On the blogby Alfred
November 9 2018

Are you a “responsible” drinker?

by Éric St-Cyr

All there is to know about “BIO” wine.

This week, a new columnist joins the Alfred team, sommelier Caroline Chagnon, co-author of the book,«Le sommelier, c’est vous! : Servir, déguster et harmoniser les vins comme un pro». She tells us about the different “organic” names that we find in the wine world.

The ecological trend has invaded the wine world, affecting many vineyards and market shares. Marginal a few years back, these responsible choices are now present in many stores and wine cards in restaurants. These changes are mainly related to the biological, biodynamic, sustainable and nature wines and vineyards. These terms have strong meanings, but these meanings can often be oversimplified or simply overlooked.

Can we kill two birds with one stone? Taking our responsabilities towards the environment whilst enjoying a glass of wine? Certainly. Being a responsible drinker, by respecting the fauna, the flora and the other humans, is not an utopia. On both sides of the bottle, these preoccupations and these values are now more and more popular. To ensure that the choice made is the right one, it is important to learn more about each different production methods. But before, let us explore the traditional winemaking method.

But first… The traditional winemaking method

It is, to this day, the most popular production method in the world. On one side, the adepts of this method control everything found on their vineyard through synthetic products. The harmful aspects (insects, mushrooms, unwanted plants) are controlled through herbicides, insecticides and fongicides – all responsible for soil impoverishment, water contamination, biodiversity deterioration and many other elements. In the cellar, many chemical products are also added: synthetic yeast, acidity and artificial tannins. Evidently, the usage of these products is normalized and every winemaker is free to decide of his usage within his products.

Sustainable viticulture

Certain winemakers that are looking to stray away from this traditional method are turning their attention to the sustainable viticulture method. Since this “sustainable” term can be quite vague, winemakers from Beaujolais have regrouped to create the Terra Vitis label in 1998 that is now extended to the entirety France. “The Terra Vitis winemaker observes his vines. He is constantly looking for the best methods to reinforce the natural defenses and to limitate the interventions to only what is absolutely necessary. A treatment (of synthetic products) is only used when of utmost necessity, when no other solutions are possible to guarantee the harvest”, can be read on the values charter of Terra Vitis. It is not biological, but it is based on principles of sustainable development: environment, social and economical. The winemaker worries about the environment, but still keeps an alternate solution in case it becomes needed.

Biological wine

According to the Bio Agency, in 2016, the surface of vines harvested in the European Union was equal to 9% of the vineyards. The same year, the Spanish bio wine grew 10%, the Italian 24% and the French 3 %. The biological wine industry is certainly still behind, but it no longer is a marginal phenomenon. For many winemakers that are not apart of these statistics, if they are currently converting or reflecting on it, the future is certainly bio.

Biological agriculture is a recurrent theme, but the european certification is for the complete process, from the planting of the varietals to the bottling. The winemaker chooses to eliminate all of the chemical and GMO products and fertilizes his vines with ecological fertilizer. Sulfur and copper are the only authorized products. In respecting the nature, the winemaker preserves life and fertility of the soils, whilst keeping the quality of the water, air and biodiversity. In the cellar, the usage of products is reduced and only a limited quantity of sulfites is allowed. An independent certification agency such as Ecocert insures that the rules are respected from the vine to the cellar.

In bio, just like for biodynamic vineyards, many are adepts, but are not certified. Why not go for a certifying label? The administrative process, the cost of the certification and the work force are the main elements. In Brunello di Montalcino, the Terralsole domain has just converted officially, even if it was producing biologically for many years already. The co-owner Athena Tergis Bollag says that to buy the same products than before to protect his vines are now three times more expensive with the label. If this ambition is certainly not economical, the intention is clearly political: joining a movement and entering a community of winemakers uniting for a common cause.

Different labels exist to identify biological wines. The most common one (from Europe) is the star leaf.

Biodynamic viticulture

When he visits the Burgundy vineyard for the first time in 1983, Pascal Marchand, a winemaker from Quebec, draws up an alarming report. The vines are intoxicated and the soils are impoverished. Refusing to use chemical products, he decides to unite with nature by adopting a biodynamic viticulture.

Pascal, just like all the other biodynamic winemakers, considers his vineyard like a complex organism where the balance resides in the interrelation of soils, plants and animals. He is looking to intensify the organic life, to obtain a living soil and, ultimately, a vine capable of protecting itself. Living in this habitat offers a better version of the vines, with vines that are vigourous and able to resist to diseases.

The winemakers follow a calendar regulated by lunar, planetary and zodiacal rythms, with minerals, flowers, and many other elements. As an exemple, a preparation of chamomile can help regulate the process of azote; ashes of insects used to destroy the vermin; a descending moon beneficial for the plantation, and an eclipse unfarovable. It can appear quite fanciful, but for many years the women and men have used plants for their beneficial properties on health. If they are good for us, why would they not be for the plants? In the end, it is an agriculture focused on balance between rythms and forces of nature.

In the biodynamic viticulture, the vines and winemaking process are much more restricted then in bio. In the cellar, the certification allows almost no additives for the winemaking, the barrel aging and the conservation. The filtration can be used and only small doses of sulfites are allowed for conservation.

This label certifies that the grapes and the wine are biodynamic. The winemaker can also certify only his vines. He can then mention « wine elaborated with Demeter grapes ».

When nature has the last word

Certain vineyards have an easier time than others. It is the case of the Roussillon that is now home to the most bio vineyards in France. The terroir is naturally very good for the vines, not requiring insecticides (or almost none). Some regions are also unfavored. Colomé, in the north of Argentina, a region that had to abandon the biodynamic culture because the ants were simply destroying all of the vines. In this area, the grapes are the only thing that can survive for kilometers around. Since the insecticides are prohibited in biodynamic viticulte and since these ants were quite tough to get rid of, the vineyard had to resort to its old ways until a natural solution could be found.

 

The nature wines

The natural wines are currently at the center of discussions. These wines are produced with a minimal level of intervention, with nothing else than grapes. We are at a very far point than the modern techniques and winemaking methods.

The problem remains in the fact that the “natural wine” mention is not defined officially, neither is it regulated. In fact, there was a tentative consensus earlier this year, but the project did not see the light of day, which contributes to increase the blurriness of its signification.

However, according to the Association of Nature Wines, the nature wine is produced with grapes harvested manually and originating from the biological or biodynamic agriculture. The processes are even stricter than in biodynamic viticulture. From the vinification to the bottling, all additives are prohibited, except indigenous yeast. The wines are unfiltered. The Association does not associate with a description that could be more permissive and would not authorize the use of sulfites. Although, it is important to remember than it is not because we did not add any that there can not be some in the product; all wines contain sulfites, naturally. Ultimately, the product in the glass is the grape in its purest expression.

The members of the Association will display their logo, but there is numerous producers that produce nature wines without actively seeking the approval of this association.

Certifications and associations

Label

Significance

Terra Vitis

Sustainable agriculture

AB

Biological agriculture

Bio européen, Nature & Progrès, Biologique Canada

Biological wine

Demeter, Biodyvin

Biodynamic wine

AVN, S.A.I.N.S.

Natural wine

*This is not a complete list

Finally, is it possible to be a 100% “responsible” consumer ? In my humble opinion, no. It would require that every tasted wine be produced with grapes harvested biologically, that the wine was vinified naturally and that the vineyard was located right next to your home. If by any chance a few of these wines existed, it is quite unconceivable that we could thrive on such a small selection. The question that should be asked should instead be: which wines should I prioritize to reduce my impact on the environment? Indeed, it is not with our wine consumption that we will save the planet, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

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