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Growing Organically part one: Viticulture and winemaking

Published:  23 October, 2020

The first in our two-part webinar considered the evolution of organic winemaking and the challenges and opportunities that this path delivers. Andrew Catchpole prompted the debate.

The panellists

Juan Pablo Murgia, head winemaker, Bodega Argento

Dr Greg Dunn, head of wine division, Plumpton College

Jacques Frelin, founder, Jacques Frelin Vignobles

Carmel Kilcline MW, head of technical, Bibendum

Daniel Mettyear, head of wine, IWSR

Ben Raskin, head of horticulture and agroforestry, Soil Association

Andrew Catchpole, chair and editor, Harpers Wine & Spirit

A word on organic growth 

In an opening presentation, Daniel Mettyear, IWSR’s head of wine, outlined a moribund global wine market in the wake of the pandemic, predicting that it could take until 2024 for global wine consumption to recover
to 2019 levels. 

However, a dive into the trends that have been hastened by the crisis revealed that health concerns around Covid-19 are continuing to boost consumer appetite for organic produce, including wine. 

Mettyear highlighted how organic wine sales are predicted to rise from a 2.8% share of world wine sales to 4% by 2024, potentially representing an increasingly important driver of recovery.

He furthermore described this trend as “a truly global phenomenon”, building on a global rise in organic wine sales of 9% in the five years before Covid struck. 

“We’re seeing a laying bare of the fragility of our way of life, with sentiment going towards health and ethical consumption in the short term,” said Mettyear.

“And we believe that will accelerate in the long term – [emphasis on] ingredients, authenticity, proximity, wellness, and care for self, society and planet are all climbing, and driving the organic process in food and, indeed, wine production.”

The Discussion

The panel session began with a recap on what ‘organic’ means, analysing common themes from all present. Ben Raskin, head of horticulture and agroforestry at the Soil Association, took a stab at encapsulating a concept that, for the consumer at least, is simple to grasp at a broad brush-stroke level. 

“It starts with building healthy soil,” said Raskin, who then went on to describe certain core organic principles. 

“There’s the health of plant and soil; there’s the ecological, looking after the wider environment; and an element of fairness, treating your staff and wider society well, being ethical within that.”

For Juan Pablo Murgia, head winemaker at the organic Bodega Argento, much of the work involved in organic viticulture comes down to “emulating the traditional way, with modern understanding”, taking it back to when winemakers and growers had a much closer connection to and understanding of the importance of the health of vines and soils. 

“We didn’t start by thinking about organic certification or labelling, but the idea was to grow and work vineyards in that way because we really believe the results – the quality, the colour and the texture of the wines – are much better, fresher and richer.”

For Murgia, moving down an organic route and eventual certification was a case of organic naturally following on from a path to higher quality. Carmel Kilcline MW, head of technical at Bibendum, picked up on the theme, linking it over to consumer perception. 

“Because it’s more evolved as a category now, there’s less looking at organic principles without looking so much at the quality of the wine. Twenty years ago, consumers may have been there for an ethical dimension and might tolerate lesser quality, but nowadays it’s rare to see a wine that is out of condition on the organic side.”

Paying the price

Issues that still linger, though, are higher prices for organic wines, in part down to lower-yielding vines and higher costs for more intensive vineyard labour. 

“For us it’s been 10 years since we started and of course at the beginning it’s going to cost you more, because we are used to using other techniques – the chemical industry gives us tools to use, but when you go organic you have to use more man hours and it can cost you more,” said Murgia.

“But with more time, the health of vineyards will improve, be more balanced in production and eventually produce more each year.”

Murgia added that while synthetic fertilisers can push vineyards to give a high yield in the short term, his experience is that after several years “those vineyards will start to go down”, and that “the opposite happens with organic”, with yields rising (and especially with old vines) once the plants and soil reach a healthier equilibrium. 

Diving into the progress in understanding and technique that has driven organic viticulture forward, all agreed that much progress had been made, but that there is still work to be done. 

“If we can reduce our copper and sulphur usage that would be a good thing and I do think we’ll reduce these over time. Much of this is all about managing the ecology of the bunch zone, we manipulate canopies to help prevent disease, but working out how to promote beneficials and push things more in favour of the plant is becoming important,” said Plumpton College’s head of wine division Dr Greg Dunn. 

“Other technology, how we manage the fertilisers, the composts and manures, understanding their interaction with the soils, the way they release, there’s some interesting work being done there.”

Jacques Frelin, founder of the wholly organic Jacques Frelin Vignobles, added: “A lot of things evolved in the past 20 years, when it was more difficult to make wines without chemical props. Many techniques have changed, like filtration and heat and cold treatments, arriving at a good culture of organic winemaking and viticulture, with new technology improving the quality of the vine.”

Raskin also highlighted the advance of natural biological controls, which offer help across a range of diseases, including “recently discovered thermo culture, which looks interesting”, along with trials of such innovations as electrical weeding.

“There are ideas that might not have originated in viticulture that can help viticulture… you hear almost exactly the same conversations across almost all agriculture, there’s definitely more room for collaboration and cross-pollination.

A final word went to the winemaker at the ‘virtual’ table. 

“We need to keep pushing our organic philosophy and now we are selling under our organic labels our mission and challenge is to show our customers that our organic wines taste better than our conventional wines, that the quality is better,” said Murgia.  

“Another challenge is to connect the organic management with wider sustainability, and we are now doing that, showing we care about our vineyards, but also our soils, our rivers, our people, the environment – we are certified as sustainable and will continue working towards this as the next step.” 

The full webinar can be watched on Harpers YouTube channel.