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.