Oenophiles clamor for organic labels, but is it more than just marketing?
Author: Chris Miller | Published: Thursday, May 23, 2013
The wine world is complex and marketing creates even more ways to muddle the facts when actually, at its core, wine is pretty simple and almost makes itself. The right temperature, a bit of yeast, some sugar and off the fermentation goes. The results wouldn’t be much to write about without a good balance between all the other natural components of wine along with the grape sugars that turn to alcohol creating wine.
After World War II, agriculture embraced all the new farming techniques that included fertilizers and pesticides to increase the yields and quality of produce. Winemakers also took to these new methods, many of which allowed bigger grapes, more clusters per vine and thus more juice. But more isn’t always better. The result was more mass-produced styled wines and both the land and the wines suffered. Some wine producers reacted and began farming more naturally, most of which started in the early 1980s. At first it was done quietly, but they gradually began to announce that they were farming naturally, using several terms all with slightly different definitions. These include organic, biodynamic, sustainable, eco-friendly and even just plain natural, all of which is a bit convoluted for the end-user of wine.
Originally the reason wine farmers embraced more natural methods was to create more interesting and higher quality wines. Along with farming advances technological advances also began to take place in the winery, some of which are not exactly natural. Refrigeration allowed winemakers to control the speed and temperature of the winemaking process. Ways to increase or decrease the acidity, or alcohol or color of the finished wines have also become available. Both of these tactics and others affect taste, not necessarily for the better. Besides being an alcoholic beverage that changes social behavior (for better or worse), wine is also a mechanism to bottle the taste of a place and the best way to do that is with as little intervention as possible. The region of Burgundy learned the hard way that too much technology in viticulture and viniculture can suffocate the terroir that make their great wines so distinct and valuable.
The most important contribution organic (et. al.) farming has provided is more distinctive wine. Grapes are seeds, aka the children of the vine and when the vine is happy with plenty of nutrients and water it produces fat and lazy grapes. If the vine is struggling to survive, the offspring are small but very strong and distinctive. Fat and lazy grapes produce boring wine. Small, distinctive and powerful grapes produce wines with great character and the taste of the terroir (or place). If a wine is organic or self-applies any of the other similar lexicons but is boring, then it’s missed the point and is really just a victim to a marketing ploy. Great wines come from vines that struggle a bit, so very fertile soils with plenty of irrigation can produce plenty of wine, but the opposite produces distinctive and potentially great wine. Like most things, it’s quality, not quantity that counts. I’d rather drink better but less, it might even be healthier for me.
Despite marketing labels of organic, biodynamic, sustainable etc., these wines come from soils and climates that make the vine struggle. The rewards are worth the taste:
2006 Château de la Selve Serre de Berty, Coteaux de l’Ardèche, FR
2010 Figge Cellars Paraiso Vineyard Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands, CA
2008 Tertulia Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills, WA
2010 Henri Richard Gevrey-Chambertin “Aux Corvées”, Burgundy, FR