Tackling the 2019 MW Exam Part 3: Consider the growth in demand for vegan, organic and sustainable wines. What can and should the wine industry be doing in response?

As consumer interest in wellbeing, sustainability, and environmental impact increases, in turn there exists a rising demand for organic, biodynamic & vegan wines. All of the aforementioned are hot topics in both the popular media and social media, and whilst they are not exclusive to the wine industry, winemakers are most certainly responding to this demand by increasing production and availability of wines in these categories. Andrij Jurkiw joins me this week and contributes his attempt at tackling this topic from the recent MW exam …

Organic and biodynamic wines are linked in part, in that both aim to avoid man-made compounds such as fertilisers, fungicides, herbicides & pesticides, as well as anything that has been genetically modified. In organic viticulture, stressing vine management techniques such as canopy management in the vineyard makes the vine more resilient, acts as a preventative to pests and diseases and the use of organic fertiliser or compost improves the structure of the soil. This, in turn, encourages the abundance of organisms in the soil, such as earthworms, beneficial bacteria & fungi. The “feeding” of the soil rather than the vine ensures a slower but more consistent uptake of nutrients by the vine. As a result, the vines produce smaller but more regular annual yields than non-organically managed plants.

This is important from a commercial perspective because whilst the smaller yields undoubtedly increase the cost in comparison to non-organic wine, this is partly offset by a lower labour expenditure for trimming and canopy management. However, there is a greater risk of developing disease without chemical intervention and organic growers are reliant on naturally occurring substances to prevent vine disease, namely, barrier sprays such as copper sulphate (Bordeaux Mixture). All of these methods tie into the increasingly popular ethos of minimising intervention in the vineyard and winery, thus creating a more “natural” product.

I recently followed a thread on Twitter (credit: @dnkrbywine), which highlighted to me the blurred lines between organic, biodynamic & natural wine. Clearer regulation and definition are required, particularly given that many producers are using principals based on one or more of these areas without seeking official certification. In my opinion, all of the processes used in organic viticulture are instrumental in producing a more enjoyable wine. One of the most disappointing discoveries in wine for me, aside from a fault or taint, of course, is obvious manipulation. Whether imparted in the vineyard or the winery, this leaves a distinctive character on the wine, both in flavour and texture. Whilst I’m certainly no ambassador for natural wine, I’d much prefer that extreme than the opposite.

Retailers can certainly do more to bring higher quality wines to the market through smarter purchasing, including organic wines, which are surprisingly prevalent if unearthed. When we do bring more of these wines to the market, they will hopefully be at a quality level that allows them to flourish.

Biodynamic winemaking takes the organic process further still and differs from organics in three ways: It requires the whole vineyard to become a self-sustaining organism or ecosystem. Treatment or management of the vineyard is restricted to the use of nine herb & mineral-based preparations which are believed to impart vital living forces. All key vineyard tasks are strictly timed to harness beneficial forces from earthly & celestial rhythms.

Whilst biodynamic winemaking has yielded impressive and consistent results, it does sustain criticism as it has not yet been substantiated with any conclusive scientific explanation. I believe that quality in this style of wine is as much a result of heightened awareness of the vineyard, as viticultural benefit from the above-listed practices. Biodynamic viticulture has seen a resurgence in recent years, particularly in the search for cures or preventions for Grapevine Trunk Diseases (GTDs), such as Esca, which has dramatically increased in prevalence over the past 20 years. There is no known direct usable cure for Esca and there is a concern that the problem could spread to the devastating extent of Phylloxera during the Great Wine Blight of the 19th Century, which almost destroyed the French wine industry.

As a result, French industry leaders have recently appealed to the EU to increase funding for preventative treatments, a lot of which focus on biodynamics. This ranges from filling gaps or holes on the vine with a natural wax to suffocate the GTDs, to playing music to the vines. As unusual as serenading a plant sounds, there is a scientific theory behind the practice, with experts suggesting that protein molecules that fight disease create a sound when they are formed and if this sound is replicated, the plant responds by increasing the production rate of the disease-fighting proteins. However, the current most effective method to “cure” these diseases is to tear up, burn and replant. I witnessed this first hand in the Santa Lucia Highlands in 2013, with a plot of Malbec having recently been destroyed to contain the disease, causing visible economic impact to the vineyard owners.

One of the most successful biodynamic approaches to disease control is to fight the parasites with natural biological enemies. This experimental technique was first trialled by organic winemakers in the Loire Valley, who noticed that Esca was more prevalent in vineyards which had previously received chemical treatment. They believe that whilst chemicals may temporarily remove GTDs [or symptoms of GTDs] from vines, this treatment is more likely to simply suppress the disease, which will return more fiercely at a later date. Their solution revolves around creating a biodynamic ecosystem and introducing plants that attract insects known to combat fungal pests.

Aside from attracting beneficial insects, each plant alters the sub-soil ecosystem through its roots, with some plant roots known to kill harmful fungi in particular. Laurent Saillard of Clos Roche Blanche has been implementing this technique for over a decade and suggests that alliums create the most effective symbiotic relationship with GTD-preventing fungi. As a result, in the mid-2000s he tried planting wild and garden leeks next to Esca-stricken vines to see whether a subterranean ecosystem between the plants could prevent or even cure Esca – and remarkably the vines were resuscitated. Today wild leeks form part of his carefully chosen flower borders, which aside from looking beautiful, all work together to create a protective natural environment for his precious vines.

Whilst this approach is good in many ways, it requires a lot of time, great effort and much research to create a balanced ecosystem in each vineyard, which all comes at a cost to the producer and the end consumer. Nevertheless, it is increasingly clear that biodynamic processes are necessary to ensure the sustainability of vineyards, not only in the prevention of diseases but also in ensuring the most utopian setting for vine and grape production. Whilst organic and biodynamic processes and principles are largely not understood by the end consumer, trends for environmental sustainability suggest that these styles of wine are “good” for the environment, and therefore drive an increasing interest and demand for them. Nevertheless, further funding and research should be made available to further explore the success of these practices, particularly in the area of disease prevention and treatment.

Lifestyle and an increasing thirst for understanding or knowledge in specialised subjects such as wine are the primary force for the recent interest in the more unusual elements of biodynamics. As previously mentioned, the core principles require an understanding or a belief in symbiosis with nature, often described as natural equilibrium. This includes relying on planetary and celestial rhythms, with the belief that there is a “perfect” time to carry out all vineyard tasks, syncing with these natural rhythms to achieve harmony with the environment. No one is scientifically sure why the process works, but it frequently does. Biodynamic growers see plants as having four “organs” – root, leaf, flower and fruit and these are linked to the four elements of earth, water, air, and fire.

Each plant component is believed to be favoured during particular lunar phases when the moon passes in front of one of the 12 astronomical signs of the zodiac. For example, spraying horn manure on the soil for root growth is thought to be most effective when the moon passes in front of “root” constellations. From a consumer perspective, these lunar phases are also thought to have an impact on the enjoyment of wine. According to the lunar calendar, flower days and particularly fruit days are the most auspicious for drinking wine, whereas leaf days and particularly root days should be avoided. Consumers can download apps such as When Wine Tastes Best by Floris Books to show peak drinking windows, with the theory stemming from 50 years’ research by biodynamic expert Maria Thun.

Such is the extent of following for these ideas, that major supermarket chains such as Marks & Spencer only invite critics to taste their wines on favourable days. Naturally, there are skeptics of particularly this arm of biodynamics, but I believe that if a winemaker is so in tune with their processes and creating a thriving natural ecosystem in their vineyard, that must have a positive impact on the resulting product. Equally, if a consumer believes that they are drinking wine on a more auspicious day, this might heighten their senses and ultimately their enjoyment of the wine.

The topic is often shied away from or dismissed by commentators as a result of a lack of understanding, which starkly highlights the need for further research. This is a topic that could particularly capture the imagination of the consumer and increase interest in and demand for higher quality wine in the UK. Independent and specialist merchants, in particular, should embrace organic and biodynamic wine now, capitalising on this growing trend and giving them a point of differentiation against supermarkets to capture a larger segment of the consumer market.

Do I believe that wine can taste better on a fruit day? In all honesty, I’m not sure. But I must admit that I enjoy the same wine more on some days than others – is this just influenced by bottle variation; my mood; tiredness, or are there celestial forces at play? Whilst I have suggested that further evidence is required, I do think that retailers and on-trade merchants should utilise any advantage to promote their wines. As such, the approach of holding tasting events on fruit or flower days does make sense and perhaps more suppliers should follow the M&S example, even if only to provide a talking point to their guests.

Vegan wines are a slightly different entity to organic or biodynamic wines, but they are growing equally in popularity as a result of consumer interest in ethics and demand. Again, this stems from a rise in interest for quality, sustainability and minimising impact on the environment. The main area for concern is the use of animal products for fining and stabilising the wine. The fining process is the clarification of the wine by removing suspended molecules within it, which could be derived from tannins, phenolics or heat-unstable proteins. The clarification works by adding a protein to the wine, which the suspended molecules then bind to.

Traditionally, these proteins are albumen from egg whites, casein from milk, isinglass from fish swim bladders or gelatin from meat. However, the increased demand for vegan wines has resulted in increased use of vegan-friendly alternatives, most commonly bentonite, which is a clay found predominantly in Wyoming, USA. When mixed with water, this clay swells and becomes highly absorbent. Alternatively, vegetable gelatin can be used, or protein-based fining agents from peas and potatoes. The thing that surprises me most in the on-trade, in particular, is lack of promotion or understanding by staff regarding which wines in their range are vegetarian or vegan-friendly. I have even eaten in vegan restaurants with no vegan wines on the list. More often than not veganism is a lifestyle choice and given the option, I’m sure that more vegan consumers would choose vegan wines. It would be remiss of us as retailers and wholesalers to not react to consumer trends or educate our on-trade customers and end consumers about these options.

In a similar vein, there has been a rise in interest for “natural” or minimal intervention wines. These wines link strongly to organic, biodynamic and vegan principles, relying on no additives and minimal (preferably zero) sulphur dioxide to preserve wine. This is wine in its rawest form and popularity in the wine world has largely been driven in recent years by Isabelle Legeron MW, who pioneered the RAW Wine Fair, focusing specifically on these minimal intervention wines. Natural wine in its contemporary sense originated in Beaujolais in the 1960s, where winemakers wanted to create wines closer in style to those of their grandparents and therefore began to avoid SO2 [and chaptalisation]. As popularity grew, the “persona” of natural wine became an antithesis to over-oaked, over-extracted, over-manipulated styles that were fashionable at the time.

As with interest in organic, biodynamic and vegan wines, the demand for natural wine is now largely driven by marketing, promoting a healthier lifestyle and environmental sustainability, both of which are hot topics currently. Also, there is a general belief amongst consumers that SO2 can exacerbate hangovers and affect allergies or intolerances, once again tying into health concerns. To quote a good friend, who happened to be my on-trade merchant when I owned a restaurant: “This sort of wine is insane. It goes off if it ever goes above 15oC. For even, the ‘apparently’ tasty ones, age them a few months and they’ll have gone off too. For restaurant environments (warm storage), they’re all the more insane. Therefore you shouldn’t worry about getting these sorts of wines from me – I avoid them like the plague!”

So where do natural wines fit in commercially? They are certainly a gamble for retailers and even more so for the warm environments of the on-trade, particularly in untrained hands. We recently had a parcel of Spanish natural wine at Majestic, which was not only tasty but with my embedded preconceptions about natural wine, I was pleasantly surprised not to personally receive any returns by customers. This could be in part due to consumers who seek out natural wine already possessing some understanding of it, or down to careful salesmanship from our teams. Either way, I think the key to selling these sorts of wine is ensuring that the end consumer does have some understanding of the style. As such, I remain unconvinced that they will ever be viable in a supermarket environment. However, if the category is to grow in either a retail or on-trade environment, we do need to address the concerns raised by my good friend.

The most important of these concerns is appropriate storage – the wines are simply not tolerant enough to sit on a shelf under UV in ambient temperatures for any length of time. It takes a lot of skill to make good natural wine and if we are to sell it, we owe it to the producers to ensure that it reaches our customers in the best possible condition. Secondly, education for end consumers is crucial and this responsibility falls to us as retailers, wholesalers, and on-trade salespeople. In my opinion, the natural wine “movement” is currently insular and elitist, with ambassadors for the style pontificating with an air of superiority. Similar can be said for several sectors of the wine industry and I think that in general, the wine industry should endeavour to make the subject of wine more approachable and understandable for the end consumer. Social media is key to achieving this goal. Critics, influencers, commentators, educators, ambassadors, or whatever label individuals wish to bestow upon themselves should focus efforts on reaching the consumer in an approachable manner and whilst continual debate is equally important for the industry, one-upmanship seems to be taking priority over advancement in recent times.

In precis to all of the points raised, I briefly intimated that many producers make organic or biodynamic wine which isn’t officially certified. This is in large because of the lengthy, difficult and expensive process of gaining certification and shows us that for some, producing “better” wine through these processes is more important than the marketing potential of gaining official certification. Perhaps when consumer understanding and demand for these styles of wine takes off, more producers will seek certification but in the meantime “organic”, “biodynamic” and “vegan” remain blanket terms for the majority of consumers, with those seeking out these wines doing so for personal health or environmental reasons.

As demand grows, the most valuable influence that the industry as a whole could make is to encourage the certification of these wines by making the process more approachable and financially viable for producers. Equally, retailers should place more emphasis on highlighting and promoting these wines, which at this stage are still seen as a niche in the consumer market. Retailers need to respond to consumer demand by seeking out a greater range of wines in these categories, which will, in turn, encourage the financial justification of certification.

2 thoughts

  1. Very interesting article thank you. The only point upon which I might disagree is the lower expenditure and trimming for organic growers. The non use of herbicide under the vines increases expenditure greatly as the time required and number of passes through the vineyard to mechanically work the soil is substantial. The new HVE certification has its advantages too with ‘conventional’ growers looking to address the issue of biodiversity in a way that organic certification does not. There is a movement here in the Loire to launch a proper ‘natural wine’ certification with permitted levels of added sulphites at bottling which I think would be useful for the consumer.

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