A drop of the red, white and green

The biblical image of the vine as a hardy plant that needs just sunlight and tender care is no myth, says Monty Waldin
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Most people wrongly assume all wine is organic. Perhaps this is a hangover from Sunday school. The image of wine in the Bible is of grapes ripening with nothing more than the sun, and the tender care of peasants as gnarled as their vines. But just 1 per cent of world vineyards are officially organic.

Organic rules prohibit chemical weed killer, fertilizer, insecticide and fungicide. These chemical products are commonplace, even for the most expensive wines. But at what cost? One former French government soil scientist found soils in Burgundy's top vineyards were now barren as the Sahara due to constant chemical run-off.

Traces of these chemicals are permitted as residue in the wine we drink. The EU allows more than 200 different man-made chemical compounds in our wines. But no one can predict their long-term effect on our health.

I switched to organic having seen how needlessly chemicals were used while working in Chilean and Bordeaux vineyards and wineries. My subsequent experience of working on organic Californian and German vineyards showed me two things. First, that the biblical image of the vine as a hardy, resilient plant is no myth: they can grow perfectly well without man-made chemicals.

And, secondly, in the hands of a capable winemaker organic grapes produce wines with more complex scents and deeper flavours than the chemical alternative.

So, if like me, you'd rather not risk ingesting potentially harmful residues each time you uncork a bottle, try wine in an organic gastro-pub such as Islington's The Duke of Cambridge (see page 6). And wine merchants, supermarkets and bars are expanding their selection of organic wine.

In fact, in the EU you must say "wine made from organic grapes" rather than "organic wine". This is because the EU's organic rules cover only how the grapes are grown. They do not cover how the grape juice is fermented into wine. But winemakers fermenting organic grapes tend to use, on average, one third less of the main winemaking preservative in their wines. This is sulphur dioxide (E220). It gives longer shelf life to all wines, organic or otherwise.

Bona fide "wine made from organically grown grapes" bears an official stamp on the label. Beware wine merchants who describe bottles as "99 per cent organic". Unless of course you think Ben Johnson should have kept his Olympic gold since he was "99 per cent drug-free".

California's late-Sixties hippy revolution spawned some of the world's first and finest organic vineyards. Try the velvety fruit of Bonterra's blend of Shiraz, Carignan and Sangiovese (£6.99 Booths; 0800 072 0011).

Some of the best organic vineyards currently emerging are in Chile and Argentina. Their dry, sunny climates are ideal for organic grapes. Try the dry, peachy Eden Collection Torrontés white (£4.49 Tesco; 0800 50 55 55), or the Santa Inés Cabernet/Malbec Nuevo Mundo, an unusually rich Chilean red (pubs and bars nationwide rather than wine shops).

For me, the most sustainable and quality-oriented form of organics is called biodynamics. Biodynamics is a kind of super-organics, in which the vineyard becomes as environmentally friendly as possible. The vines are farmed according to where the moon, the sun and the planets are in relation to the Earth. For instance, around the full moon the soil is at its most humid. Humidity encourages vine fungal diseases like mildew. Biodynamic growers will anticipate an attack of fungal disease by spraying vines just before the full moon. They use ground sand (silica) mixed with water instead of chemical fungicides. This ground sand acts like millions of little mirrors. They concentrate the sun's light and warmth. This discourages fungal diseases which prefer dark, relatively cool conditions.

Top biodynamic vineyards include France's Domaine Huet for its blindingly pure, honeyed Vouvray Le Haut Lieu Sec (£10.99 Waitrose; 0800 188 881). Or Chile's Coyam (£8.95 Vintage Roots; 0118 976 1999), a delectably smooth red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Carmenere, Syrah and Mourvedre grapes.

Both the Huet and Coyam vineyards encourage rare species or primrose and peony to flower among their vines. You can detect their floral notes in the Huet and Coyam wines because wine grapes easily absorb surrounding smells. Perhaps this is what should be taught in Sunday school.

Monty Waldin is author of the 'Friends of the Earth Organic Wine Guide'

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