Manic organic; eating & drinking

THE VALUE of organic consumables sold in the UK has increased sixfold in a decade, and is expected to be worth pounds 500m by next year. Wine makes up an insignificant portion of that figure, and I'm not surprised. It takes a lot of determination to go certifiably organic. You have to make the transition gradually, and end up in complete conformance with the labelling laws and certification standards that apply where you (a) make and (b) sell your wines. If you disagree with the standards, and there are legitimate areas of disagreement, tough luck.

I'm often asked what organic wine is, and whether it's better than non- organic. The second question is easy: organic methods will not by themselves make better wine. Quality depends on skill in growing grapes and vinifying them; the job can be done well with chemical inputs. It can also be done badly. The first question is much more complex. An organic wine is any wine whose makers are allowed by law, and by the local certifying body, to call it by that name. But EU laws differ from American laws. The winemaking countries of Europe have several organisations, each with different standards, that certify producers and (in theory) monitor their production. And some of the best producers using organic methods (such as Mas de Daumas Gassac in Herault and Domaine de Trevallon in Provence) operate outside certification systems. It's all a bit of a mess.

A good new book by Monty Waldin, The Organic Wine Guide (Thorsons, pounds 8.99), sets out to provide guidance for the organically perplexed. It's genuinely useful, especially in explaining the basics and as a shopping guide. Waldin does not make extravagant claims: he sure as hell doesn't think that all organic producers make good wine. And he elucidates the mysterious regimes of Biodynamics, an offshoot of organics that sounds like moonshine but produces some great wine. Or you might prefer to put your nine quid towards the cost of Jancis Robinson's Oxford Companion to Wine (pounds 40), which has just been published in a new edition. Matters of organicity are dealt with here in all their complexity, and with a well-informed scepticism that's preferable to waving the green flag.

If you're serious about investigating the possibilities of organic wine, the best places to go are the mail order specialists Vintage Roots (0118 976 1999) and Vinceremos (0113 257 7545). But please remember that you're not necessarily buying better quality. Think about the flavours in the glass, not just the residues.

Here's a small sampler of good organics to come my way recently. Majestic's new list sticks a green triangle next to each organic wine, which go up to the outstanding Chassagne-Montrachets from Fontaine-Gagnard (from pounds 19- pounds 24). More affordably, their Sauvignon de Touraine 1998, Domaine des Maisons Brulees (pounds 4.99) is a grassy quaffing wine of velvety texture. California's Fetzer is the most widely distributed of organic wineries, and their Bonterra Viognier 1998, North Coast (pounds 9.99, Oddbins) is a complex, peachily appetising example of the grape. All their wines are good, especially the Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Even more worth it, but only if you store the bottle for a good few years, is Chateauneuf-du-Pape "La Bernardine" 1997, Chapoutier (pounds 17.95, Waitrose). There's some discussion about how closely this inconsistent house adheres to organic principles, but who cares? This wine's massive, closed, exceptional - expensive but not overpriced. Another five years should show what it's really made of.

I have to admit that the whole issue of organic wine seems a bit of a red herring. Do I want to drink wine that's loaded with pesticide residues? Of course not. But for every certified organic producer, there may be several others who would qualify as Nearly Organic. No good winemaker uses more chemicals than he or she has to: good management in the vineyard makes them unnecessary. If you buy carefully made wine, you don't need to worry too much about whether the label displays the O word.

Sort of organic

First, a pair of wines made by Biodynamic methods: Montirius Vacqueyras 1998 and Montirius Gigondas 1998, pounds 9.99 and pounds 12.99 respectively from Tesco. The Vacqueyras is red-berryish; the Gigondas is ample and concentrated. The Gigondas is found only in Wine Advisor stores, the Vacqueyras in just 85. Montirius will be certified organic as of 1999; watch this green space. Trying to be organic: 200 Tesco stores are selling Smithbrook Chardonnay 1998 (pounds 7.99), from a Petaluma-controlled estate "using biological pest control wherever possible". This Chardonnay is exemplary, sweetened by French oak but with toe-tapping acidity and loads of pineapply, tropical- fruit flavours.