Act natural

Do organic and natural wines need certificates and badges to impress eco-conscious consumers?

By David Williams

The 2010s were boom time for the extended family of organic wines – biodynamic and natural included.

Some of the statistics have the look of a gold rush if not quite a tulip mania.

At the beginning of the decade, the sector accounted for something in the region of 349 million bottles per year. By 2017, the figure had more or less doubled, to 676 million bottles. Based on these and other production figures, the OIV predicts that organic wine will eclipse the 1 billion mark sometime in 2022.

Drill down into the country-by-country figures, and you get some equally striking growth. In the three European powerhouses of Italy, France and Spain, which between them account for some 79% of the world’s organic production, output has risen by 70%, with Spain’s organic wine trade alone growing at a quite remarkable 522% in a decade.

It seems unlikely, then, that the growth of organics in European Union – which accounts for some 90% of the world’s organic vineyard – is about to slow. Indeed, the EU Commission has identified organic production as one of the principal drivers in its Green Deal, the ambitious environmental strategy unveiled last year, and given further detail with the publication of the From Farm to Fork strategy document in May.

Among other things (including reducing chemical pesticide use by 50% and fertiliser use by 20%), the Farm to Fork strategy features a pledge to up organic farming to 25% of the EU total by 2030. If the wine industry is hoping to join other forms of agriculture in meeting that target, it will require stronger growth than has been seen even in the past decade: currently the total is around 9.5% (it was around 3% in 2008).

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Certified and bona fide

As with any rapidly growing market, the rise in organic has inevitably attracted its fair share of bandwagon jumpers whose interest is not perhaps quite as pure or socially responsible as the early adopters who developed the market – often in the face of ridicule and prejudice – in the first place.

As Douglas Wregg of Les Caves de Pyrene says of the natural wine market: “I’ve seen more and more online retailers springing up from nowhere saying ‘natural wines’ and I think: really? I’ve never heard of these wines and producers, and you would think we would have come across them.”

“The market and interest has now grown substantially,” says Neil Palmer of Vintage Roots. “Everyone wants to be a part of it.”

Wregg and Palmer, who between them represent the two most significant specialist importers of sustainably produced wine in the UK, have very different views on the best way to deal with those wishing to exploit gaps in consumer understanding about what does or does not constitute organic or natural wine.

On the one hand, Palmer is a strong advocate of regulation and certification. “In our minds it is still important – and a requirement for Vintage Roots listings – to have certification,” he says.

“We have been doing this long enough now to know that there are far too many merchants, retailers, supermarkets that will happily spin the ‘organic’ story to suit the marketing pitch and help make a sale.”

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For Palmer, it’s not so much that everyone is unscrupulous, more than the consumer needs guidance and protection. “A common one is, ‘well they don’t spray every year, only when they really need to’ – well, fair enough. But you are then not organic. It’s a bit like being half pregnant: you can’t have the status just when it suits. For the consumer, what other guarantee or reassurance is there? It’s the word of the seller – who is all too often the third person down the selling chain – who doesn’t quite know the whole truth.”

What’s more, terms that sidestep the official categories only help sow doubt in consumers, Palmer says, providing more fertile territory for the unscrupulous.

“Low intervention, free range, natural, IPM, sustainably grown and many other words are used these days, which does add confusion and can be misleading.”

Wregg, however, takes a looser, decidedly more romantic, view, arguing that organic regulations – which are in any case highly variable depending on the country of origin – often run counter to the principles they were supposedly designed to enforce.

“Organic is proscriptive, but it doesn’t tell you what you should be doing, it tells you that you can’t use these chemicals,” Wregg says. “It’s not a quality-driven thing, it’s just someone’s ticked a few boxes, and just because you’ve ticked those boxes, that doesn’t mean you’re complying with the spirit of the thing – it’s for consumers and bureaucrats.”

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Given his views on organic regulation, it was no surprise that Wregg was a vocal opponent of the new INAO-approved category for French natural wines, Vin Méthode Nature, which was announced in the spring.

“I’m inherently suspicious of clubs,” Wregg says. “I mean, they [the natural producers who lobbied for the category] are good guys, and it will start out with the best of intentions, but at some point someone will quibble over, I don’t know, a gram of sulphur. Someone will get their nose put out by something …”

More than that, however, Wregg believes this kind of regulation is a blind alley. Rather than “obsessing” over labels, he argues, we need to educate consumers so that they can better understand when a wine has been produced in a genuinely ecologically sensitive way.

Neil Palmer of Vintage Roots

“We choose a wine because it tastes good and natural, but it tastes like that because it’s made by a sensitive farmer, they’re working by hand, working proactively and sustainably,” Wregg says.

In common with many organic, biodynamic and natural producers who have shunned official recognition, Wregg believes it’s too easy to use the certification as cover.

An excessive use of natural, organic-approved treatments – and a tendency towards expansive monocultures – can be every bit as environmentally damaging as large-scale conventional viticulture. Far better to develop a relationship of trust with a retailer who is sufficiently close to his producers to know exactly what they are up to in the vineyard and winery, whether they’re certified or not.

“What you put on the front and back label is largely irrelevant,” says Wregg. “Think about when you’re buying eggs direct from a farmer or a fisherman giving you something straight off the boat. These don’t have labels – the eggs are warm from the hen; the fish is salty from the sea. Does that de-legitimise them?”

So what should we do? “Stop obsessing about labels, and start obsessing about taste, investigate it, find out what happens in the wine.”

It’s an undeniably attractive proposition, and one that describes the approach encouraged by many independent retailers. But with tens of millions of bottles of newly organic wine about to come on stream, and with so many casual wine drinkers attracted by the magic green word, the eco-bureaucrats are unlikely to be putting down their pens anytime soon.