French Organic Wines
In France, the Agriculture Biologique logo shows a wine to have been made organically, or more correctly, to have been made from organic grapes. This green sticker signifying an organic wine is appearing on more wines, and even world-class ones.
As the French wine harvest is in full swing and the vignerons collect their grapes and head for the vats, the vendange itself has changed little over the decades apart from increased mechanisation. The rearing of the vines themselves has also changed significantly with more and more chemicals being used. This has now sparked a fight-back by growers in France who want to use fewer chemicals and grow more organic wines.
Organic wines and bio-dynamic wines are taking off as wine-makers become ever more concerned at the amount of pesticides, weed killers, fungicides and other chemicals being sprayed on the land, the vines and the grapes. Growers say using these chemicals has stripped the land of its natural minerals and weakened the soil. The vines have been left with shallow roots and the poor soil means poorer grapes.
Grand cru vineyards, such as the Burgundy producer, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC), St Emilion’s Château Fonroque and Pauillac’s Château Pontet-Canet, have made the switch to organic wines as have many lesser known growers. This is in the belief that what goes on the grape goes in the wine. Festival Wines does not stock wines such as DRC: its 2005 vintage sells at about £10,000 per bottle in the US – we offer wines that are easily affordable!
The organic wine industry in France still represents a tiny fraction of the country’s overall wine production (last year: 480 million litres), but it is growing steadily, from 1.5 per cent in 2005, to 2.6 per cent in 2007 and 3.3 per cent in 2008. Many more growers are in the process of switching, but it can take four years to get organic certification.
France remains the world’s third heaviest user of pesticides; spending over €2bn per annum. 20% of the chemicals went on vines, which are just 5% of the farmed land. As the growers say: what goes on the grape goes in the wine.
No such thing as organic wine, says EU
Strictly speaking, organic wine does not exist in the European Union, only “wine made from organically grown grapes”: the rules do not cover winemaking, just cultivation techniques. EU regulations on organic farming ban chemical fertilisers, synthetic pesticides and genetically modified organisms. There are new EU regulations that allow the organic wine claasification.
Products that meet the specifications can carry the new organic leaf logo, as above. Vineyards have to use organic techniques and wait four years “in conversion” before they can even apply for organic certification. They face tighter controls than conventional vineyards, with organic certification every year and one or two additional checks each year.
Low Sulphur Wines in France
The ban on chemicals does not apply to the use of sulphites, which are preservatives added to stop the wine oxidising – turning into vinegar – a fault of some bio wines. Many people react badly to sulphites, especially asthmatics, but restrictions on how much can be added are complicated because sulphites are a natural product of making wine.
Red wines contain up to 10mg per litre of sulphites given off by tannins in the skins and stems during fermentation. EU law allows up to 160mg/l in reds, 200mg/l in whites and rosés and 400mg/l in sweet wines. Any wine with more than 10mg/l must be labelled “Contient Sulfites”, but you do not have to say how much sulphur the wine contains.
Some cheap wines have sulphites added to cover up poor wine-making techniques; some of the fault lies with the cork as it lets in more oxygen than artificial corks and screw caps. The newer ways of sealing bottles give less chance for oxygen to get to the wine, and lower sulphur levels can be used.
Bio-Dynamic Wines in France
Bio-dynamic grape growing takes organic growing a stage further: it develops soil life and builds the natural immunity of the vine. In bio-dynamic wine, only natural yeasts are used and no artificial adjustments are made nor animal products added. This growing method is more suited to the smaller vineyards rather than the mass production ones – it fits well with the stereotyped farmer or grower of France. At Festival Wines we offer up to 20 bio-dynamic wines from France.
Vegetarian Wines in France
It might sound unlikely but France is one of the leaders in producing vegetarian wines and while many a Frenchman would not know what a vegan stands for, a good number of their wines are in fact vegan wines. We should probably not tell them that they are leaders in vegetarian wines!
French Organic Wines, our producers:
Ampelidae Wines; Belle Mare; Chateau la Grolet, Christian Dauny, Claude Carre Champagne; Costieres de Pomerols; Domaine Begude and Domaine de la Tour all have their separate pages. More wines are available through our wine shop.