Since 1991, Europe has had uniform rules on organic grape production, and since August 2012, wine in the European Union can be labelled with the EU Organic logo, which means organic, as the new regulation also covers vinification and winemaking.
Modern organic viticulture began in Europe in the 1960s, somewhat in parallel with the rise of the so-called Green Revolution, which introduced modern – nowadays we know aggressive – methods into agriculture (high-yielding varieties, increasing soil fertility with artificial fertilisers, protection against disease with synthetic chemical products, etc.).
Some wine growers then developed more organic methods to achieve the same objectives, based on the experience of their predecessors and ancestors. One of the first and perhaps the most prominent was Jules Chauvet, the father of natural wines in France. His beaujolais was the daily wine of General De Gaulle, who loved it for its lightness, delicacy and elegance. Chauvet passed on his knowledge to another vigneron from the same wine-growing region. This was, sadly, the late Marcel Lapierre, and his wines reflected the character of the base and the environment from which they came – less fruitiness and more minerality and character instead of kiwi, banana or something more exotic, which most of the rest of us of course achieved with aromatic selective yeasts.
Organic wine only from 2012
Organic viticulture has developed over the years and began to be regulated by individual organisations in the 1980s. Since 1991, Europe has had uniform rules on organic grape production. Since August 2012, wine in the European Union can be labelled with the EU Organic logo, which means organic, as the new regulation also covers vinification and winemaking. This has made organic wine fully integrated into European legislation. Previously, only the words “produced from organic grapes” were allowed.
Organic viticulture and agriculture in the broader sense strive to ensure, in a nature-friendly, sustainable way, that the soil has the right composition, i.e. is nutritious, the substrate is loose or, in other words, aerated, and the plants are prevented from diseases and pests. Biodiversity rather than monocultures is the basis of everything. The choice of varieties is also very important, as they are often indigenous or proven over decades, if not centuries, to be suitable and adapted to the climatic and other conditions of a particular wine-growing region. Preparations or sprays are often based on plant extracts, and the use of sulphur and copper-based products is much lower compared to conventional viticulture. The new regulation has also brought many restrictions on vinification and winemaking. For dry wines with a sugar residue below 2 grams per litre, the sulphur level is limited to the following values (values in brackets are for conventional wines):
– 100 mg/l for red wines (150 mg/l),
– 150 mg/l for whites and roses (200 mg/l),
– 155 mg/l for quality sparkling wines (185 mg/l).
For other wines (sweet, fortified, etc.) you can easily find information online. Sulphur is of course not the only additive in wine production, and many wine growers who work in an extremely minimalist way in their vineyards and cellars – in terms of mechanical interventions and additives – are rather disappointed by the EU regulation, which still allows a lot of things. From the use of selected – commercial yeasts, to the addition of tannins, acids, sugars, gelatins, the use of bentonite, perlite, gum arabic, filtration (with a limitation on the fineness of the filter), heat treatment (up to 70 degrees Celsius), etc. It is therefore a significant compromise, but one that nevertheless provides a good basis for further development in terms of increasing rigour and the elimination of interventions that we already know are not necessary if approached correctly and consistently.
Biodynamics is a more complex form of organic farming
Biodynamics could be described as a more complex form of organic farming, where the approach is holistic or – in other words – holistic, meaning that the ecosystem of each farm is seen as one organism. One of the most famous winemakers, experts and authors of books on biodynamic viticulture is certainly Nicholas Joly from the Loire Valley with his iconic vineyard La Coulée de Serrant. Joly is also the founder and driving force behind the wine festival and the La Renaissance des Appellations movement. In Slovenia, of course, we cannot miss the legendary Acija Urbajs, who was the first Slovenian winemaker to be certified by Demeter. He is followed by many others.
Polyculture in biodynamic farming involves not only the diversity and harmony of the plant world, but also of the animal world and of people. The products are almost exclusively based on extracts of plants such as nettle, chamomile, horsetail, sage, thyme, garlic, lavender, etc. Also very important are preparations 500 (horn-fermented manure) and 501 (horn-fermented silica). Herbal preparations include essential oils, tinctures and tea preparations. The use of sulphur-based sprays, and in particular copper, which can only be used in exceptional circumstances, is severely restricted, with concentrations up to 100 times lower than those used in conventional viticulture.
Organisations such as Demeter and Biodyvin, which are also certification bodies, have much stricter rules and restrictions on vineyard and winery interventions compared to EU regulation. Spontaneous fermentation has been mandatory at Demeter since recently, with some exceptions, such as Champagne, where secondary fermentation with grape must is not allowed, so biodynamics uses Demeter-bred yeasts. Sulphur limits are even lower (usually below 70 milligrams per litre) and the use of additives is extremely limited.
Biodynamics also takes into account the cycles of the Moon and other energetic influences of the Universe, including gravity. Think of tides and the fact that we living organisms are made mostly of water.
And where is the so-called natural wine? In any case, the practices described above and, ultimately, the harvest, that is to say the grapes, are the foundation that can lead to a wine that many of us describe as natural. The differences between organic, biodynamic and natural wine are mainly in the vinification and winemaking. More on this in future articles.
Next time: myth, trend or reality