Most producers, one has to remember, are constrained by the necessity of having a given amount of wine to sell every year. Losing a third of the crop or more to rot or mildew is not financial good sense. Few of us non-wine producers, either, would willingly risk a third of our income for the sake of an ideal. Warm, dry climates are best suited to thoroughgoing organic production, and regions like the South of France, Chile and California have a built-in advantage in not suffering from the humidity that can lead to mildew, rot and other ailments. In cooler, wetter regions like much of Germany, for a grower to go organic may mean losing an estimated 30 per cent of his crop in many years. Total loss is not unknown.
Most wine producers losing a third of the crop
Sustainability, lutte raisonnée, integrated management, are preferable for most. Sustainability might involve using pheromone capsules against insect pests rather than pesticides; you might plough and hoe your vineyards; you might encourage wildlife corridors and biodiversity; you might plough cover crops between the rows and then plough them in. Mustard can help to control nematodes; other crops, like clover, can unfortunately encourage leaf hoppers. The increase in ground cover in vineyards and the resulting increase in the leaf hopper population is certainly a factor in the spread of grapevine yellows.
Biodiversity works both ways
When you start to interfere in an ecosystem, even though you act with the best possible intentions, you cannot be sure of the effects of your actions. If, when planting a vineyard in virgin land, you spray against a pest, you may find you have destroyed a predator of that pest. Organic and semi-organic producers prefer to introduce predators to control pests – in Chile, a coleopter called Ambrysellus can be used against red spider; ladybirds can be used against aphids (see above). (This is, of course, just another form of interference, but so far the results seem to be more beneficial to the vine.) Sexual confusion (the use of pheromones to control populations of certain insects) can be used against grapeworm and other pests.
All this is far more work than simply loading up a tractor with a container of chemical spray. It requires far closer study of your vineyards, and far more time spent on seeking solutions, but more and more serious growers seem to be prepared to make the commitment. No doubt many more would go fully organic but for the devastating reality of rot and mildew. Bordeaux mixture is permitted under organic rules, but presumably only for pragmatic and historic reasons, since it eventually builds up in the soil and can cause copper toxicity.
Full-blown organic viticulture forbids the use of any industrially synthesized compound, though the details vary from organization to organization. Fertilizers must therefore be natural – compost and manure – and the addition of these is also normal in integrated management.
Do organic methods produce better wines?
One feels they should; yet too many wines with organic accreditation are poor quality. The range of quality is in fact exactly the same as is found in non-organic wines: from disappointing to very good. Clearly you can be a careful vine grower without being a good winemaker as well; whatever the reason, an organic logo on a label is not in itself a guarantee of a good wine.
Frankly, some grape varieties give better results with higher yields, some don’t. And there’s no doubt you can cut the yields too low and quality can actually suffer. Winemakers, like everyone else, have to cut their coats according to their cloth, and it is sad but true that some possible improvements in quality are not initiated, particularly in less fashionable appellations, because the improved wine would not fetch a substantially higher price, even though the investment might be substantial. On the other hand, among fashionable appellations and fashionable producers the sky seems to be the limit, be it in the lengths they will go to to improve their wines, the amount of money they will invest, or the prices they can charge. Life is no fairer to wine producers than to anyone else.