Being a little beyond my youth now, I grew up in a world without home computing and without mobile phones. I also grew up in a world without organic wine. That’s not quite true. Plenty of producers avoided chemical applications in the vineyard and a range of additives and manipulations in the winery, but we didn’t really know about them. Wine was just wine. Most wine was made using at least some of these interventions. In the latter half of the Twentieth Century producers were told to use pesticides and other synthetic preparations by their governments, who did so in the belief that they would help create rural prosperity in their agricultural sectors in post-WW2 Europe, by cutting disease and increasing production. Later, this form of farming became part of the “modern” methodology which was promoted by the soon to be revered university wine schools of the New World – an integral part of the New World wine revolution. It went hand in hand, or so it seemed, with new oak, stainless steel, hygiene in the winery and machine harvesting in the vines.
Much of the work of colleges like UC Davis in California or Charles Sturt in Australia (NSW), and indeed the work of Bordeaux and Dijon Universities, helped transform wine quality. We went from a world of affordable fine wine plus a load of plonk, to one in which we may no longer be able to afford much classic fine wine, but at least the rest is usually pretty drinkable and much more of it, delicious. But what comes around, as they say…and in the past few months we have seen quite a lot of negative news about the use of agrochemicals in wine production.
Perhaps by coincidence the two main stories have come out of those most famous of French wine regions, Bordeaux and Burgundy. Pesticides have been under scrutiny in the Gironde, the French département which encompasses the Bordeaux wine region, for some years. Back in 2014 twenty-three school children in Blaye suffered headaches and nausea when a vineyard next to their school was sprayed with pesticides, and an outcry followed. But the same issue in the same region came back into the news this year with a recent documentary on the French TV Channel, France2. The programme highlighted this most famous part of France’s wine patrimony as the most greedy consumer of pesticides in a country which itself ranks as Europe’s largest user. The issue has, as a consequence, been widely reported around the world. The programme, in focusing on the risk to children, has perhaps not done the region any publicity favours.
To be fair, the French Government has a plan to reduce pesticide use in agriculture by 2018, which is as admirable as it is perhaps necessary from a public health perspective. But by contrast, the other big story linked with agrochemicals is from France’s other great wine region, Burgundy. The vineyards of Burgundy have, in parts, been afflicted with a very serious vine disease, flavescence dorée. The regional authorities brought in mandatory use of a pesticide to fight the disease. Many organic producers are said to have purchased the pesticide but then tucked it away, without using it. To do so would negate their organic/biodynamic status.
Without debating all the issues surrounding flavescence dorée, how widespread and how much of a threat it really is over the whole region, and whether the proposed biodynamic remedies might be effective, one producer called Emmanuel Giboulot stated in public that he would not spray. He was pilloried by the authorities, and indeed by some fellow producers and members of the wider wine fraternity, but he received quite widespread support around the world (half a million people signed an online petition). In the end he received a fine of €1,000, half of which was suspended. Giboulot is a relative unknown, but another, much better known and very highly regarded, winemaker has since been charged with the same refusal to spray. Thibault Liger-Belair was acquitted of the same offence in relation to his Beaujolais domaine at Moulin-à-Vent, but on a technicality relating to procedure.
The way Bordeaux has reacted to the pesticide scandal has been to concentrate research on vines which are disease resistant. These vines, which I understand are not genetically modified, offer natural resistance to various diseases. I’m sure many of you know that Natural Resistance is the title of Jonathan Nossiter’s film about natural winemakers in Italy – a group of people dedicated to avoiding synthetic pesticides and fungicides, along with other winemaking manipulations. Although I accept that such practices may be problematic in the often damp maritime climate of the Gironde Estuary, this group of rebels (just a few of the ever increasing band of natural wine advocates around the world) are showing another route to avoid the effects of these applications.
Perhaps the star of Nossiter’s documentary is Piemontese contadini, Stefano Bellotti. Bellotti farms around 20 hectares of vines at his Cascina degli Ulivi estate in the Tassarolo Hills, close to Alessandria. This is better known as Gavi country, with the white Cortese grape playing the most important role in local viticulture. Whilst wine is Bellotti’s main preoccupation, his farm is mixed, with both cereals and livestock among a host of things he produces. In fact Monty Waldin has described the estate as “a vineyard which comes as close as possible to attaining the biodynamic ideal of a self-sustaining living organism” (Decanter Magazine’s Italy Supplement, February 2016).
Bellotti may come across as a bit of a conspiracy theorist in the film, believing that government is conspiring with the large multinationals which control food production in Europe, so that when we eat or consume rubbish, we become easier to manipulate by those who hold power. But he also, rather convincingly, argues that agrochemicals inhibit our intake of energy through plants. He also suggests that the EU is aiming to reduce the percentage of the population working in the agricultural sector, from the current 6% to the 2% which pertains in the USA, within its next ten year plan. That doubtless plays to the large multinationals who don’t really like the alternative competition to their food philosophy offered by small scale farmers. It would no doubt help cut agricultural subsidies too.
If Bellotti may seem an outsider prone to extreme views, perhaps he has good reason: just listen to this. In her book Natural Wine, Isabelle Legeron MW tells the story of how Bellotti, in order to increase biodiversity, planted some peach trees in one of his vineyards. According to the authorities, he had thereby “polluted” his land, and he was banned from selling the produce of this vineyard as wine. Does that sound like madness? For sure! To me, it even sounds like one act in a string of victimisation and bullying that wine producers like Bellotti face all the time. All over France and Italy, natural wine producers can no longer sell their wines under a local designation (DOC, AOC etc). True wines of terroir stripped of the chance to express that terroir on their label. Others fall foul of the wine police because they won’t add bags of sugar to boost the alcohol content of wines, which thereby are surely less reflective of their terroir and vintage than wines without this enforced chaptalisation. But I digress.
It seems to me that the wine world is in danger of polarising. Wine makers like Stefano Bellotti, and the other naturalistas around the world, may seem like outsiders to much of the wine establishment yet their influence is proving greater than you might think. As so often happens, those at the edges are not lost voices. Their philosophy resonates. Many small and medium-sized producers are rethinking their strategies. They begin with what is termed in France Lutte Raisonnée (literally “reasoned fight”). This pragmatic, as opposed to blanket, approach to spraying is often a beginning towards eventual organic certification.
Biodynamic viticulture, often the next step from organics, has really taken hold, especially among several of the finest producers in France, who have found that vines which have not been subjected to chemical spraying are able to create ecosystems (both in the life within the soils and the increase in beneficial fauna which can exist in a non-toxic environment) more able to resist disease, thus negating the need for these applications. Biodynamics scares many people who take a purely scientific approach, but the observations of its protagonists lead most who give it a try to end up going for full conversion, eventually.
Viticulture and winemaking heavily dependent on synthetic chemical inputs may increasingly become the domaine of large scale, industrial, producers and co-operatives, though even here many of the bigger firms are stepping back. Big wine multinationals make sure they have labels within their ranges which appeal to the more conscious consumer. That may not go as far as making “those faulty sulfur free wines that all taste of cider“, but organics is a start in the right direction.
The difficulty those who would like to see at least a substantial reduction in the use of agrochemicals face is the certain opposition of the multinationals who produce these products. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry. And where large scale wine production is concerned, minimising disease and maximising yields maximises profit…as well as, in the eyes of these producers, avoiding potential catastrophe and ruin. It’s the insurance policy these products claim to provide. Unlike a world famous producer in Gevrey or Vosne, the producer of large quantities of cheap supermarket wine can’t put up their prices by a few euros per bottle when there’s yet another small harvest.
The world, certainly Europe, is growing ever more conscious of food safety. Indeed, in many respects the European Union has been responsible for introducing the best and most thorough food safety legislation anywhere in the world. But the wine industry lags behind, in terms of labelling and in terms of testing.
As Stefano Bellotti says in Natural Resistance, we are in effect what we eat. If the testing of European wine samples is anything to go by, what we drink may well contain illegal pesticide levels in some cases, and sadly this even extends to organic wines. No matter how conscientious a producer might be, she can do nothing to stop her neighbour’s sprays drifting over her vines, especially if the spraying is being done from a helicopter. Thankfully this method of indiscriminate spraying is being outlawed in some regions, but pesticide drift is a massive problem. At least awareness of the problem is growing. Educating the consumer will eventually force the producers to take a different course. Well, we live in hope.
Natural Resistance is a slow and thoughtful film. It follows four winemaking families in different parts of Italy, committed to a non-interventionist wine philosophy. But it seems to me it covers more than that – it’s about a different way of living and of interacting with our planet. You don’t need to be an outright advocate for natural wines to take something from watching it. I found it very thought-provoking, although some people with a shorter attention span, and less acceptance of sub-titles, might find it less enjoyable than I did. But I think that most readers who enjoy my Blog would enjoy the film. I’m sure many of you will have watched it already.
As an act of solidarity with the much persecuted Stefano Bellotti, we shall drink a bottle of his 2012 A Demûa tonight. It was recommended to me by a wine merchant as “the best orange wine I tried last year” (sadly it has now sold out, but we may see it again, for sure). Bellotti grows the local specialities of Cortese and Barbera, along with a unique local strain of Dolcetto. But this wine is a blend of Timorasso, Riesling, Bosco, Verdea and Chasselas Musqué (according to Waldin, describing the 2013 version of this wine in the abovementioned Decanter article). The grapes, from vines over a hundred years old, are made into wine with skin contact, to create a complex texture to a wine combining nuts, herbs and citrus in a harmonious whole. Well, that’s what I’m hoping. Saluti!