Organic practice in the vineyards is far more common than many may think; indeed, most wine brands of note practice it to a significant extent, if not completely. Why, then, do we not see more of those famous green logos on the bottles on our shelves?
Winemakers can be obsessive about their grapes and the environment in which they grow, and they universally acknowledge that careful treatment of the vineyard – free from excessive mechanisation or dousing in artificial sprays – results in a far more healthy and verdant crop, which of course translates into far better juice in the glass.
But as much as winemakers love to adhere to organic principles, the cold reality is that they only get one chance a year to get their product into the bottle successfully. So while an organic sulphur & copper mix can combat insects, or a seaweed preparation can fend off botrytis, organic farming simply cannot cover all bases and there will always be the potential for catastrophe in the vineyard.
So an infestation of pests or the uncontrollable spread of a destructive mould at a key critical moment can ruin the harvest for an organic winemaker who adheres exclusively to organic principles; and whereas a regular organic farmer of, say, vegetables might be able to fall back on other crops or other sources of income from their farm, if a harvest is ruined for a winemaker then it can be game over.
And so it is that many winemakers prefer to reserve the right to spray artificial chemicals as an option of last resort, and as such it seems that winemakers take the view that it’s better not to apply for official organic accreditation only to have it stripped as soon as a life-or-death spraying is essential.
What’s more, the organic principle must continue into the winery also, meaning that 30%-50% less added sulphur than conventional winemaking may be added, and a list of additives such as sorbic acid are forbidden. As worthy as the organic philosophy sounds, ticking all these boxes can be a step too far for many producers, regardless of the fact they may very well have most of the bases covered.
Organics: Getting the Balance Right
Spanish winemaking behemoth Torres, for example, have practiced organic viticulture in general for at least three decades now, and indeed one third of their 2,000 hectares of vineyards are organically managed today. But they’ve said (in passing to me, at least) that due to their size and geographical spread it’s mostly impossible to fully accredit their entire operations as organic, preferring instead to leave their options open where possible.
That said their smaller operations – namely their Chilean and Californian outposts, as well as the more boutique Jean Léon winery up the road – are all fully accredited and certified organic. Containment, it seems, is key: organics appears to be easier when you can own and maintain your own vineyards, and it helps if they’re not too large either (the above estates are 400, 40 & 63 hectares respectively).
So in the case of Torres – and, I suspect, many wineries with a conscience – organics is a means to an end, the end being quality juice and not organic viticulture for the sake of it. Where possible they’ll fly the green flag on the labels, but that’s treated more as a bonus than the objective.
Organic Wine from The Organic Supermarket, Purchased Organically
I’d be lying if I said that this is the first organic wine I’ve tasted, since I’ve sampled the organic wines from Torres, M. Chapoutier, Cono Sur and many others in the past. They tended to be on the fly, however, and usually I was confident enough in the producer that I didn’t think to examine their organic offering more closely than the rest of their portfolio.
This, however, was the first time I’ve very consciously bought an organic wine, and what’s more it was from The Organic Supermarket in Rathgar, so I was curious to see how a bottle from a shop that doesn’t specialise in wine would taste.
To be entirely honest, I wasn’t expecting much. I bought the bottle on a whim as it was on sale, and even then mostly out of curiosity than desire. I was suspicious that the wine would be more about principle over taste … organics as an end rather than a means in other words. As such I expected the wine to be a little weedy but quaffable, though I was willing to take such a hit out of academic interest as well as support a friendly and worthwhile local Irish business.
I’m glad to say, however, that I was wrong.
San Michele a Torri, Chianti Colli Fiorentini
Chianti Colli Fiorentini is one of the seven sub-zones of Chianti and is located just north of the core Chianti Classico area, touching up against the famous historical city of Florence. I could give you a run-down on this region, but Kyle Phillips of the (now defunct) Italian Wine Review has done a far better job than I ever could in his piece A Tasting Of Chianti Colli Fiorentini – click the link to have a read if you’re interested.
Fifty of the 200 hectares that make up the Fattoria di San Michele a Torri are vineyards, with 30 hectares under olive groves and the remainder given over to cereal crops and woodland (I’m assuming that the olives and cereals are the “hedges” against a bad harvest should it ever strike).
On first taste my worst expectations came through: namely, it was thin and uninteresting. But, alas, it was only a minute old, so to speak, and a few more minutes in the glass opened it up. It was delightfully fresh and lively, full of the cherries and vivacious acidity that you’d expect from a nice Chianti. I enjoyed it again and again over the following two days, and was delighted to experience it mellow out and evolve over that time, running the gamut of red berries (redcurrant especially) with some key lip-smacking savouriness.
It’s not a complex and deep wine, but it did offer enough of interest over the few days, and what’s more it offered that one element that’s vital to all good wine the world over: pleasure.
I got this on promotion (at €12.99 I think), but I’d happily pay the full €15.99 next time I’m back in The Organic Supermarket.
San Michele a Torri, Chianti Colli Fiorentini DOCG 2012
80% Sangiovese, 15% Canaiolo 15%, 5% Colorino
€15.99 from The Organic Supermarket online and in-store in Blackrock, Rathgar and Malahide