Recently I’ve been writing about different perceptions of wine quality, and especially the emergence of the “natural wine” scene, which puts the philosophy behind the wine at the forefront for consideration when discussing a wine’s quality and qualities. The over arching buzz word of the moment is sustainability, which not only incorporates the aim of not harming the land which provides abundance, but also of not harming those who work the land, and those who consume the fruits of it.
I admit that I’m not committed completely to a natural wine approach to wine consumption. With a reasonable wine collection I’d be missing a lot of pleasurable wine experiences if I ditched every wine which was not at the very least organic. But there’s no doubt that over the past three or four years a few things have happened which have made me think more widely about exactly what I eat and drink, and whether there is any probability that I could be causing myself serious harm by what I consume (though perhaps the elephant in the room there is alcohol itself, but what the hell!). We are also encouraged, by organisations like the Fair Trade brand, to think about workers – their health, rights, levels of remuneration etc. If we are concerned for a coffee producer in Java or a tea picker in Assam, then we should equally be thinking about the guy spraying a vineyard in Languedoc or Maipo.
An article on The Guardian Newspaper Web Site (29 October 2015, by Andrew Wasley and Amanda Chaparro) brought into the mainstream an issue which has been bubbling around the wine press and Web forums for some time – that of pesticide use in vineyards. Wasley and Chaparro point out that France alone (Europe’s largest pesticide user) consumes 60,000 tonnes of pesticides every year. Fewer than 10% of French vineyards are farmed organically, or without the use of synthetic pesticides, and pledges to halve their use by 2018 (from 2008 levels) have proved so unattainable that the French Government has put back this date to 2025.
There is, it should be stated, no direct proof that agro-pesticides used by the wine industry cause cancers and other chronic illnesses, although there are many studies which do appear to point to links. All that could change when a decision is handed down in the case before the French courts of James-Bernard Murat, whose death sparked the first ever criminal investigation into the potential manslaughter of a vineyard worker through pesticide-induced illness. This case is pretty well known in wine circles, but the article suggests more cases could be in the pipeline if this one, brought by Murat’s daughter, is successful. If so, the possibility exists not only for compensation, but for prison sentences to be handed down.
It has been clear to most serious, quality conscious, wine producers for many years now that irrespective of any potential harm which some agro-chemicals could cause to humans (at any level in the chain), they might actually cause harm to the land on which the vine grows. The movement towards organics and biodynamics in France happens to have been taken up enthusiastically by many of the country’s finest producers, unlikely by mere coincidence. Some regions, being warm and dry are well suited to the avoidance of chemical applications against diseases, especially types of rot. But what often surprises observers is how successfully biodynamics has been introduced by the finest domaines in Burgundy, where the climate can be more varied. Even in that conservative, maritime (thereby quite wet) climate of Bordeaux, a few highly regarded estates punching well above their classification, like Pontet-Canet, have embraced the philosophy.
Often, if you ask a producer why biodynamics works, they will not really be able to explain, at least not in a scientific way. It’s not that they (usually) believe some of the more esoteric practices have a demonstrable direct effect. What they are very good at is showing the difference between land farmed with chemicals and their own soils (usually a difference between a hard base, stripped of life other than the vines themselves, compared to soft soil, spongy under foot, and full of diverse life). Biodynamics appears to help and allow an eco system to thrive, be it through vegetation beneficial to microbial activity or benign insect life which helps combat harmful life forms which strike at the vines.
Before I even began thinking about, or reading about, the natural wine movement, I found that by coincidence a lot of the wine I was buying was from producers following a biodynamic regime. It was also more or less mere coincidence that a lot of wines I began to discover in my search for exciting new wines over the past few years were what would describe themselves as “natural wines”. Three French regions which have seen a really dynamic movement of young growers appear in recent years, namely The Loire, Jura and Beaujolais, happen to be hotbeds for natural wines. Likewise some of the most interesting regions of Italy (Piemonte has an increasing number, Sicily a real core of natural wine producers).
There is little doubt that if you want to find excitement in wine, the likelihood is that the wine will be described by someone as “natural wine”, wine made with as few interventions as possible in vineyard and cellar, and certainly without the use of synthetic pesticides. Of course many people see these wines as faulty, and a fashion. That really does remind me, as I’ve noted before, of punk rock when it burst onto the music scene in the 1970s.
But this isn’t really the point of this piece. I just want to draw attention to the questions being asked about the use of synthetic pesticides, and other agro-chemicals. It’s a debate which needs to be aired, which is why it’s so good to see something under the banner of a mainstream broadsheet newspaper rather than merely tucked away in a wine trade publication. My own explanation and comments may be flawed and simplistic, but my object is only to promote more of that discussion.
I remember an Italian winemaker in Emilia-Romagna being asked why he had stopped using chemicals on his vines. His answer – “for my young baby daughter”. That’s very emotive, but I do remember that statement making me stop and think.
So can great wines exist without manipulation by chemical means in the winery, and without the use of synthetic pesticides in the vineyard? Are the risks of losing a crop due to infestation or disease worth it, economically and in terms of wine quality? Or are the risks of continuing to use these products too great? Are we shortsighted in doing so or are we just scaremongering? That is one of the important questions wine consumers need to ask, and indeed the consumers of all agricultural produce – but only a minority appear to be doing so when it comes to wine.
Yet there is one section of society that is thinking about these issues. Remember all those trendy sommeliers introducing weird wines onto their list at the expense of wines that should rightfully be there by their status? Well, they just happen to be likely to work in restaurants where the chefs are meticulous about the ingredients they use in the kitchen. The sommeliers are just learning to do the same with their wine inventory.
No synthetic chemicals were used in the growing of these vines