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Focus on organic wines: interview with Monty Waldin 

Monty Waldin is a leading expert on organic wines, and author of the Organic wine guide. He recently organized the first comparative blind tasting of organic wines matched with their non-organic wines (results published in December's Wine magazine; see my perspective on this here). I took the chance to ask him some  searching anorak-style questions on the subject. (The Friends of the Earth Organic Wine Guide 428 pages, 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 mechanisation.

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 drinkers?

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 farming.

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 approaches?

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 suitability.

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 effect?

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 this?

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 augments ripeness.

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 terroir.
Vintage Roots (£8.75).

1999 Cotes du Rhone Rouge Valréas AC, Domaine Grande Bellane (biodynamic)
Clean, fruity red Rhône. Excellent value. Bottoms Up, Co-Op (£4.99),
Sainsburys (£5.99), Unwins (£6.49), Vinceremos (£5.49); Wine Rack.

2000 Macon Villages AC, Quintaine, Domaine Guillemot-Michel (biodynamic)
Complex, white Burgundy (Chardonnay) at a reasonable price. Haynes, Hanson & Clark (£10.50)

NV Broughton Pastures Sparkling Elderflower (organic)
The world's first organic sparkling elderflower wine. Made by a physics teacher in England from organic Hungarian elderflowers rather than wine grapes. Vinceremos (£4.99)

NV Brut Champagne, Fleury (biodynamic)
Fruity Champagne with flavour and ripeness. Cheaper and better than any Grande marque. Vintage Roots (£16.99); Waitrose (£17.99).

NV Vintage Character Port, Casal dos Jordaues (Organic)
Clear, concetrated and fruit ruby Port. Vinceremos (£11.49); Vintage Roots

Contact details of the UKs leading organic wine specialists:

19 New Street, Horsforth, Leeds LS18 4BH
Phone: 0113 205 4545, Fax:0113 205 4546
Website: http://www.vinceremos.co.uk

Vintage Roots
Farley Farms, Bridge Farm, Reading Road, Arborfield, Berkshire RG2 9HT
Phone: 0118 976 1999 Fax: 0118 976 1998
E-mail: info@vintageroots.co.uk

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