Grapevine Archive for sustainable

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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