When the green shoots of organic wine began to appear in the 70s and 80s of the past century, it was sniffed at as nothing more than marketing devices and trendy gimmicks conjured up by busybodies. A few short decades since, no one could afford to overlook this juggernaut of a global movement any longer. A sizeable proportion of producers have fully adopted it, with some going as far as to embrace biodynamic viticulture and winemaking; many others have turned to sustainable practices, whereas even the staunchest old guards have ditched some diehard old habits.
Every winemaker has their personal view on the matter. For Paul Schabl, the 5th generation of his family estate and winner of Austrian Young Winemaker of the Year 2018 award, going organic is more of a restoration than revolution. After all, it was not until the advent of the Industrial Revolution that artificial, chemical and synthetic substances such as fertilisers, fungicides, herbicides and insecticides came into agricultural use. For long periods in history, organic farming was the norm.
“In organic winemaking, vinification effectively plays second fiddle to the vineyard, which is where quality is lost or won.
The winemaker cannot make things better in the cellar so much as to preserve what has been achieved in the vineyard.”
Paul Schabl acknowledged that the resultant wine would not be negatively affected, if the aforementioned additives are used in the right way. However, “chemicals cause nitrate levels to rise in groundwater,” he explained, “the effects of which could last many decades.” As he pointed out, even if weeds may hamper the growth of vines, once herbicides are used, there is nothing left to protect the soil. “One centimetre of soil is the result of nearly a century of organic decomposition, and yet without cover, the same amount can be lost after one single thunderstorm.”
According to Paul Schabl, whereas every weed has a job to do, the same can be said about earthworms, which not only track down organic matter and create new soil, but also subtly plough the soil to create little air pockets – essential to retain oxygen and water. “It is a delicate balance that can be easily disrupted,” he observed, “the use of heavy machinery significantly inhibits earthworms, whereas the use of pesticides eradicates insects indiscriminately, regardless of the role they play in the ecosystem.”
“Within our lifetime, perhaps most wineries in Austria and indeed across other forward-thinking wine-producing countries will turn fully organic. By then, conventional wine producers will have a tough time explaining to consumers why they opted out.”
By his estimate, the cost of producing organic wine is somewhere around one-third higher than that of non-organic wine. “This is largely due to the increased amount of manual labour required to take the place of chemical sprays,” he indicated, “although the latter are not cheap per se.” In a wine region as fertile as Wagram, yield does not drop due to organic practices. For this millennial winemaker, quality rightfully remains the bedrock of any wine, but it is through returning to terroir that the future can be safeguarded. If the Slow Food movement is a reaction against the prevalent fast food culture, could organic wine be the answer to parkerization?
To be continued…
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Jacky I.F. Cheong is a legal professional by day and columnist by night. Having spent his formative years in Britain, France, and Germany, he regularly writes about wine, fine arts, classical music, and politics in several languages