On the blogby Alfred
August 10 2016

Organic wines today : a first look

by Alfred

For some time now, probably paralleling the rise in popularity of health food and veganism, organic wines heve become more and more popular and a growing quantity of them occupies a sizable portion of the SAQ shelves while multiplying their offer through private importers.

At Alfred, we are fascinated by all the trends in the world of wine, so we thought it was important to take a first look at this subject which we will probably talk about often in the coming years.

Organic wine tastes better, it’s official !

In a recent study by the University of California  using data from publications as well established as Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast to assess the quality of nearly 75,000 wines produced in California between 1998 and 2009, organic wine triumphed easily. Wines made from grapes grown without chemicals were top rated in most blind tests performed by professional critics. In other words, it is now official, organic wine tastes better than non-organic wine! In addition, its production is increasing all the time, which is excellent news.

French organic terroir

According to the most recent surveys, the land reserved for the production of organic wines in France now accounts for 9% of all wine production, a major increase over the last 5 years. Recent surveys by the Ministry of Agriculture showed that one third of all French consumers have drunk organic wine; so this is clearly not a fad.

The French organic vineyard area has tripled over the last 5 years and the market has increased by 150% with an annual consumption of nearly 48 million bottles. 70% of organic vineyards surfaces are concentrated in three principal regions: Languedoc-RoussillonProvence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur and Aquitaine.

Spain and Europe

But the French numbers, while impressive, makes it only the second largest European producer of organic wines. If nearly 90% of vineyards cultivated according to the rules of organic farming are in Europe, it is Spain that is the champion in the field. Of the one million hectares devoted to wine production, according to the latest statistics from the International Organisation of Wine and Vine, over 100 000 hectares, or 10% of all the wine making area is devoted to organic wines. At last count, more than 700 producers were involved in this activity, most of which concentrated in the Castilla La Mancha region.

Italy is no exception, coming in third among European organic vineyards. It is the south of Italy that is leading the trend, particularly the Basilicata area, where over 30% of the vineyards are certified organic. Tuscany, which did not need to defend its reputation for exceptional terroirs, has also begun to get involved in the culture of “greener” grapes even for the famous Brunello di Montalcino appellation.

European certification

It must be said that Europe is still working on the certification of organic wine which, for a long time, corresponded to various national specificities. Until 2012, these wines were certified by private organizations managing brands. Since then there are official EU rules that define and regulate all the processes of cultivation and production of organic wines.

Until recently, the certification was limited only to the grape and its culture and did not cover the winemaking process. It meant that the organic label only guaranteed it was made with organic grapes and did not evaluate the skills and operation of wineries or their processes.

The new measures that apply to winemaking, since 2012,  demand a reduced dosage of additional sulphites (but not its abolition, despite what some people think). However, a large amount of additives are still authorized in European organic wines, including yeasts, bacteria and the pine resins used to manufacture the Greek retsina.

American certification

In the United States, regulations are different: at a national level the addition of sulphite is prohibited and the amounts of added yeast allowed during fermentation are strictly regulated. The National Organic Program has requirements that are so restrictive that many producers that actually make organic wines prefer not to undergo the certification process.

The difference between US and EUROPEAN requirements created a problem within the framework of trade agreements between the two entities. American wines may be sold as organic in Europe but as rules allow the addition of sulphites in Europe, many French, Italian and Spanish wines,  considered as organic on their territories, cannot be sold under this heading in the United States.

Organic, nature, biodynamic or fair trade

We also have to establish the difference between organic wines, natural wines and biodynamic wines, specially towards all the classification rules. Organic wine is, whatever its origin, made with grapes grown without herbicides, pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Besides, if a vineyard has been cultivated according to traditional methods, it will get its organic certification only after a few years of transition, the time for chemical residues to loose their concentration in the soil. On the other hand, if it comes from Europe, it is possible that it contains added sulphites and some yeasts that do not exist in American organic wine.

What is termed as natural wine involves a wine grown organically but in which there are no added sulphites and some other stabilizers allowed in organic production. That said, some certified organic French winemakers are selling so-called natural wines while still adding some sulphites to ease transportation.

With biodynamic designation, we enter the field of pseudo-science and esoteric rites used by the winemaker to improve his wine. One of the most common examples is to use a lunar calendar in the culture of wine grapes. This practice has no scientific confirmation of its efficiency. That said, the requirement applied by biodynamic producers in their process probably contributes to obvious increase in product quality. Since the 2009 vintage, one can not attribute the biodynamic label on wines that contain added yeast, are acidified or flash-pasteurized, to limit chaptalisation, or contain added sulphites or enzymes. Very serious wine critics like Robert Parker or Jesus Barquin, even if they are rather critical about the esoteric aspect of biodynamics, recognize that many of these wines are clearly superior. It must be noted that the legendary Domaine de la Romanee-Conti is made completely with the biodynamic methods since 2007, after twenty years of operation in organic viticulture, and many experiments.

In recent years a new rating, fair trade wine, was added to the others. This qualification, promoted by organizations such as Équiterre here, involves more specifically wines produced in the southern hemisphere with social, political and economic conditions that are particularly difficult for agricultural workers. In these territories, the income division is not favorable to producers and winemakers due to a greater control by the distributors. The wines qualified as fair trade come from producers where all the workers are paid in responsible and egalitarian way.

Organic Quebec

In Quebec, organic production is beginning to take hold; the latest evaluation show that a dozen of the hundred of Quebec artisan growers are practicing organic viticulture. There is no specific official designation in Canada  for wines made with organic grapes, the standards are those of organic agriculture in general; an organic wine must therefore be produced with grape that is grown 100% organically and where no synthetic chemical has been added in the process.

On the other hand, in Quebec, the SAQ has very strict regulations on the labeling of organic alcoholic products. In fact, organic products made or bottled in Québec must comply with the Act Respecting Reserved Designations and Added-Value Claims of the CARTV. The producer and the bottler must also be certified. These requirements of our state monopoly allow us to buy with confidence products labeled as organic. It is the same for products from abroad which, since 2009, must be certified by the Canadian Organic Standard or any other standards for which there is an equivalency agreement with Canada, to be marketed on our territory. Certification bodies which issue certificates must be accredited by the competent authorities of the country where the standards apply.

The SAQ is also planning a organic wine promotion project, wondering if it should offer the organic wines under one space in SAQ stores, as it has done for products branded “Origine Québec“. There have been organic sections before but they were closed in March 2011. It was said then that producers preferred their wines to be classified in their geographical sections. Since then, at the request of consumers, wine consultants have started to gather some organic wines in specific sections of their branches.

Drinking organic, a few recommendations

Meanwhile, here are some recommendations of organic wines that will allow you to appreciate the difference.

First, because it’s summer, we chose a rosé, a classic among classics, at a reasonable price and amongst the most popular wines in Quebec, The Domaine Le Pivé Gris, SAQ code 11372766, available in most stores and online. At $16.50, it’s a bargain for a wine of this caliber, with linden tree, wild fruit and marmalade flavours. Its ample mouth leads to a short but persistant finish. It is perfect with salmon, scallops and lobster.

We wanted to be a little chauvinistic and recommend an exceptional Quebec organic wine, the Vignoble Pigeon Hill 2012, but at the time of this writing, there remained only 4 bottles at the Sélection branch in Sherbrooke …  For now, most Quebec organic wines are sold directly through the vineyards. Soon, we will devote an entire article to these artisans.

We turn instead towards an exceptional product from the French Alps, the Domaine Louis Magnin Roussette de Savoie 2012, SAQ code 11901146, at $48.50 a bottle, it is a pure a joy with its nose of violet and mountain herbs and an obvious minerality.

We salute Italy with one of the few organic Tuscans, the Duemani Cifra 2013 from Azienda Vitivinicola Duemani, a pure Cabernet Franc hailed by most critics as a gem. It is available online and in many stores at a price of $ 31.25 a bottle, SAQ code 11838415.

To top it all and prove that organic production is increasingly important, why not champagne? The Diadema Brut, is a fabulous rosé champagne, recently arrived at the SAQ and available online, SAQ code 12929301; at $ 114.00 a bottle it is a nice value for a particular celebration.

Lets drink to our health with these organic choices !

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