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Food & Drink: What price organic wine, then?

Make sure you know what you are buying by tasting some of the latest wines on offer at the `Organic Food and Wine Festival' next week
Are you seeking wine, women and song? On a variation of a time- honoured theme, organic wine, better sex and bird song are promised at the Organic Food and Wine Festival which comes to Westminster's Royal Horticultural Halls next weekend. Thread a green path through the worm composters, organic wool mattresses and rainforest chocolate, and you'll find organic wines from France, Germany, Italy, Spain, California, Australia, not forgetting our own greenish, globally warmed land, as represented by Sedlescombe Vineyard in East Sussex.

Wine hasn't been tarred with quite as black a brush as GM foods or conventional agriculture, although the organic movement emerged in the early 1980s in response to anxieties over exactly what synthetic chemicals were going into the vineyard - and so into our wine. Under pressure from environmental and consumer groups to become more eco-friendly, grape growers started to look at ways of limiting the damaging effect of chemicals on the environment and, latterly, addressing health concerns.

Organic wine is made from grapes grown without synthetic chemicals - pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilisers - and with the minimum use of sulphur dioxide. As an all-purpose disinfectant and preservative, sulphur dioxide is one of the winemaker's most important tools. But overuse can affect a wine's aroma and cause migraines or aggravate asthma.

Plenty of excellent non-organic wines fulfil the necessary organic criteria, especially wines made in relatively disease-free regions, but for a wine to be certified organic, membership of one or other of the official bodies is a requirement. In the UK the Soil Association is the biggest, and in France the big three are Ecocert, Nature et Progres and Terre et Vie. Synthetic chemicals are banned, but sulphur dioxide and copper sulphate are allowed because of their importance in the winemaking process.

Composts, organically-produced animal manure and mineral and seaweed compounds are used to improve the soil's fertility. The healthier the vine, the better resistance to disease it develops. Interplanting with other plants adds nitrogen to the soil and creates a natural environment for keeping vine pests at bay.

And the wine? Jem Gardner, director of Vinceremos, one of the UK's leading organic wine merchants, says: "Organic wines are less manipulated and therefore more likely to reflect [the] character of the location and grape variety".

If the number of organic wines available haven't quite kept pace with the proliferating organic food sections of supermarkets, there are good reasons. For one thing, as Mr Gardner points out, "people tend to switch off from health considerations when they drink alcohol".

Renee Elliott, managing director of Planet Organic and a former wine journalist, says the legacy of the wines' cranky image and the rather poor organic wines produced a decade ago has left its mark. But she's confident organic wines are finally entering the mainstream. "They've improved a lot because of greater winemaking skills and an increasing number of quality producers going organic." Planet Organic has 200 organic wines in the range which Ms Elliott says "do very well".

Her observations are echoed by the organic wine specialists. Mr Gardner says: "Interest from the mainstream wine trade in the early 1980s stopped in the recession but now it's coming back, particularly at Safeway, Tesco and Waitrose, and, in the north, Booths."

Like Ms Elliott, Mr Gardner also feels it's partly because quality is improving and there's a wider range of better wines to choose from: from dry red and white to sweet wines and even organic champagnes.

Not only are there more wines and styles, but equally there's a range of types of organic wine. Vegetarian and vegan wines for instance use no animal products in the processing. Biodynamic producers follow the teachings of Rudolf Steiner to produce wines using methods which follow the natural rhythms of the earth and the cosmos.

Loony as it may sound, an increasing number of top French producers are going biodynamic because they believe they can produce better quality wines using a system which is friendlier to the environment. Big names among them include Huet and Joly in the Loire, Leroy and Leflaive in Burgundy, Chapoutier in the Rhone and Andre Ostertag in Alsace.

Given the proliferating numbers and expanding range of different types of organic wines, you might have thought organic wine producers would be keen to explain their wines to consumers. Not so, apparently. A Health Which? survey in April concluded that there was a "disappointing lack of information" given on organic, vegan and vegetarian wine labels. Co- editor Susy Atkins found that nine out of 25 labels gave no information and only 10 out of 16 certified organic wines clearly showed an organic certification stamp. She also found the labels on 17 of 21 wines failed to make clear they were suitable for vegetarians.

As for price and value, my feeling is that, in general, it's harder to find organic wines under pounds 5 which are as good value as their non-organic counterparts. Less so over pounds 5 though, where organic producers don't have to worry quite so much about fixed costs and mass-market economies of scale.

If you're prepared to pay a bit extra, the green-fingered organic specialists have plenty of good things to offer. Why not travel to the herbaceous borders of Westminster at the weekend and taste them for yourself?

To receive a pounds 1 discount on each ticket take this article along to The Organic Food & Wine Festival, Royal Horticultural Halls, Vincent Square, London SW1, Fri 30 July- Sun 1 August, 10.30am-6pm, pounds 4 (concessions pounds 3), accompanied children under 15 free. Ticket hotline 0181-746 1115.

Specialists: Vintage Roots: Farley Farms, Bridge Farm, Reading Road, Arborfield, Berkshire RG2 9HT (freephone 0800 980 4992; 0118 9761999); The Organic Wine Company: PO Box 81, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire HP13 5QN (01494 446 557); Vinceremos: 261 Upper Town Street, Bramley, Leeds, LS13 3JT (0113 257 7545); Planet Organic: 42 Westbourne Grove, London W2 (0171-221 7171)

1998 Soave Superiore Fasoli Gino, pounds 4.99, Safeway, Vinceremos. One of the better under-pounds 5 organic dry whites with refreshingly zingy pear-like fruitiness and hints of almond.

1996 Chateau La Garenne Sauternes, pounds 9.99-pounds 10.39 (50cl), Vinceremos, Organic Wine Company. Luscious, honeyed sweet white Bordeaux: apricoty richness in a classic sauternes.

1997 Chateau Pech-Latt, Corbieres, pounds 4.39 -pounds 4.99, Organic Wine Company, Waitrose. Attractively spicy, good value Mediterranean blend.

1996 Bonterra Cabernet Sauvignon, Fetzer, pounds 8.99, Tesco, Oddbins, Sainsbury's, Fuller's, Waitrose, Wine Cellar. A smoky California cabernet with chocolatey richness.