In the simplest of terms, an organic wine is a wine produced from organically grown grapes. The more difficult question is how are grapes grown organically, and what complexities are involved in the process?
In commercial growing, the grapes tend to come from a type of monoculture agriculture in which grapes are the only product produced.
In many vineyards, chemical fertilizers are applied. Pesticides are used to kill insects and herbicides to kill weeds and unwanted plants. Over time, this type of farming can strip the soil of nutrients, leading to the need for more fertilizers and often less-healthy vines.
Organic farming avoids the use of all these chemicals and tries to establish a more complex and healthy ecosystem in the vineyard and on the farm. There has been a significant move back to these more traditional farming methods over the past 25 years, and now many of the top wine-producing estates in the world embrace organic agriculture.
Working the land
On a recent trip to France, I visited Luc Cartier and his daughter, Eve, who run the Mas de Gourgonnier, a property that farms organically and produces both great wine and world-class olive oil. They are located in the lovely region of les Baux de Provence.
To effectively farm this property organically, they had to re-establish the complex ecosystem that is required. In addition to vines, apricot trees and olive trees, they encourage the growth of natural grasses, bushes and other native vegetation, which provide cover for small animals and nesting areas for birds. You see the repopulation of ladybugs that in turn eat many smaller insects, which might damage the vines. And the birds, which flock to the property, keep the population of ladybugs in check.
In the fall, they plant cover crops of grains and legumes between the vine rows, which prevents erosion, and the root systems aerate the soil. The legumes fix nitrogen from the air, adding a natural form of fertilizer.
In the spring, the crops are plowed into the soil to decompose and add organic matter. For fertilizer, the Cartiers develop compost piles on their property, purchasing 20 tons of sheep and cow manure from local farmers, and combine them with grass clippings and the pomace from the wine press.
This material is combined and turned frequently until the natural microbes break it down into a soft, crumbly mixture, which is then spread in the vineyards as organic fertilizer. The compost attracts earthworms, which burrow into the soil, providing aeration and additional nutrients.
This type of farming is labor-intensive but leads with time to healthy vines producing clean fruit, naturally resistant to many plant diseases.
Should the vines be infested by powdery mildew, it can be treated naturally with light applications of copper or sulfur. When these happy grapes arrive in the cellar, they often begin fermentation naturally with the indigenous yeasts on their skins in the vineyard. Still, having good organic grapes is no guarantee of a top-quality wine - that still requires good winemaking.
At Mas de Gourgonnier, Luc's brother, Frederic, plays this role well, producing complex wines of great character in both white and red. He also produces one of the great dry Rose wines in the world.
The final thing to know about organic wines is that at bottling, they are only allowed to use very small amounts of sulfur, an ingredient used to stabilize the wine for both aging and transportation.
If you find yourself sensitive to the sulfites in wine, you will do well to seek out wines from organic producers. Look for certification from groups such as the USDA, EcoCert or Demeter. In French wines, it often is easy to recognize organic wines by the ladybug on the label, a symbol now in wide use in Europe.
The wines of Mas de Gourgonnier are special and worth searching out. The reds are quite age-worthy and the white is a bright, refreshing wine for summer.
Story published Friday, July 1, 2011 ( Volume 6, Number 4 )