The Friends of the Earth Organic
HarperCollins; ISBN 0722538332;
Amazon.co.uk catalogue entry)
Wineanorak: You’re well known as a
commentator on organic wines. What do you think the advantages of
organic viticulture are? Does it make better wines?
Monty Waldin: Organics means avoiding chemically
synthesised products to kill weeds, insects and fungi, or chemical
fertilizers for vine nutrition. The main advantage of organic growing
is that there will be fewer chemical residues in the soil, atmosphere,
groundwater and the wine itself. No one knows what the long-terms
effects of these residues are on us or the planet. So organics can be
seen as a cautious, 'safety-first' approach.
Beneficial spin-offs of organics are the
emphasis on greater biodiversity, by moving away from vine
monoculture. This is easier on the eye – vineyards with flowers
rather than weedkilled bare earth between the rows are nicer to look
at or picnic in. Greater biodiversity is more likely to result in
balance between beneficial pests, such as ladybirds, and
non-beneficial vine pests, like spiders, which ladybirds eat.
Conventional (non-organic) growers will chemically spray red spiders
to protect their crop. In the short term damage in the vineyard from
spiders decreases. However in the long-term the spiders reappear because
(a) they develop resistance to the chemicals, and (b) the
natural predators of the spider (the ladybirds) are also killed by the
chemical sprays. The natural balance of the vineyard is destroyed, and
chemical residues are in the groundwater and in the wine. What
organics does not do, however and regrettably in my opinion, is foster
sustainable practice. In other words reducing/eliminating the tractor,
which pollutes, in favour of horses (to plough weeds away for
example). Horses do not compact the soil, they provide manure (which
can be composted for fertilizer) and they force man to slow down and
be less greedy. The best wines almost always come from small-scale
vineyards, of between 4 and 10 hectares. If you use horses you cannot
farm massive domaines of say 250 hectares which is possible with
Organic vineyards should produce lower yields
of grapes than their conventional counterparts, making more
concentrated wines. However there are plenty or greedy people out
there -- organic or otherwise. And just because a wine has 'organic'
on the label does not make it inherently better than a non-organic
wine. Winemakers must keep the winery clean, and they must know how to
make wine -- how hard to press the grapes to get the juice for white
wine, and how long (days or weeks) to leave the red grapes in contact
with the fermenting juice for red wine. However, all things being
equal, I find organic wines can show brighter colours, more intense
aromas and more interesting, unique flavours. But given the choice
between badly made organic wine and well made non-organic I'll drink
water -- life is too short to drink bad wine (even if it organic) and
non-organic wine may contain weedkiller residues from products like
Monsanto's Round-Up. No thanks.
Wineanorak: I’ve heard quite a bit
about a French alternative to organic farming, called lutte raisonée.
What exactly is this, and what do you think of it?
Monty Waldin: Lutte raisonée is the more 'rational' use of
chemicals on the vineyard by assessing risk. So if you monitor the
population of spiders in the vineyard over a period of time (several
years) one may be able to say: OK, this winter was very harsh for the
female spiders who could not lay many eggs, so the risk of attack from
spider this year will be minimal, so we won't spray. Looked at this
way lutte raisonée makes sense.
But, the winegrower is still reliant on the
same chemical tool box as before. He (or she) does not become a better
farmer. Lutte raisonée is being advocated as the best thing since
sliced bread, but it is a con. Growers should understand that the
spider is integral to the vineyard as part of the food chain. Spiders
can be controlled without chemicals by encouraging natural predators
-- like ladybirds. But, if the flora between the rows, the flowers
which draw ladybirds into the vineyard, are killed with weedkillers,
the food chain becomes distorted. And weedkillers are allowed under
lutte raisonée. So you can't just use a chemical 'once in a while'
because of cause and effect. Far better to put the chemicals away in
the garage, lock the door and throw away the key. Permanently.
Wineanorak: These days there seems to be a widespread (and growing)
resistance among consumers to the inappropriate use of agrochemicals
in farming. In your travels, have you seem much evidence of careless
or excessive use of chemical treatments in vineyards? Who are the
worse offenders? And does this present a threat to the health of wine
Monty Waldin: The worst offenders are the rich wine regions -- Bordeaux,
Burgundy, Champagne, Australia -- where the grapes are worth millions
and chemicals, although expensive, are seen as insurance. The worst
abuses of chemicals occur in places like Chile and Portugal where
inadequate training is given to those who spray them on the vineyards,
resulting in illness and later on, deformities of children born to
vineyard workers. The circumstantial evidence for this in Chile (where
I have worked) is overwhelming. Champagne has been described as having
the most polluted soil in France. Australia is the most (arrogant and)
over-mechanised vineyard in the planet. And Bordeaux vineyards are
treated every week with at least one fungicide. And developing regions
like Languedoc are suffering massive soil erosion from greedy and poor
Health risks for consumers...hmmm. Chemicals are spray to kill --
weeds, insects, fungi. If you think they are harmless in human tissue,
you must be naive. Yet a former government scientist who worked for
the Pesticides Safety Directorate (an oxymoron, surely...?) says that
chemicals are safe and organics is not proved to be safe.
Wineanorak: The use of sulphites as preservatives and stabilising agents in
wine is almost universal. Is this a problem, and are there alternative
Monty Waldin: The most common wine preservative, sulphur dioxide (sulphites), is
allowed in all wines, organic or otherwise, at least in the EU. Hence
in Europe organic wine must be labelled ‘wine from organically grown
grapes’ and not ‘organic wine’. Unsulphited organic wines are
rare because of their short shelf-life in bottle. Ideally you should
obtain these wines direct from the winery after tasting them first
with the owner. And organic wines are not per se vegetarian or vegan
friendly either due to routine use of animal fining agents like egg
white and gelatin from pig bones. So check organic labels for vegan/vegetarian
Preservative free wine is something we should demand as consumers.
But such wines would have to: come only from great vineyard sites and
from very healthy grapes, be hand picked (not by machine), and
fermented in small lots (not industrial tanks) then shipped locally
(not across continents). It can be done and is being done but by a
tiny number of wineries.
Wineanorak: Apparently the EC is planning to ban the agricultural use of
copper-containing fungicides from 2002. Bordeaux mixture, a blend of
copper sulphate and lime, is a key fungicide widely used in
viticulture, and this and elemental suphur are the only ones permitted
in organic and biodynamic vineyards. Presumably this will create
problems: what options will organic growers have when this law takes
Monty Waldin: The EU has decided that Bordeaux Mixture can be used on a
'restricted' basis to counter vine fungal diseases like downy mildew.
Mildew affects virtually the entire world vineyard because it is
planted with wine grapes varieties like Chardonnay, Cabernet
Sauvignon, Merlot etc. These are from the mildew-prone Vitis
vinifera or 'wine producing' vine species. Hybrid vines on the
other hand, which result when two different vine species
cross-pollinate, can be grown spray-free. Sadly though, wine snobs say
most hybrids make unpleasant, 'foxy' smelling wine -- but decent grape
jelly and grape juice. But there are some good hybrids, like the red
Chambourcin and the white Seyval Blanc. The latter makes some
excellent wine in England (yes, England) where growers use it because
it likes cool weather and needs zero spraying.
Wineanorak: Proponents of biodynamic viticulture talk of the soil as a
living entity or organism in its own right. What are your views on
Monty Waldin: I have worked on non-organic, organic and biodynamic vineyards. I
like biodynamics which forces growers to be more sustainable. So
rather than trucking organic fertiliser in from an outside supplier
biodynamists make their own compost on the vineyard by keeping animals
(like horse which can then be used for ploughing). Plant-based teas,
infusions made from oak bark and nettle, are used to counteract pests.
Nettles are rich in sulphur, for example, which prevents vine mildew.
Garlic, which smells, can be sprayed to discourage some vine pests
like leafhoppers which can transmit deadly diseases like Pierce's. And
biodynamic farmers are forced to consider the effect of the sun, the
moon and the planets.
The passage of the moon through the different constellations exerts
four distinct elemental influences on the vineyard, namely water,
earth, air and fire, which are shown through the leaves, the roots,
the fruit and the flower, respectively. A rising moon affects or
heightens the vitality, smell or colour of the plant. A lowering moon
influences the internal liquids of the plant (the sap) which descend,
so this is a good time to prune, repiquer, labourer or cueillir les
plantes medicinales. 'La Perigee' occurs when the moon is close to the
earth (waxing); 'L'Apogee' occurs when the moon is far from earth
(waning). The fourth lunar quarter is a time of resting for the soil
-- 'monthly period of sleep' -- so it is best to avoid the application
of life stimulating preps at this time.
Water and leaf days
The growth of the leaves is linked to the water signs of Cancer,
Scorpio and Pisces. Leaves breathe in minute droplets of water but
exhale litres of it. Leaf days (les jours feuilles) are of great
importance to a salad or spinach grower, for example. Winegrowers
spray the leaves with silica to increase photosynthesis. Silica
(ground rock) acts like tiny magnifying glasses, and ultimately
Earth and root days
The growth of the roots is linked to the earth signs Taurus, Capricorn
and Virgo. Root days are of great importance to a carrot or beetroot
grower, for example. For winegrowers, compost is added to the soil
only on a root day, and in the afternoon (rather than the morning)
when the sun is descending (i.e. earth forces are downwards, towards
the centre of the earth, which is where the roots should go).
Air and flower days
The growth of the vine's flowers are linked to air signs like Gemini,
Libra and Aquarius. Flower days (les jours fleurs) are of great
importance to saffron growers, for example.
Fire and fruit days
When moon passes in front of a fire sign, heat and dryness are
favoured in the plant. Treating the vine then will aid fructification.
The growth of the fruit (les jours fruits) is linked to the fire (heat
of the sun) signs Aries, Sagittarius and Leo. Fruit days are of great
importance to a winegrower, for example. Fruit days are most
appropriate for working the vineyard (and racking in the cellar).
Nicolas Joly of Clos de la Coulée de Serrant in the Loire has found
that weeding under Leo leads to an increase in grape pip size, and
thus tannin, which minimises the need for oak ageing.
Wineanorak: Finally, if I could put you on the spot a bit, could you list half
a dozen of your favourite organic wines?
Monty Waldin: 1998 Cotes de Bourg Rouge AC, Chateau Falfas (biodynamic)
Elegant ripe Bordeaux. Shows what can be achieved from a moderate