Loire Valley producers meet consumer demand for organic wine
It’s a late October morning in Vouvray. The fog blanket of the Loire recedes, revealing a hazy sun. The air is cool, the temperature cool. A short jaunt down a steep, narrow slope, enough to get your heart pumping after a croissant and a cappuccino, from the troglodyte cellars of Clos de Nouys, takes me to one of the oldest vineyards in the appellation, dating back to 1907, on an estate whose roots date back to the 15th century.
Atop the ledge, I see a gently undulating open field covered in spun gold vines, woven with faded emerald, fiery ruby, and fiery orange sapphire leaves. Small groves of trees dot the landscape. The soil is lush, rich in grasses and autumn herbs. The ground dark, damp, alive. Below is the base of Vouvray: a tuffeau soil, a limestone rich in Cretaceous minerals.
Within Clos de Nouys lies Clos du Gaimont, a single 10-acre parcel of this idyllic Vouvray terroir. Producing wines that flirt between sweetness and liveliness, this vineyard produces some of the best Chenin Blanc in the appellation. Harnessing this unequaled terroir in each glass is the responsibility of the winemaker.
To honor this terroir, Domaine Chainier implemented extensive sustainable practices in the 1990s, producing wine under the French label High Environmental Value (HVE) Level Three Certification. For decades, the HVE certification was enough to signify to the consumer its philosophy and its sustainable practices.
However, today this is not enough. Formal organic certification is increasingly popular here in the Loire Valley. According to InterLoire, 62% of wine estates and 65% of vineyards are engaged in environmental certification or organic farming, an increase of 107% and 140%, respectively, since 2019. Specific to organic certifications, 25% of estates and 18% of the vineyards in Only Nantes, Anjou-Saumur and Touraine are already certified organic.
I asked the winegrowers of Muscadet Sèvre et Maine in Pouilly-Fumé why they were moving towards certification. Each time the answer was the same: consumer demand.
Are American wine drinkers specifically asking for certified organic wines? If so, what is behind this movement?
Demand for organic wines continues to rise
To find out more, I spoke with Whitney Schubert, French portfolio manager for Polar Selections (importer of Domaine Henry Pellé in the Loire). She said that while New York customer demands for organic wines have been steady for more than a decade, “the demand and interest in various iterations of sustainable agriculture and low-intervention winemaking has only increased. ‘intensify in recent years’. Moreover, the demands have expanded beyond the city.
Schubert believes the organic wine movement began with environmentally conscious winemakers sharing their experiences of adopting organic, biodynamic, and sustainable practices. As the knowledge and quality of wine increased, so did the demands for these styles.
Today, it is the increased consumer demand that encourages more winegrowers to adapt these agricultural practices. Is the increase motivated by environmental or health awareness? “Certainly both. What is better for Mother Earth is better for human beings,” says Schubert.
Wine merchants know the growing demand for organic wines in real time. In 2012, Flatiron Wines and Spirits opened its first retail store in New York. From the start, co-founder Josh Cohen says organic wines have been a big part of their customers’ interest.
“Flatiron has always championed small family growers, who have paved the way for organic farming in many regions. They live among the vines and don’t want to expose their children and families to harsh chemicals. Wines made with the kind of attention to detail that organic produce demands are often among the best wines from a region,” shares Cohen. “When customers find out about this, there’s no turning back.”
With stores now on the East and West Coast, Cohen has seen a steady increase in customers specifically requesting organic wines over the years. He thinks the average consumer understands that organic means using less chemical intervention in the winemaking process.
Consumers choose organic wines as part of a broader commitment to do less harm to the land, to winery workers and to their own health.
Wine industry professionals understand that organic certification does not guarantee quality or a wine made without manipulation. For Cohen, this knowledge amplifies the importance of professional interface with consumers by guiding them towards wines that match their values and taste.
Recent research supports these anecdotes. A report by Wine Intelligence indicates that organic wine sales are second only to natural wine in their Global Opportunity Index, and a March 2021 report shows that organic wine has a strong growth opportunity as a category among young consumers.
A second report, by Transparency Market Research, notes that “in recent years, there has been an increase in awareness and popularity among consumers, particularly millennials, about niche product categories, including natural and organic food and drink products”. Their September 2021 also noted, “This factor is expected to drive the demand for organic wine market products in the coming years.”
Response from Loire Valley producers
This clearly affects producers in the Loire. The Brosseau Family has been producing Muscadet wines at Domaine de la Foliette in Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine since the 1920s. In 2000, the winery became certified Terra Vita (another French sustainable designation, similar to California’s Lodi rules, Certified Green or Sustainability in Practice Certification). For nearly twenty years, this certification was enough to assure wine drinkers of the winery’s commitment to sustainability in viticulture, viniculture and employee relations.
In 2019, under pressure from exporters, they began the three-year process to become certified organic. However, Muscadet is a sensitive grape and strict organic certification poses challenges and increases costs.
“Climate change affects all stages of viticulture: early budding, early harvest, more diseases, different pests. We have to deal with it with the financial means at our disposal,” explains Valentin Denié, national and export sales manager for Domaine de la Foliette. “Terra Vitis is more adaptable, organic is one size fits all. If our prices go up, our customers’ preference for organic may change, so we will change too.”
Château de la Soucherie in Anjou has been producing wine since the end of the 19th century. After decades of sustainable viticultural practices, in 2019 winery manager Vinney De Tastes implemented a conversion to organic farming. 2022 will be the winery’s first label under the new certification.
Coming from a family of Bordeaux winemakers, De Tastes believes that wine is made in the vineyard and focuses on viticulture. Using bees to ensure the vineyard is healthy and to increase the biodiversity of native flora and beneficial insects, and sheep in winter to clean under the vines, De Tastes seeks “purity” in wines, believing that this is achieved without the use of pesticides and herbicides.
“We put 95% of our efforts into the vineyard. If we have to do more than 5% in the cellar, we are not doing anything right in the vineyard,” he shares. Adding, “the less we do in the cellar, the better I feel about the wine.”
Domaine Henry Pellé was built on the backs of four generations on the singularity of the village of Morogues centered on the Kimmeridgian in the Menetou-Salon appellation. Taking over the estate from his father in 2007, Paul-Henry Pellé transformed the vineyard from low intervention to organic practices. However, it only started the formal certification process for labeling a few years ago, at the request of importers. In 2021, 25% of its 40 hectares will be certified, with the rest in progress.
Increasing demand for organic wine is not a fad
Given the conversion effort and the cost of organic certification, these Loire winegrowers believe that it is not just a fad.
Cohen of Flatiron Wines thinks the trend is here to stay. “American wine lovers across the country have turned to organic wines. I’m sure there was a time when New York and San Francisco were exceptions in adopting these wines, but those days are over. We receive customers from all over the country who come to us for organic wines.