A rarity only ten years ago, organic wine has been growing exponentially since 2009 and is expected to reach nearly 10% of French production in 2012. The Alsace region was a precursor in organic wine production with famous domaines, including Bott-Geyl and Zind-Humbrecht, taking the lead. They were followed by prestigious domaines such as Joseph Drouhin in Burgundy, and La Coulée de Serrant in the Loire Valley. Then all the French wine regions followed suit, with perhaps the Bordeaux region lagging slightly behind. The Bordeaux region will probably catch up due to the initiatives of some important châteaux such as Château Pontet-Canet, which is converting to Biodynamic growing.
Strictly speaking, there is no specific organic wine certification. The concept of organic wine applies to wines produced using wine growing or production methods which preserve the environment and which possess a particular certification. As stated, there is still no legal certification for organic wine, even if there is one on the way, but there are organic wine certifications of semi-public or private origin, whose credibility comes either from their approval by the French Ministry of Agriculture, the INAO or the Directorate General for Competition, Consumer Affairs and Prevention of Fraud, or from the guarantee of quality and professionalism they inspire. Organic wine does not therefore relate to a specific region of production, nor even to an appellation, and much less a particular colour wine. It relates to wine estates, or even parcels of vines, which meet the specifications set out by the certification body.
1. Organically-grown wines: AB certification
Organic agriculture has been recognized since 1980 by the French public authorities. Today, the regulations relating to this certification have been taken up at European level. The specifications for obtaining AB certification seek to impose a method of agricultural production that preserves soil quality, natural resources, the environment and local agricultural occupations. AB certification therefore guarantees that the products from this agriculture are 95% derived from crops which have been grown without the use of fertilizers or synthetic pesticides (insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc.) or Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). However, as far as wine is concerned, AB certification only means that the vines were grown according to the strict specifications of organic farming, but provides no guarantee with regards to the vinification process. However, in order to add value to their production, the wine producers often apply the same precepts for the transformation of the grapes into the wine, by adhering, for example, to the Charter of the FNIVAB (French Interprofessional Federation of Organic Wine Agriculture).
2. Biodynamically-grown wines
Biodynamic growing is inspired by Rudolph Steiner's lectures delivered in 1924 to German farmers concerned about the deteriorating quality of their crops. Biodynamics has points in common with organic growing, but goes further in terms of the solutions it offers. Thus, only composts of vegetable or animal origin can be used. There are half a dozen preparations to fight against pests and combat soil depletion or to promote the growth of the vine. Biodynamics also has the distinctive feature of using a crop calendar based on lunar, planetary and zodiacal cycles. In summary, Biodynamic Agriculture is not only intended to make growing sustainable, but it is also intended to preserve the qualities of the grape. Biodynamics, as applied to wine, also goes further than AB certification in that its principles apply both to the growing of the vine and the vinification process, requiring the exclusion of any additives that are not of natural origin and the respect of the rhythms of nature.
3. Sustainable (“reasoned”) growing
Sustainable agriculture is not organic in the sense that it does not prohibit the use of synthetic products. However, it can be a step towards AB certification or Biodynamics. Sustainable (“reasoned”) agriculture is an official certificate issued to growers who adopt technical methods and agricultural practices that meet the requirements of sustainable agriculture standards. These standards were established by Decree No 2002-631 of 25 April 2002 and contain over one hundred selective criteria requiring respect for the environment, the management of health risks, health and safety at work, and animal welfare. However, this certification is criticized as some would say it appears to be just a reminder of standards which are already mandatory or just the minimum basis of responsible agriculture. But the fact remains that a certification of compliance provides an additional guarantee to the consumer and that sustainable growing can be a stepping stone towards a much stricter, and therefore more risky, certification for the wine grower.
4. The certificates and certifying bodies
On its own, the concept of organic wine is not sufficient to inform the wine drinker about the production or vinification methods used and the consumer needs to know what the certifications claimed relate to.
AB certification, whose consequences and limits have already been discussed, is awarded by independent certification bodies such as ACLAVE, AGROCERT, QUALITEFRANCE S.A., ULASE, SGS ICS and ECOCERT, the latter probably being the best known.
Biodynamic wine estates are eligible for the "Demeter" certification delivered by the Demeter Biodynamic Agriculture Association. This is an unofficial organization, but whose Charter guarantees compliance with the principles of biodynamic agriculture. The "NATURE & PROGRES" certification, meeting the specifications set out by the International Federation of Agriculture and Ecobiology, appears to be the strictest in existence today. In fact, in addition to the principles of Biodynamics it imposes, this certification guarantees respect for the environment in all aspects of wine production: vinification, social environment, fight against agricultural intensification, transportation, packaging manufacture, corks/closures, etc. Both organisations are independent of the AB certification. We could also mention the BIODYVIN certification awarded by the International Union of Biodynamic winemakers, many of whose members do not belong to the DEMETER association. This certification is issued by ECOCERT according to the association's own charter.
Lastly, sustainable (“reasoned”) farming is certified by independent certification bodies, which may partially be the same as those issuing AB certification. These organisations are accredited by the French National Commission for Sustainable Agriculture. On the initiative of the winemakers concerned, a specific certification was created for sustainable viticulture, applying the principles of the Charter to the specific requirements of vineyard work and winemaking: the TERRA VITIS certification.