Why is organic wine so difficult to make?
In these nature-focused times, the idea of organic wine is sexy, and it’s no mystery why. Just the word “biodiversity” sounds good. But it’s not just a word. Practicing biodiversity in the vineyard means using the cycles and rhythms of nature to promote growth. It’s choosing natural options over synthetic or chemical ones to promote vine growth and wine production.
Take, for example, fertilizers. Vintners who are more in tune with the earth have replaced commercial fertilizers like synthetic pesticides with more natural types, like manure. As manure decomposes, it releases nitrogen, which is an essential nutrient for yeast in wine fermentation. Compare that with some non-organic growers, who pump their vineyards full of nitrogen, which can result in horrible, overperforming grapes.
But organic farming practices go even further. Biodiversity-based grape growers plant trees and other plants to specifically encourage predatory insects to populate the areas around their vineyards. These predators – like wasps and bees, for example – build nests and pollinate vineyards. They also eat the mites which would otherwise damage the hectares of vines. Using nature’s ecosystem, winemakers protect their vines without introducing external chemicals.
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That’s the thing with organic wine: organic winemakers try as best they can not to interfere. Instead of buying cultured yeast, they allow natural yeast in the air to start the fermentation process and they just monitor it, making sure everything is going well. They also try not to add additional sulphites to the winemaking process (sulphites are a naturally occurring preservative in a vineyard). If the winery is certified organic, the winemaker is not allowed to add additional sulphites.
But sustainability goes beyond crop health; it extends to workers. With organic viticultural practices, vineyard workers are not directly exposed to potentially harmful commercial products, and these commercial products do not flow from the vineyard floor into waterways or a neighbor’s property.
There are many other aspects of the organic approach to winemaking, but these are the general ideas. For us as wine lovers, drinking organic wine gives us peace of mind. If you are someone who cares about these things and wants as many natural products as possible in your life, then for you, organic wine will be better than non-organic, or what is sometimes called conventional wine.
The downside to all this natural commerce is that when wines are made this way, attention to detail is essential for quality to show. If there is just one slip in biodiversity practices, nature takes over and can invade your winemaking, leaving you with a lot of work to do to regain balance. And you have to do it naturally and not give in to commercial quick fixes. Cleanliness in the cellar is essential in any cellar, but especially in an organic cellar. Natural fermentation often takes longer than with cultured yeasts and the environment must be perfect so that no unwanted bacteria contaminate the winemaking tanks, compromising the end result of the wine’s flavor profile.
If a winemaker knows how to be careful and concise in an organic or sustainable environment, then the wine will be excellent and give you that poetry that we all seek. If something goes wrong and the winemaker is a little sloppy, then the wonderful smoky notes and coffee notes will turn into bandage puffs and mouse skin notes.
But just because a wine isn’t certified doesn’t mean it isn’t organic. Winemakers, especially in Europe, have been using organic practices for years but don’t have the time or money to get certified, which is expensive and takes at least three years.
Good winegrowers know their grapes and know their terroir. They are in tune with the climate and work hard to balance nature and technology to make great wine. Mother Nature is relentless, and of all alcoholic beverages, wine is the most susceptible to her whims. Good winemakers know this too and will generally do everything they can not to mess with nature, but sometimes they will have to trick it a little into thinking it is in control.