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Friday Read: Sustainability, organics or biodynamics – who’s got it right?

Published:  24 January, 2020

Since France’s ‘organic’ fair Millesime Bio began in 1993, France and the rest of the winemaking world have come to embrace the gamut of holistic winemaking practices, from sustainability to organics and biodynamics. But how useful, actually, are they as separate disciplines? And do they have the staying power to be truly ‘sustainable’ longterm? Mike Turner, who was in Montpellier to judge this year’s medal winners, mulls over the big questions.

Having just launched Feel Good Grapes, an online wine shop championing sustainable, organic, and biodynamic wine, I spend much of my time these days thinking about how best to describe the eco-friendly ethos that’s at the heart of the business. The current wisdom in the trade would have it that we should be treating organics, biodynamics, and sustainability as three separate entities. But why are we obliged to do this? Are they so different? Will we always have to make this distinction?

The fact is that for the being at least, we will still have to continue to make the distinction because they are three separate attempts at tackling slightly different problems within the wine trade and its relationship with the environment. There’s nothing to stop a producer from combining option one or two, or even all three – but there is a difference. Put simply: biodynamics is a lifestyle, organics is a choice, and sustainability is increasingly mandatory.

People think sustainability is tough to explain. It isn’t. It’s your vines, your staff, your accounting books, and where you get your energy to run it all. Run that as efficiently as possible, with a nod to making sure how you’re doing it can be done like that for generations to come, and guess what? You’ll still be here making wine well into the future. Purely from a business point of view, it’s mandatory – so mandatory, that in the near future, the idea will become obsolete. It will just be the norm.

This is already happening in much of the extended wine world. Regional bodies that are proudly stating a huge uptake of their initiatives include New Zealand, where 97% of wineries have hit Sustainable Wine New Zealand targets. Sonoma winemakers meanwhile can now claim 100% compliance with the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance’s criteria. Yes, winemakers can continue to raise the bar (France’s HVE definitions have three increasingly stringent tiers). But if in 15 or 20 years you haven’t become sustainable, you’re probably not going to be around. You’ll be out of the loop with the new “conventional winemaking”.

Organics, on the other hand, is the choice to reject and hopefully reverse the effects of the agrochemical boom in the early 20th century. It was in 1988 that French soil biologist Claude Bourguignon declared Burgundy soils to be ‘dead’, which led to much soul searching and a spark in organic viticulture, with Millesime Bio, now the largest organic wine fair in the world, beginning just five years later. In 1993 they started with 30 producers. In 2020 they will host over 1,300 from 21 different countries. As a barometer for the rise of organic viticulture, the uptick is impressive.

The future for organics is not under threat. Continued growth however might be less rapid than we have seen so far. Part of this, of course, are the natural difficulties convolved with organic viticulture in marginal climates. Many Bordeaux vignerons point to the crop devastation at Château Palmer and Château Pontet Canet in 2018’s mildew-hit vintage and wonder how many of their businesses would have survived without such boardroom backing.

Domaine Du Pere Benoit, Nimes

Uptake will also depend a lot on rising consumer demand. Millesime Bio marketing manager Olivier Goue was positive, but honest. “Consumers need to want it more. That’s what will help for the future. We’ve had three years of explosion of Vin Bio in France, with 13% of French producers now either certified or in conversion. Supply is slowly catching up with current demand.”

Regardless of how quickly the demand rises, organic viticulture is a well-defined, legally bound term that is here to stay.

The future of bio

Biodynamics will always be different. It’s based, as most are aware, on the idea that the farmer’s job is to nurture the entire biosphere of vineyard, in conjunction with the lunar cycle, for positive energy flow and a strong immune system throughout. It requires a mental buy-in as much as a physical one, which is saying something given it reportedly adds 100 hours of labour per hectare per year to the producer’s job. By its very nature, it will always be as separate subset of wine production, and you either buy-in as a consumer/producer or you don’t.

Interestingly, I believe the future expansion of biodynamics is directly proportional to that of organics. This isn’t necessarily to do with selling more bottles, but experience says that many winemakers who go down the organic route eventually say “what’s next?” Just last week, I visited two wineries via Millesime Bio, both of which are in the process of adding biodynamic practices across all of their certified organic vineyards.

Etienne Besancenot has been head winemaker at Chateau de Caraguilhes in Corbieres since arriving in 2007. The vineyard itself was certified organic way back in 1992, but with the success of the recent introduction of sheep to manage the weeds and cover crops, and a tree planting scheme to increase biodiversity, attention eventually turned to biodynamics. Their full 100-hectare estate is now under full conversion. It’s not going to happen for everyone – it takes a lot of work. Those 100 hectares should equate to an extra 10,000 hours of labour per year! But if the biodynamic bug bites you? I’m yet to meet a producer who has turned back.

Terminology in the wine world has always been a bugbear. But if everything goes to plan, I hope to cut my typing time down by a third in the near future as the biodynamic and organic sectors continue to thrive. For now however, using the word ‘sustainability’ is unavoidable, and I’m still going to need that extra copy space to explain what I do. I guess I can live with that.

Millesime Bio runs from the 27–29 January at Montpellier Exhibition Centre.