A mere 10 years ago, almost the only place to find organic wines was in some dusty dark corner of a healthfood store, snuck in between the lentils and the open-toed sandals. But today, organic wines have their own gleaming bright sections in the liquor aisles of all the major UK supermarkets and, on the Internet, there's a burgeoning band of specialist organic wine suppliers.
In fact, organic wine is now the fastest-growing sector of organic food in general-and wine-growers are responding. The latest estimate is that 5 per cent of vineyards have either now gone organic or are in the process of doing so. And it's a worldwide revolution: even in relatively unsophisticated countries like Chile, Italy and Portugal, pesticides are being abandoned and replaced by non-chemicalized viticulture.
And about time, too.
It's a little known fact that grapes are among the most pesticide-laden fruit crops in the world. In Europe, for example, although only about 3.5 per cent of agricultural land is devoted to grapes, they receive 15 per cent of the total European pesticide volume-all perfectly legally. In Italy, for example, 201 pesticides are permitted for use on grapes, comprising 84 fungicides, 88 insecticides and 29 herbicides (Food Addit Contam, 2001; 18: 880-5). In fact, a staggering 21.4 kg of pesticides are sprayed onto every hectare of EU vines a year. Admittedly, about two-thirds of this figure is accounted for by rock-derived sulphur, an age-old compound traditionally used as a fungicide and believed to be harmless. But the rest are powerful chemicals, and increasingly so, as there's a growing trend to abandon sulphur in favour of synthetic fungicides, all of which are hazardous to human health (European Commission. The Use of Plant Protection Products in the European Union: Data 1992-2003, 2007).
The authorities try to reassure us that these pesticides are largely removed from the final product during the winemaking process, and so don't end up in the wine itself. However, the facts often say otherwise. The following is a selection of some recent studies.
Portuguese wines have been found to contain "several fungicide residues (Dichlofluanid, Benomyl, Iprodione, Procymidone and Vinclozolin)" (Food Microbiol, 2006; 23: 393-8). In Spanish wines, too, the pesticides chlorpyrifos, penconazole, fenarimol, vinclozolin, metalaxyl and mancozeb have been detected (J Agric Food Chem, 1999; 47: 264-70) as well as arsenic (Food Addit Contam, 2002; 19: 542-6). In Italy, nearly one in five wines has been found to exceed EU limits for copper residues (Food Addit Contam, 2006; 23: 274-80). Even wine corks are routinely contaminated with organochlorine chemicals (Chemosphere, 2001; 44: 729-35).
The European Pesticide Action Network recently pulled together the results of tests carried out on a random selection of 34 wines, mainly from Europe. They could not find a single bottle that was pesticide-free. On average, each wine contained about four pesticides. In total, 24 different pesticide chemicals were detected, half of which are known to be either carcinogenic, mutagenic or hormone-disrupting. Interestingly, price wasn't a factor. Three of the wines were 'world-famous' Bordeaux reds costing over 200 euros (nearly lb160) a bottle. And yet, even these were found to contain between three and five pesticides each, including the hugely toxic fungicide procymidone (Pesticide Action Network report, 26 March 2008).
Biodynamic farming: beyond organic
Some of the more enlightened winegrowers are seriously worried at the way their industry is going. For one thing, their own farm workers are getting sick from having to handle all these toxic chemicals. In fact, brain tumours are common among vineyard workers (Arch Environ Health, 1998; 53: 65-70), as are cancers in general. This has led to at least arsenic, the most potent carcinogen, being banned-although, so far, only in French vineyards (Int Arch Occup Environ Health, 2004; 77: 130-5).
But workers' health is just one of the drivers towards organic husbandry. Another reason is that intensive viticulture is collapsing. In areas such as Provence and Languedoc in France, which used to produce abundant quantities of wine, farmers have seen their soils dying and yields dropping. Today, about half of those areas' vineyards have gone organic.
Another plus is that going organic is not that much of an upheaval-at least, not for European growers. All they have to do is revert to the viticulture methods of their grandfathers.
However, the days before chemical pesticides weren't entirely pesticide-free either. In those days, natural substances such as copper and sulphur were all routinely used (as fungicides), and still continue to be used in most organic vineyards today. But why do such chemicals, however natural, need to be used at all? It's partly to do with the fact that, unlike normal crops, vines are static: the same crop stays on the same land year after year. This means that pests and diseases can easily build up.
As a result, vineyards are permitted to use copper and sulphur without losing their organic status-but nothing more. So, instead of artificial fertilizers, growers will often plant nitrogen-fixing legumes between the vines, supplemented by compost. Weeds are kept down by sheer manual labour. As an alternative to insecticides, many growers use biological controls: for example, they'll plant yarrow to encourage ladybirds which, in turn, will eat the greenfly; or build bat boxes among the vines to attract insect-eating bats.
But some organic winegrowers have gone even further, and turned their vineyards over to an even more challenging form of organic farming-biodynamics. First developed in the 1920s by the German philosopher Rudolf Steiner, biodynamics is organic farming with spiritual knobs on. It shares the same core philosophy as working with nature, but it takes the concept into new dimensions. In biodynamics, working with nature also includes taking into account such things as the phases of the moon, astrological cycles and plant 'personalities'.
The two main biodynamic fertilizers are cow manure and ground quartz (silica) crystals, but these are used only after undergoing a strange ritual: they must be stored in cow's horns for 6 months and buried underground. The silica is then sprayed onto the vine leaves, in the belief that it will act like millions of tiny mirrors to enhance the sunlight. The use of cow manure sounds more credible, until you are told that only tiny amounts are used-in fact, only a few grammes per acre. Surprisingly, copper and sulphur are not banned under the Biodynamic rules (the certification body is called Demeter), but are encouraged to be kept to a minimum. That's why vines are often sprayed with nettle tea, a natural source of sulphur.
Despite the seeming bizarreness of much of the basic system, roughly a third of organic vineyards have now gone biodynamic-and it seems to be paying off. In France, for example, biodynamic wines are often judged to be the best in their class, organic or not. Indeed, the most expensive wine in the world (the burgundy Roman'ee-Conti) is biodynamic. The principal reason for its success is thought to be that the biodynamic system (and organic farming in general) encourages vines to be deep-rooting, thus grabbing the mineral nutrients deep within the earth, and allowing the particular character of the soil-the so-called terroir-to come out in the flavour of the wine.
But grands crus and top prizes aside, surveys show that many people buy organic wines for a much simpler reason-to avoid a hangover. It's believed that the 'morning-after blues' are caused by the additives in conventional wine, not by the alcohol itself.
Is there any truth in this, or is it just another urban myth?
The additive most often fingered as the cause of hangovers is the preservative sulphur dioxide ('sulphites' is the trade term). Because organic wines are not believed to contain any of it, ergo, they cannot cause a hangover. However, the truth is that all wines-even organic ones-contain sulphites (although some have more than others).
Curiously, the medical literature has no reports connecting sulphites and headaches of any kind. However, sulphites are known to cause asthmatic-type reactions such as flushing, rapid heartbeats, wheezing, hives, dizziness, stomach upset and diarrhoea, collapse, tingling or difficulty swallowing. In the case of wine, however, these reactions are thought to be rare and tend to occur only with relatively high sulphite levels (Thorax, 2001; 56: 763-9).
However, the fact remains that alcohol can trigger migraine headaches in some people, with spirits and sparkling wine tending to be worse offenders than red or white wine (Drugs Exp Clin Res, 1999; 25: 147-53).
Could hangovers or headaches be due to pesticide residues? No research has been done to find out-almost certainly because the authorities don't believe the chemical amounts in wine could conceivably be a health hazard. The flipside of this is, of course, that there's no evidence to say that organic wines are any healthier than ordinary wines, either.
So, given the present levels of knowledge, the reasons to choose organic wine may be more to do with your heart than your head.
OUR ORGANIC WINE SURVEY
We surveyed the major sources of organic wine in the UK-supermarkets and mail-order specialists. We asked some of the leading mail-order companies to select a red organic wine suitable for 'everyday drinking' (in other words, not too expensive) from their range. We also visited the five main UK supermarket chains, and chose a similar wine from their shelves.
Overall, our tasting panel was impressed by the general quality, with the wines being at least the equal of conventional wines and, in some cases, superior. This verdict is a great improvement over the situation a decade ago, when organic wines tended to be of variable quality, possibly because the early growers were trying to create sulphite-free wines.
On the other hand, none of our testers detected any obvious immediate health benefits-almost certainly because we didn't offer them enough to have a hangover in the first place.
We rated the suppliers on four counts: the quality of their best 'everyday drinking' wine (scored in marks out of 10); the breadth of their overall range; their 'green' credentials; and the speed and cost of delivery.
Mail-order: www.ethicalwine.com; tel: 01454 313 300
Domaine de Combebelle (2004 vin de Pays d'Oc)
"Gutsy southern French red with spicy red fruits from a stunning organic vineyard" is how Ethical Wine CEO Susan McCraith describes this biodynamic wine, but our panel thought that an understatement. "Long, fruity, full but not heavy; lots of 'terroir'; as good as a wine three times the price" were some comments. Scores ranged from 7.5-9/10. McCraith gets most of her 40 organic wines from France, and over half of them are biodynamic. She also stocks wines from vineyards that are not quite organic, and has a good range of organic and non-organic local (English) wines, further extending her green credentials. Prices range from lb5 to lb35; delivery is lb5.99 for a three-day service.
Mail-order: www.Vinceremos.co.uk; tel: 0800 107 3086
Taquies (2007 Argentine Cabernet-Malbec)
Vinceremos is one of the oldest organic wine specialists, and carries a huge stock of 300 wines, 10 per cent of which are biodynamic. It has a wide selection of medium-priced wines from Europe (mainly France) and the New World. One particular plus point is that most of its wines are suitable for vegetarians, as the growers haven't used eggwhites or gelatine as wine clarifiers.
Our panel liked this organic Argentinian import-describing it as "smooth, spicy, earthy" and giving it an average approval rating of 7.5/10. Delivery takes four to five days and costs lb6.95, with discounts for quantity.
Organic Tinto (La Mancha)
Vintage Roots is another long-standing UK specialist, carrying over 250 wines sourced mainly from Europe. Their price range is a reasonable lb5-15, with a few pricey champagnes on top. A fifth of their wines are biodynamic, and most are suitable for vegetarians. We thought their own-label Spanish red was "well-balanced, but a little thin", awarding it an average of about 7/10 points. Delivery costs lb6.95.
Mail-order: www.vinvert.co.uk; tel: 07891 600 493
Domaine les Fouques (2004 C^otes de Provence)
Vin Vert ('green wine') is a relatively small supplier, with about 40 wines on offer, mostly French, sold in cases of 6 bottles unless otherwise specified. Unusually, the company also offers budget-priced organic wine in 5-litre boxes. They offered us one of their nine biodynamic wines, which was quite well liked by our panel. "Quaffable, fruity and spicy, but slightly tart and a little short on the palate" was the overall verdict, although the wine scored a respectable average of 7/10. Delivery charges are lb6-7, but free for more than eight cases.
Bonterra 2005 Merlot
"Interestingly spicy for a merlot", thought our panel, but with the usual "velvety" undertone. Their verdict: 7/10. Bonterra in Northern California is one of the oldest organic vineyards in America, with much of the land farmed biodynamically. Waitrose seems to have done an exclusive deal with Bonterra on some of their wines, but you can find other Bonterra wines at other outlets. Waitrose stocks 33 organic wines, a third of which are biodynamic, at a broad price range up to lb35 a bottle. Its full range is only available via the online WineDirect service (free delivery); local stores will stock a smaller selection.
2006 Australian Shiraz
"Unremarkable; well-balanced; no vices, but no particular virtues" was our panel's verdict, scoring the wine at an average of 6/10. Sainsbury's seems to have gone for a low-budget collection of workmanlike organic wines-Chianti, Valpolicella, French Provencal-thereby bringing a good choice of 14 sensibly priced wines within the reach of the ordinary consumer.
Tesco Organic Australian Red
We awarded 6/10 to this Tesco own-label offering: "Light oak; a bit thin; slightly acidic; probably OK with food " were typical comments. Tesco offers a small range of eight organic wines, many at rock-bottom prices. If you're trying to go organic on a budget, this could be the place for you. Tesco's delivery service costs around lb5.
Marks & Spencer Supermarket
Le Bosquet de la Dame (2006 C^otes du Rhone)
This wine was generally disliked: "sharp; musty, thin, acidic; cooking wine; strips the enamel off your teeth" were some of the comments, with only one taster thinking it had any merit at all. Its average taste rating was a poor 3/10.
M&S hasn't embraced organic wine as much as some of its competitors, offering a small range of nine wines. Some of these appear to have won awards for quality but, if our panel's experience is anything to go by, their wines must be seriously inconsistent.