Grapevine Archive for Organic

Tue 11 Sep 2012

Fowl Play in Greece

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What does the organic and biodynamic wine producer do when his vines are invaded by locusts? Locusts even in modest number have a huge appetite for vegetation and like vine leaves.

Give up the struggle and resort to insecticide? Resign himself to losing his harvest? Neither of these things, as I found out when I visited the ingenious Apostolos Thymiopoulos in Naoussa this month.

Apostolos had noticed that a wasp nest close to his neighbours house had been destroyed and eaten by guinea fowl. So he went quickly to a local breeder and bought 50 guinea fowl and a few turkeys and let them loose in his vineyards. All the locusts were gobbled up in three weeks and his vines suffered only local damage.

Several of the guinea fowl were later eaten by a fox and a couple ended up in the pot, but I saw the heroic and quickest moving survivors safely fenced in next to the house and, if the link works, you can see them at work in the vines saving the harvest.

While there I visited and tasted a number of other producers of Naoussa and learnt more about this fascinating region which lies on the south-east facing hill slopes an hour and a bit?s drive due west of Thessaloniki. The city of Thessaloniki had been basking in 35° (Athens was 40°) but while Naoussa was marvellously hot, we were refreshed by a cooling breeze that came down from the mountains behind the town.

The key grape grown is xynomavro which with controlled yields is capable of producing wines of extraordinary finesse and depth of flavour, but which like Piedmont?s nebbiolo can lack charm if over-produced and be over-tannic if over-extracted or if badly handled in barrel. There are lots of different soils here from sandy, to clay and a stony mix of crumbly schist, quartz and sandstone. Thymiopoulos? wines capture wonderful bouquet with lovely rich, rounded fruit balanced by ripe tannins.

His organically cultivated grapes are planted on very stony soil. The Jeunes Vignes, 2011 (six to nine years) is delicious and best drunk cellar cool like Burgundy. We will be listing this wine shortly at £10.50 per bottle.

His ?Earth & Sky? Classic Naoussa, 2009, which we will list next year, from 40 year old vines has wonderful depth but may not reach its peak for three to five years longer. For me they are certainly the finest example of Naoussa I tasted proving yet again that Greece now has some world-class wines worth seeking out.

The school where Aristotle taught the young Alexander the Great is just outside the town and Vergina, where you can see the extraordinary treasure-filled tomb of his father, Philip of Macedon, now turned into a museum, is close by.

Sebastian Payne MW
Society Buyer

Thu 08 Dec 2011

The Great [Green] Grape Debate

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Waldin - an enigmatic spokesperson for organic/biodynamic farming

Last week the WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) hosted a debate between Monty Waldin – writer, broadcaster and winemaker and renowned proponent of organic and biodynamic viticulture – and Australian, Dr Richard Smart – one of the world’s best-known viticultural consultants who has worked in more than 30 countries, written several books on viticulture and has four degrees in science.

The motion debated was: ‘The UK wine trade should promote organic and biodynamic wines’ and it seems as though the fight has been a long time coming. Richard Smart now spends half the year here in the UK and has become increasingly frustrated with what he sees as the bias of the British wine trade, and the press in particular, towards organics and biodynamics. He thought the motion should actually read: ‘Should the UK wine trade CONTINUE to promote organic and biodynamic wines’. It seems that he has been asking for some time to have this kind of debate.

His principal complaint was that a lot of the health-giving benefits of wines produced in these ways are over-stated and unsubstantiated: ‘that they are better and better for you is arguable’, he says. He also feels that there is a general ignorance about conventional techniques of farming. He has experienced growers who farm conventionally reluctant to speak out against organic or biodynamic practices for fear of damaging their position in the market place. He says that many conventional farmers are no less environmentally conscious than their green counterparts and that they are being disadvantaged unfairly. He bemoaned the fact that conventional viticulture didn’t have an attractive, articulate advocate like Monty to promote its viewpoint. Smart had gone to some trouble to dress in a smart green shirt and tie and fetching hat to declare his own green credentials!

Waldin (who wrote an article for Societynews last September on the subject of organic, biodynamic and sustainable viticulture) was as persuasive and compelling as ever. A lot of what organic and biodynamic producers stand for does just seem to sound like common sense. The argument that many of the world’s top producers have converted to biodynamism because it works not because they have to is incontrovertible. Though he pointed out to Smart that actually, the British wine press have up until very recently been rather scathing about organics and biodynamics, often referring to him and his kind as a bunch of ‘loonies’. Waldin didn’t refer too much to some of the more esoteric elements of Steiner’s teaching on biodynamics.

biodynamic preparations

Stir it up: making compost tea at Seresin Estate, New Zealand, held up by Waldin as the perfect model of biodynamism in practice

As it is often the stories behind the wines that add to their appeal, those generated by an organic/biodynamic approach in the vineyard are bound to sound more attractive and chime in with our (arguably) misplaced conception of wine as a natural product. Smart doesn’t deny that stories are important in the marketing of wine and is fully in support of the social benefits of organic/biodynamic farming and even some of the practices, such as mulching instead of using weed killers. His problem is that messages about the harmful nature of pesticides and agro-chemicals traditionally used in conventional farming are vastly over-stated and untrue. He argues that the agro-chemical industry is highly regulated and that products are rigorously tested and proven to be harmless both to those applying them and to those ingesting the final product. He also pointed out that carcinogenic pesticides are naturally occurring in lots of plants and fruits and that we should probably be more concerned about these!

He had to draw attention too to ‘the Achilles heel’ (as Waldin called it) of organics/biodynamics, that both copper and sulphur are permitted. Copper in particular is highly toxic. It builds up in the topsoil and can’t be got rid of, to the point of even killing off the vines in one instance that Smart talked of. Waldin countered that because organic and biodynamic growers use natural plant and herb sprays on their vines to counter pests and diseases, they were less reliant on the use of toxic sprays.

Finally, Smart argued that in a few years’ time no-one will be talking about whether a wine is made from grapes grown organically or biodynamically and what is of increasing importance is the notion of sustainability. New Zealand, Australia, Oregon and South Africa have already made great progress in this area. ‘The greatest pollutant for our planet,’ Smart says, ‘is carbon dioxide, and whether you are organic or biodynamic, it has little impact on this.’

If you would like to listen to the debate for yourself, the WSET has posted videos of the event on their Facebook page.

The Wine Society is of the view that in order to produce high-quality wines that speak of the place where they were made, growers, by definition, need to take great care of their vineyards to ensure their long-term health. If they are able to do this by farming organically or biodynamically then this is a bonus, but ultimately the wine has to taste good first and foremost.

Notwithstanding this position, we recognise that some members will want to know more about how the wines we offer are made and for this reason, we group together our selection of wines produced from grapes grown organically and biodynamically on our website. Whether you agree with the motion of the debate or not, we hope that you’ll appreciate the wines. Why not let us know what you think?

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Wed 29 Jun 2011

How Green Is Wine?

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No, not those appetising tints in a perfect glass of riesling, but the now commonly used term for all that is environmentally responsible.

The endangered Cuivré des Marais butterfly found at Châteaux Latour and Caronne Sainte Gemme.

Once something of a bandwagon, the organic and biodynamic movement has shifted up a gear, the world over, and many of those producers who have embraced the philosophy – usually steadily and having made good wine first – are producing wonderful wine. Most wine producers are making enormous efforts in vineyards and cellar (both voluntarily and seeing the likelihood of future legislation if they don’t) to reduce any negative impact on our environment and especially on their unique locations. Some go further and seek accreditation, for example from the Terra Vitis association or by signing up to the IPW in South Africa.

It is reassuring to hear, as I did this morning, from André Van Rensburg, winemaker at Vergelegen, that they are moving to lighter glass for their bottles. Often outspoken and always frank, André is one of the most stimulating of wine industry leaders I am lucky enough to meet. Vergelegen has been at the forefront of work steadily to eradicate virus problems from South Africa’s vineyards (the latest on which is that dogs are now being trained in early detection skills. Having met a surprisingly handsome poodle last weekend who represented the training of dogs to detect dangerously low sugar levels in severely diabetic children, I begin to wonder is there anything our canine friends are not capable of?!). But I digress…

On top of all this, the conservation work undertaken at Vergelegen, which has already earned them BWI (Biodiversity in Wine Initiative) Champion status, has not only boosted their ladybird population but returned no less than four adult male Cape Mountain leopard to the property (more on which to follow!).

Closer to home, on our Bordeaux ‘primeurs’ visit to Château Caronne Sainte Gemme, Sebastian Payne and I saw healthy, lush, green vineyards – with vegetation a good three weeks ahead of the norm after an exceptionally warm, dry early spring – and heard from owner François Nony about the “Cuivré des Marais” butterfly, an endangered native of the Médoc currently found only at Châteaux Latour and Caronne Ste Gemme, where the proximity to water and the pollution-free environment provide just the habitat it needs. The vines looked pretty comfortable too, and François’ impressive 2010 features in our Opening offer which is about to arrive through your door, or is available now on our website.

Joanna Locke MW
Bordeaux & South Africa Buyer

Thu 26 May 2011

What it means to be green….

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Cullen

Cullen in Margaret River: one of The Wine Society's suppliers whose wines were tasted at Monty Waldin's masterclass

This was the title of the masterclass hosted by Wine Australia and presented by Monty Waldin at the London International Wine Trade Fair last week. Monty is not just a leading authority on green issues with several books published on the subject but has also ‘walked the talk’ having made his own wine biodynamically in the Roussillon – the focus of a Channel 4 documentary, Château Monty, broadcast in 2008.

Fresh from his first trip to Australia, Waldin was upbeat about how organic and biodynamic viticulture could be just what Australia needs right now. Australia hasn’t had it easy in the last couple of years with problems of overproduction, challenging vintage conditions and the rising cost of exports.

A greener approach to farming, argues Waldin, could be the way forward for Australian wine. ‘Organic and biodynamics naturally reduce yields increasing quality and giving better flavours in the wine. Producing wines with a better expression of regionality has to be the aim of the Australian wine industry.’

Interestingly, for a nation that otherwise is very aware of environmental issues, Australia has been slow to adopt organic and biodynamic viticulture. Leaders of biodynamism in Oz have, according to Monty, been doctrinal rather than inspirational.

Ironically though, young winemakers are now bringing back knowledge of biodynamics from Europe having seen it in action at many illustrious, blue-chip estates. ‘Australians are great pragmatists,’ says Monty, ‘Once they see that something works, they’ll be convinced that this is the right way to go.’

And what about the wines? We were shown 11 wines, including wines from established Wine Society suppliers Cullen and McHenry-Hohnen in Margaret River and Wirra Wirra in the McLaren Vale – suppliers of our own-label chardonnay. All had an inherent freshness about them, ‘wines to buoy you up not pull you down’, in Monty’s words.

2011 has been yet another challenging year for many in Australia with more rain at vintage time than anyone can remember in south east Australia. There have been issues with rot and mildew. Growers have found that organic grapes have fared better with thicker skins and greater resilience to rot. Paradoxically, a year which might have sounded the death knell to organics could actually be its springboard.

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