itself.
A ‘prevention rather than cure’ approach
Organic also means a ¨prevention rather than cure¨ approach. So, growers will concentrate much more on things like ¨canopy management¨. This means trimming and contouring the leaves on the vine. Which in turn, ensures lots of airflow to keep the grapes healthy and stave off fungal diseases.
Inside the winery
Inside the winery, being organic means controlling what is added to the wine during production, and what techniques are used – particularly for filtering and preserving the wines. One of the main substances people look out for is sulphur dioxide or SO2. In winemaking, SO2 is used to preserve and disinfect. But it’s worth noting that sulphites are also produced naturally during the fermentation process. So not all sulphites are additives
There’s been a big debate in the wine world about the possible side effects of sulphites and possible allergic reactions. The jury is still out, although under EU organic wine regulations the amounts permitted are so low – between 100 – 150 mg/litre – that most people probably wouldn’t notice.
Beyond that, there is an extensive list of additives that are not allowed to be used in the winemaking process. Furthermore, techniques like nano or ultra-filtration, and heat treatments above 70°C, are also not permitted.
How do you know if a wine is organic?
So how do you know if a wine is organic? Well, unfortunately, organic standards vary from country to country and there is no single global standard. However, the EU has put in place an organic certification framework which comprises a set of regulations for grape and wine production. So, if you see the EU organic label on a bottle of wine – it’s a leaf made of stars on a green or dark background – then you can be sure the wine you are drinking is officially organic.
As consumers, we are becoming more and more conscious of what goes into the food and drink that we put into our bodies. Europe’s organic wine producers and the pretty rigorous standards they follow help us to achieve that. So, if you do choose to open a bottle of organic wine, you’ll be enjoying a natural product that supports a rural environment and a way of life that can help to benefit us all.
Matthew Desoutter is Co-Founder and Director of Simply Spanish Wine, the online wine shop for wine lovers in Spain. To find out more visit: www.simplyspanishwine.com