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"Does Organic change the taste of wine?" RVF article.

by Tim York » Sat Sep 05, 2009 9:27 am

This is the cover headline of an article in the February number of la Revue du Vin de France (“RVF”).

It takes the form of an interview of Antoine Gerbelle (sommelier, wine writer and connoisseur of organic wines) by the managing editor, Denis Saverot. I have summarised it in the same form which makes it remain somewhat discursive in spite my leaving out quite a lot. I have translated the term “vigneron” by “winegrower”, because this is an accepted term in British English which corresponds to the dual function of most European “vignerons” consisting both of grape growing/harvesting and of winemaking/bottling.

Do wines produced by organic winegrowers have a special taste?
Yes. When well made, these wines offer a more tasty and digestible maturity. With an organic white wine, for example, the drinker will notice right from beginning a volume which is based on the density of its flavours and not on the alcohol and which is never hot and sugary with the linear profile of most white wines.

And what are the different characteristics of organic red wine?
Fine organic reds show additional acidity which gives them a special balance because a vine which has never received potassium to increase its productivity gives better acidity. Often organic reds show floral aromas in the mouth alongside the fruit; this is rare in conventionally made reds. For example, in the Cornas made by Thierry Allemand, notes of violet and iris dominate the usual soot and tar. Often fine organic reds show a lower alcoholic degree which, combined with the better acidity, produce better balance. In torrid 2003 organic wine shone, e.g. Gourt de Mautens. Clos Rougeard is another organic red which shines by its regularity; never any bell pepper tastes in weak vintages; the vines are handled harmoniously and are not subject to shocks coming from conventional treatments.

But organic wines don’t only have good qualities?
Of course not. The finish of many organic wines can seem short, particularly in comparative tastings; this is because certain manipulations which improve the impression of length in conventional wines, e.g. selected aromatising yeasts and high alcohol and heavy oaking to sweeten the finish, are spurned by organic producers. However, after a few mouthfuls with food, a different sort of length appears based on the volume of flavours and sapidity rather than just on size, fat, alcohol and sugar.

The much touted minerality? How is that explained?
By the terroir, of course, but in the case of organic cultivation most experts agree that the amount of dry extract, to which mineral flavours are related, is greater. In the absence of additives and treatments, the vines extract better the oligo-elements from the soil. This also explains the recent increase in the salinity of wines, particularly organic whites, from all over France; for example the Roussillon Grenache blanc based whites of Olivier Pithon and Lionel Gauby.

What distinguishes organic viticulture?
Basically the winegrower must ask himself the elementary question of whether the site is sufficiently self sufficient for the production of good grapes without the use of fertilisers. In the 70s and 80s, in particular, conventional winegrowers extended their vineyards anywhere relying on fertilisers and productive clones thinking only of the grapes’ sugar content without considering their taste.

Does the organic grower refuse all types of treatment?
The golden rule for the organic grower is to refuse intrusive inputs, particularly chemical. He only uses a limited number of natural products, e.g. copper, and contact products to combat disease, i.e. no vaccinations, irreversible treatments of the soil and vegetal matter. As contact treatments get washed off by repeated rain, the organic grower runs a risk of losing all or part of his crop to disease or rot in wet years like 2007 and 2008.

The soil round the vines needs to be worked so as to let it breathe and nourish the vines; compacting of the soil by tractors should be reduced to the minimum.

In the wine-making cellar, what distinguishes the organic producer?
In the quest for better definition of the flavours from the terroir, he will be seeking to preserve those flavours. This means working with native yeasts and avoiding chaptalisation; the latter is difficult in Northerly vineyards.

He must also be much more subtle in the use of sulphur dioxide in order to reduce the flavour masking and hardening caused by its heavy use. It is incorrect to say that because of no sulphur use organic wines keep badly. Most organic winemakers work with sulphur but in much smaller doses than those recommended by oenologists and legally allowed (usually 2 to 3 times less). Reduction of sulphur means that the wines must be more resistant and that other ways of protecting them from the air should be used during making and bottling, e.g. a reductive environment and carbonic gas arising naturally during fermentation. (Hence the need for a good airing when serving organic wines.)

It is commonplace to find in wines before sulphuring a limpid taste, delicate tannins and an unaggressive concentration which disappear after bottling. This has leads some organic winemakers to experiment with sulphur free bottling but the result is rarely convincing. In order to avoid contamination and oxidation of the wine without sulphuring, an industrial level of hygiene is necessary to eliminate the presence of parasites.

Why are many wine-lovers disappointed by their first contact with organic wines?
Strong reductive notes are common upon opening the bottle. With the best, these blow off quite quickly and a floral purity emerges very clearly. If this does not happen, something has gone wrong in the wine’s making and bottling. Another frequent problem is prickle due to excessive CO2 and when combined with reduction can knock out the aromas. Some organic wines suffer from too rapid bottling; they need time during their élevage to vaccinate themselves very slowly against air. This explains why in some of the very best organic wines there are slight oxidative and VA notes. (NB Some very great wines of the past, e.g. 1945 and 1947 Bordeaux, have shown high levels of VA.)

What differentiates a good organic wine from a good conventional one?
Some examples. Chablis from Vincent Dauvissat shines by its great purity but shows a slight fortifying oxidative note. By contrast the conventionally great Chablis from William Fèvre is trenchant but can seem a touch clinical.
Champagne from Selosse now shows some noble oxidation after some failures in the past.
In the Midi, Faugères from Didier Barral shows more floral, earthy and garrique notes than those more focussed from (conventional) Alquier.

What traps lie in wait for organic growers?
It is insufficient to produce wonderful organic grapes. A great organic winegrower must also be a fine winemaker like Stéphane Tissot in the Jura, Mathieu Cosse in Cahors, Thierry Germain in Saumur-Champigny and Noël Pinguet at Huet in Vouvray. An object lesson of the contrary is Nicolas Joly at Coulée de Serrant (a Ferrari motor on a 2CV chassis).

What question should be asked to a newly converted organic producer?
He should be asked how he has restored the condition of his vineyard. Too many keep the old vines, often planted in the 70s and 80s from clonal selections targeting sugar and alcoholic degree. Those who have had the courage to replant are likely to be more trustworthy. Some are trying ungrafted vines or massal selections and vine-shoots from old proven vineyards.

What about Bordeaux?
Organic viticulture has developed primarily in areas where the wine does not sell itself, e.g. Languedoc and Loire. The Bordelais think that their wine sells itself on the appellation name and furthermore the region is dominated by oenologists who are not interested in the organic. However, Pavie-Macquin and Pontet-Cantet are moving towards the organic; the latter lost part of its 2007 crop in consequence.

Other organic producers?
Marcel Lapierre, Yvan Métras, Jean-Paul and Charly Thévenet, Jean Foillard in Beaujolais but with some failures from instability with low or no sulphur dosage.
In the Loire, Marc Angeli (remarkable fruit), Chidaine and his Montlouis gang. In Alsace, Zind-Humbrecht, Deiss, Bott-Geyl, Albert Mann. In Provence, Trévallon, Hauvette, Ch. Romanin. In Languedoc, Jean-Baptiste Senat in Minervois and Maxime Magnon in Corbières.

Have organic wines a future?
In a generation the word organic will be dated. The return to balanced working of the soil is inevitable for all great wines.
Tim York
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Re: "Does Organic change the taste of wine?" RVF article.

by Hoke » Sat Sep 05, 2009 12:41 pm

Thanks for going to all the trouble to get this posted, Tim. Greatly appreciated.

As a staunch proponent of organic viticulture, I'll say there are some great comments, some perspectives that are put forward, that definitely help make the case for organics. However, I don't by any means agree with everything the man says, and I would even take issue with some. Be lovely, though, to discuss the issues with this articulate and passionate man. That would be a conversation worth having!

Again, thanks so much for getting this done.
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Re: "Does Organic change the taste of wine?" RVF article.

by Bob Parsons Alberta » Sat Sep 05, 2009 12:44 pm

Thanks Tim, that is a lot of translation work for you! Might be a good idea to post a note on the main board here, especially as a few winemakers are always popping in?

Some organic wines suffer from too rapid bottling; they need time during their élevage to vaccinate themselves very slowly against air. This explains why in some of the very best organic wines there are slight oxidative and VA notes..

I thought the above comment was of interest as I had previously asked about oxidative wines!
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Re: "Does Organic change the taste of wine?" RVF article.

by Hoke » Sat Sep 05, 2009 1:08 pm

What about Bordeaux?
Organic viticulture has developed primarily in areas where the wine does not sell itself, e.g. Languedoc and Loire. The Bordelais think that their wine sells itself on the appellation name and furthermore the region is dominated by oenologists who are not interested in the organic. However, Pavie-Macquin and Pontet-Cantet are moving towards the organic; the latter lost part of its 2007 crop in consequence.


All true. What he fails to mention though is the fact that the climate in Bordeaux is cold and wet, and can be disastrously so at harvest, when high amounts of sulfur are needed to protect the vines from mold, mildew, rot, etc.

Organic viticulture would be difficult to maintain in such a climate. Any organic vineyards there would have to factor in huge crop losses---sometimes entire crop losses---and modern vineyards in the style of the Bordelaise estates simply can't sustain that (and the investment companies that own them even less so.)

Remember, this is the region that turned fungus into gold---in very limited and controlled amounts---with Sauternes. Apply that same condition to ALL of Bordeaux, and imagine what you would get. :mrgreen:

Ipso and facto, Bordeaux is one of those areas where the terroir would dictate against widespread organic viticulture.
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Re: "Does Organic change the taste of wine?" RVF article.

by Tim York » Sat Sep 05, 2009 2:51 pm

Hoke wrote:All true. What he fails to mention though is the fact that the climate in Bordeaux is cold and wet, and can be disastrously so at harvest, when high amounts of sulfur are needed to protect the vines from mold, mildew, rot, etc.

Organic viticulture would be difficult to maintain in such a climate. Any organic vineyards there would have to factor in huge crop losses---sometimes entire crop losses---and modern vineyards in the style of the Bordelaise estates simply can't sustain that (and the investment companies that own them even less so.)

Remember, this is the region that turned fungus into gold---in very limited and controlled amounts---with Sauternes. Apply that same condition to ALL of Bordeaux, and imagine what you would get. :mrgreen:

Ipso and facto, Bordeaux is one of those areas where the terroir would dictate against widespread organic viticulture.


Interesting point, Hoke. That may explain why 53% of the organic vineyard surface in France lies in Languedoc-Roussillon and Provence. Organic is also strong in the inland part of the Loire valley where the climate is colder than at Bordeaux but also less rainy (923mm annually at Bordeaux against 684mm at Tours and 618mm at Angers); it is also true that botrytis is quite rare at Vouvray in spite of the proximity of the river. Colmar in Alsace, where there is a lot of organic, has even less rain than Angers and Tours but also less sun.
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Re: "Does Organic change the taste of wine?" RVF article.

by Hoke » Sat Sep 05, 2009 4:12 pm

Tim, I think the pattern here in the US is pretty similar.

Mendocino---hot and dry---is the hotbed of organic viticulture. In part because of the attitude of the folks up there, but also in part because the area is suited to that type of farming.

Several outfits in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma have tried organic viticulture, and even biodynamics. Many of them, especially those in the colder/wetter regions (Russian River Valley AVA) have tried and fallen away, whereas other parts of Sonoma have been found more suitable and have flourished.

Organic viticulture is a fine thing----but sometimes it is just not practical. Often those wineries that try it and fail will adapt many of the practices of organics---and simply call it sustainable or responsible or ecocentric or somesuch. Which is a damned good thing, in my book.
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Re: "Does Organic change the taste of wine?" RVF article.

by David M. Bueker » Sat Sep 05, 2009 9:04 pm

The commercial dangers of organic viticulture have bitten Rainer Lingenfelder more than once. 3 vintages in the last 12 have been various levels of disaster due to untimely wet weather in the Pfalz.
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Re: "Does Organic change the taste of wine?" RVF article.

by Steve Slatcher » Sun Sep 06, 2009 7:32 am

I'm confused about what the author is writing about. Is it what I would probably call natural wines? In the UK, and I believe throughout the EU, there is no such thing as an organic wine. There are only wines made from organically grown grapes. But it is clear that the article is dealing with winemaking practice too.

But my point is not just pedantic - it is that viticulture and winemaking involves lots of decisions about which interventions to take or not, and to me it is a little ridiculous to compare "organic wines" with non-organic ones in a generic sense. Each intervention will have consequences, and many interventions can be made, or not made, regardless of whether the wine is organic or not, especially if you extend the definition into winemaking. It is quite easy to imagine a wine that has had fewer interventions but fails to be organic due to a technicality, and wine made from organic grapes that has been messed about with in all sorts of ways. Indeed I understand that low end organic grapes in marginal climates often get more intervention in the winery because they arrive in such bad condition.

(And don't even get me started on the idea that copper sulphate is a natural product. Well, OK, maybe it is - in the same sense that potassium cyanide is.)
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Re: "Does Organic change the taste of wine?" RVF article.

by Tim York » Sun Sep 06, 2009 7:44 am

Steve,

In France, there are several gradation of organic certification which I posted in an earlier thread. Here is a repeat -

AB certifies that the grapes are organic with use in the vineyard of 'natural" products like vegetal insecticides, copper, "contact" products (not vaccinations), etc.

Nature et Progrès is granted only where the grapes are certified AB and certifies conformity with certain recommended practices including manual harvesting, use of native yeasts and allows chaptalisation up to 1%, fining with egg whites or bentonite and the use of tartric acid correction; the tolerated dose of sulphur dioxide is less than half that allowed by Brussels.

Demeter is a biodynamic certification taking account of the "spiritual" aspect of this type of agriculture. There are two levels of labelling -
Vins issus de raisins Demeter certifies that the grapes are biodynamic but with no restrictions on winemaking practices.
Vins Demeter certifies that a rather stricter version of the Nature et Progrès rules has been applied to the harvesting and winemaking.

Biodyvin is a label created by the élite of biodynamic producers(Syndicat International des Vignerons en Culture Bio-dynamique) and carries an Ecocert certificate of biodynamic grapes. It sound to me rather like an exclusive club and includes Chapoutier, Chidaine, Huet, Leflaive, Vacheron, Zind-Humbrecht....... (my Chidaine bottles do not have this certificate??!! I haven't checked the others).
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Re: "Does Organic change the taste of wine?" RVF article.

by Steve Slatcher » Sun Sep 06, 2009 7:53 am

OK, I will get start on Copper sulphate :)

Copper sulphate is tolerated in the definition of "organic" because it is essential (certainly if you ban the use of more modern fungicides) for grape production in many areas. The same applies to the use of sulphur in the winery, most people would agree.

In other words, after you strip the philosophy and rhetoric from the organic movement, its practitioners are doing what every other winemaker is aspiring to - the production of as good a wine as possible that can be sold at a certain price. If you exclude the huge companies in the cheap mass market wine market, you will find most producers are on the same side these days - they do not believe in spraying and manipulating wine for the heck of it - all of them do it for a reason when they believe it will result in a better product.
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Re: "Does Organic change the taste of wine?" RVF article.

by Steve Slatcher » Sun Sep 06, 2009 8:05 am

Thank you for pointing that out Tim.

As far as I can tell though, from a few minutes googling, use of the term "organic" is controlled this side of the pond by the EU and refers only to the direct products of farming, i.e. grapes; not wine. It might be a translational thing too - maybe "organique" or whatever it is in French is not the EU controlled term.

Regardless of EU legalese it does seem that the author is thinking about the "Nature et Progrès" level you refer to.
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Re: "Does Organic change the taste of wine?" RVF article.

by Tim York » Sun Sep 06, 2009 8:11 am

Steve, the French term is "biologique" often abbreviated to "bio".
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Re: "Does Organic change the taste of wine?" RVF article.

by Tim York » Sun Sep 06, 2009 8:26 am

Steve Slatcher wrote:Regardless of EU legalese it does seem that the author is thinking about the "Nature et Progrès" level you refer to.


A lot of the article is taken up by that.

It is my belief that wines certified Nature et Progrès and Vins Demeter covering WINE-MAKING practices are quite rare. For example the Huet Vouvray about which I posted today was only Demeter for its grapes and the élite BioDyvin certification also only seems to cover the grapes.
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Re: "Does Organic change the taste of wine?" RVF article.

by Daniel Rogov » Sun Sep 06, 2009 8:34 am

An interesting and thought-provoking opinion piece, but it is important to remember that much of what is written is precisely that - opinion.

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Re: "Does Organic change the taste of wine?" RVF article.

by David M. Bueker » Sun Sep 06, 2009 9:34 am

The author takes a hard shot (probably deserved) at Nicolas Joly, who IMO has made nothing but spoiled, oxidized messes for many years.

Of course he also justifies some oxidation in Dauvissat and Selosse, but "noble oxidation", what in the world is noble oxidation?
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Re: "Does Organic change the taste of wine?" RVF article.

by Tim York » Sun Sep 06, 2009 10:10 am

David M. Bueker wrote:The author takes a hard shot (probably deserved) at Nicolas Joly, who IMO has made nothing but spoiled, oxidized messes for many years.

Of course he also justifies some oxidation in Dauvissat and Selosse, but "noble oxidation", what in the world is noble oxidation?


The hardness of the shot at Joly is partly mine. The author wrote quite a long paragraph, which I largely cut out, about Coulée de Serrant in which he beats around the bush somewhat; but the remark about the Ferrari and 2CV is his.

"Noble" means that he like it.
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Re: "Does Organic change the taste of wine?" RVF article.

by Bob Parsons Alberta » Sun Sep 06, 2009 3:01 pm

I see that on Monday at 7pm there is a Twitter tasting of 3 bio wines on the blog here. I read that you will need an account set up to twitter!

http://bbrblog.com/
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Re: "Does Organic change the taste of wine?" RVF article.

by Victorwine » Mon Sep 07, 2009 6:09 pm

Hi Tim,
Thanks so much for taking the time and translating the article and posting it here. Great job! I’m not so sure that I would use his particular taste profile of a red or white “organically” produced wine, especially in attempting to distinguish in a blind situation. My wine tasting group over the last few months have been conducting wine tastings with organic wines vs. non-organic as a theme. Yes I do find myself looking for “purity” and “individuality”, but for the most part when trying to distinguish which wine is the “organic”, I look for the one with the most “rustic” taste profile. Seems to work for me the majority of the time (not all the time mind you but the majority of the time).

Salute

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