Organic wine joins the chemical-free dinner party

Organic wine, once viewed as one of the most marginal outposts of the organic movement, is getting the nod from the public.

Retailers are reporting strong sales of organically produced wine from shoppers concerned about how their drink affects the environment and their health.

Supermarkets and wine merchants are quickly expanding their ranges of organic wines to satisfy the growing demand.

Thresher, the high-street off-licence chain, is planning to extend its range of organic wines to include a South African Pinotage and a Shiraz.

Sainsbury's, which is to introduce two organic wines in the autumn, says that sales of its organic So range have increased by 492 per cent in the past year.

Waitrose considers its chemical-free range to be an integral part of its offering.

The grapes for organic wine are grown without chemical pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, with a few minor exceptions such as the use of copper sulphate to combat mildew. Allowed, too, are additives such as sulphur, essential to preserve the life of wine, though they are more strictly controlled than in normal wine.

Technically, under EU rules no wine should be labelled organic - merely as coming from organically grown grapes - because wine is the only category exempt from EU Organic Regulation 2092 stipulating what may be termed organic. The European Commission is expected to change that soon. Nevertheless, advocates of organic wine say that the lower level of human intervention results in a cleaner, purer juice and other benefits including reduced pollution and financial support for smaller - often family - wine-makers.

Jem Gardener, managing director of Leeds-based Vinceremos, which has a range of 300 organic wines, beers and spirits, said: "We don't make big claims. A very large part of the quality of the wine is the skill of the winemaker ... but there's a large body of opinion, and I myself believe, that organic production produces the best grapes."

Although the rolling hills of France's wine-producing regions do not seem to be suffering from any environmental blight, Mr Gardener said that, on visits to Continental producers, he noticed on close inspection how the "healthy, loamy soil" of organic vineyards contrasted with the "dry, dusty soil and withered plants" of neighbouring vines.

Demand for organic wine fits with a trend for shoppers caring more about the provenance and naturalness of their food.

Guy Woodward, acting editor of Decanter wine magazine, said: "Certainly with the trade there has been a greater willingness to give organic wine a try. There are some very good producers now who are cultivating their wine organically or biodynamically [a kind of ultra-organic process]." Of the top 10 white wine producers identified in Decanter's July issue, four were organic.

So is organic wine better? Mr Woodward said: "Not all organic wine producers are making good wine but there certainly are more good organic wines being made. But I'm not sure there will be a lot of difference for the average customer."

Sainsbury's, which has reported booming demand for organic food, with sales up 18 per cent on the year, stocks organic Chardonnay, Shiraz and Chilean Merlot and is launching an organic Soave next month and a South African Fairtrade Shiraz in November. Its most popular organic wines are Pinot Grigio and the Valpolicella.

A spokeswoman for Waitrose, which stocks 23 organic lines including a Champagne and a rosé, said: "Organic wines are certainly popular with our customers and we are expanding the range."

A spokeswoman for Sainsbury's said: "The growth has been driven both by customers demanding organic wine but also and perhaps more importantly, by wineries giving organic wine more focus than before. Due to this increased attention, it is now possible to get a high quality organic wine for under £5, from countries as widely spread as Chile, France and South Africa."

Five recommended organic wines

* 2005 Le Ciste Côtes du Roussillon Blanc, Eric Laguerre, £9.99, Booths supermarkets. A zingy blend of southern French grapes with a lemony tang.

* 2004 Novas Syrah Mourvèdre, Colchagua Valley, £8.95, Vintage Roots (01189 761999), Geowines (01159 827836). Blackberry fruits with spicy oak texture from Chile.

* 2004 Bonterra Chardonnay, £8.99, two for £7.49, Majestic Wine Warehouses. A appetising dry California chardonnay from Fetzer.

* Albet i Noya Cava Can Vendrell, NV, £7.25, Vintage Roots, Fresh & Wild. A fine fresh, crisply dry Spanish sparkler for special or not so special occasions.

* Fleury et Fils Brut NV Champagne, £22.99, Waitrose. Intense, polished, Pinot Noir-based Champagne.

Anthony Rose

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