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Organic Wines and Natural Wines - what is all the fuss about?

A selection of natural and organic wines

At Ballymaloe Literary Festival earlier this year I attended two talks on natural and organic wines, one with Isabelle Legeron who is a Master of Wine and the author of a book on Natural Wines, and another by winemaker Caro Feely who makes organic wine in Saussignac in South West France and whose wines we sell in Organico. I found both talks fascinating - both women are passionate about wine and feel very strongly that we should all consider very carefully the origins of and ingredients in the wine we drink. Coming out of those talks I felt even more strongly that I want to know that a person made the wine I drink, rather than a corporation; and furthermore I only want to drink organic and natural wines from now on.

Many health-conscious people wonder whether wine is a medicinal tonic that benefits their health, or something that should be avoided at all costs. So this month I decided to do some research and see what the truth of the matter is. And what I discovered is that it really depends on what exactly you are drinking. Many of us believe the wine we buy comes from a small vineyard and is made by hand by a family of winemakers. If you Google ‘Wine’ you get ‘an alcoholic drink made from fermented grape juice’. Sounds nice and simple, right? Well, unsurprisingly, most wines contain many more ingredients than grape juice. Like many foods and drinks we now buy in supermarkets, wine is now made on an industrial scale and has changed a lot from what is once was. Most conventionally produced wines are now made by huge companies using artificial yeasts, grapes that are grown with a lot of agricultural pesticides and fertilizers and then they are finished with more chemicals to make them clear and stable.

Natural and Organic wines on the other hand are made ‘naturally’ which essentially means wine from vineyards that are farmed organically, at the very least, and which is produced without adding or removing anything during vinification, apart from a dash of sulphites at most at bottling’. Natural winemakers use the natural live yeasts that are present on the skin of the wine and in the winery (which are only present on the skins of wines not sprayed with pesticides) which results in a wine that is ‘naturally fermented’ and hence has the many health benefits of a fermented food!

What is the difference between a natural and an organic wine or a biodynamic wine? Organic wines are wines made from organically grown grapes from a certified Organic vineyard and according to organic principles. Biodynamic wines are wines made from grapes grown to Biodynamic standards which are another level above Organic. Natural wines are defined as wines made with minimal ‘intervention’ which basically means minimal use of chemicals, either in the grape growing phase or the winemaking and bottling phase. The grapes used to make natural wines have to be grown organically (without pesticides) or they won’t have the live yeasts on their skins which the winemaker needs to make wine. So while they may or may not be certified organic they will always be made using traditional practices, in small batches, by real people.

So why bother, you might ask, looking for natural or organic wines? I think there are three main reasons to look to an organic or natural wine - health reasons, environmental reasons, and quality and taste.  

From an environmental perspective, non-organic winemaking can be incredibly damaging. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the amount of synthetic pesticides sprayed on fields has increased 26 fold over the past 50 years, with vineyards playing a huge part in this. According to the Pesticide Action Network, PAN, ‘Grapes now receive a higher dose of synthetic pesticides than any other crop, except citrus’. In France, vineyards comprise only 3.7% of the total agricultural acreage, but they absorb 20% of the country’s agricultural pesticide use. From visits to winemaking areas in Bordeaux I have seen for myself the aerial spraying by helicopters, and residents complaining of lung complications and groundwater pollution and keeping kids indoors while the spraying was happening. All this made me very aware of the need to promote and to drink organic wines!

Chemicals that are permitted by law for use in conventional winemaking include pesticides, herbicides, equipment cleaning chemicals, and sulphite preservatives. Insects and fungal diseases are a major problem in most vineyards and they are treated before they cause serious damage. The solution is to spray the vines with compounds that destroy the pests, and these can be either organic or man-made pesticides. Some vineyards use organically-approved pesticides as they do not leave any toxic residues on the grapes. However the majority of vineyards use man-made pesticides because they are more powerful, and require less effort.

As well as affecting the consumers of these crops - mainly us humans - this chemical saturation of the soil has a huge effect on soil life. One example of this effect is the worrying statistic that since 1950, in Europe, our numbers of earthworms have decreased from two tonnes per hectare to less than 100kg. Most of us learn at an early age what benefits earthworms bring to soil health so it’s not surprising that gardeners, farmers and soil scientists are all highly concerned about this decrease, and one of the reasons we always source organic fruits vegetables food and drinks in Organico is because we believe in supporting farmers who are actively trying to reverse trends such as this one.

Next let’s look at the health benefits of wine. Wine is a beverage that is extremely rich in the Flavonoids and thousands of other phytonutrients that provide significant amounts of antioxidants to assist our health by preventing free radical damage that is associated with heart disease and other illnesses. Wine also provides a rich array of trace minerals and vitamins that are important, and as with other agricultural products, wine made from organic grapes has a better chance of being mineral rich than non-organic wine. In other words, in its purist form, a good vintage wine made using traditional (organic) wine-making techniques, and drunk in moderation, qualifies as a medicinal tonic that can contribute to our longevity as is seen in France.

Another reason that natural and organic wines are popular is because most natural and organic wines are much lower in sulphites than conventionally produced wines. Many people are sensitive to sulphites. Since most people can eat grapes, the allergies must be mostly to what is added to wine during the processing of those grapes. As a simple rule, any wine that is capable of being shipped long distances and stored in hot tropical 40c temperatures, will need high levels of preservative sulphites to stop the wine from deterioration.

Then we come to taste and quality. This is harder to guarantee, because with anything manmade there are varying qualities of organic and natural wines. Personally, I would always chose an organic wine over a conventional (dare I say chemical? Industrial?) wine, but I also prefer to drink wine from a smaller Organic vineyard than one which is organic but mass produced - just because a wine is organic is does not mean it is necessarily made with care. Organic wines have become so popular that there are now many mass-produced organic wines. If a wine just says ‘organic wine’ but there is no mention of who actually made it, then I am a tad suspicious!

Main take home point - natural wines are made the way all wines should be made, in small batches, by winemakers who are passionate about what they do, and they can differ depending on the weather and the way the grapes grow that year. Like anything that is organic or naturally grown, there can be varying quality, so you do have to buy from a supplier who has done their homework and you do have to learn what YOU like.

If you would like to taste some Natural and Organic Wines we have a series of Wine Tasting events coming up in Organico is association with Jacqueline Steadman from Liquid Curiosity - 22nd September, 24th November, 15th December for Christmas Wines. Please book by email on organicobantry@gmail.com, give us a call on 02751391 or call in. Cheers!

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