Today’s episode is sponsored by Pieropan, makers of a delightful white wine called Soave Classico. The Pieropan family has been making wine in a medieval village in Italy since the 1800s, right next to a castle. You cannot make this up. They minimize impact on the land while making their acclaimed wine with a grape called Garganega. I know that word sounds big, like a big castle, but it’s really just a normal-sized grape. It’s fragrant; it’s delicious. To try Pieropan and other wines we talk about, follow the link in the episode description to TheBarrelRoom.com.
On this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers breaks down everything you should know about organic wine. When did organic farming go mainstream? What is the difference between organic wine and “conventional wine”? And how do vineyards become organically certified? Tune in to learn about all this and more.
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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers. My wife said to me, “When we’re 50, we should probably go to that whole ‘Star Wars’ experience at Disney.” I was like, “50? That’s a couple of years from now. I’ll start researching now.” Cool. Perfect.
What’s going on wine lovers? Welcome to VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast. How are you doing? For the next three episodes, we’re getting down and real with organic, biodynamic, and sustainable. Let’s understand what this really is so that we can enjoy it, know it, and own it.
We’re going to do a few episodes here to kind of explain all this stuff — organic, biodynamic, and sustainable — because as popular as organic is, what do we really understand about organic? What is an organic wine? What does it mean to have an organic wine? What does that entail? There is so much information and so many ways to approach this subject, I wanted to start with a very “organic” beginning. OK, Keith, stop. What I want to say is this: Before industrial fertilizers or industrial chemical agriculture, the world was basically organically farming. There weren’t any man-made chemicals yet. Then we created chemical agriculture, and then because of that, there was a response to try to go back to before that because of what was happening with that particular agriculture. I know that sounds a little bit confusing, but when we get into this, you’re going to understand what I’m talking about.
Let’s start with a little bit of history to get a sense of how we got to this organic thing. In the mid-19th century, around the 1830s or so, there was a man by the name of Justus von Liebig. He was a professor at a university in Germany, I think it was the University of Giessen. He had a really big impact on the university, and his name was actually added to the title of the university at some point. But this guy is known as the father of fertilizer, and his big deal was that he employed the law of the minimum into agriculture. His idea was that a plant only needs a very small amount of a specific list of nutrients to grow. If you apply this formula to agriculture, your plant will grow in the way you want it to grow because you’ve controlled it. He created what is called the NPK fertilizer. What NPK stands for is nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. These three nutrients, in different proportions, will basically fertilize your agriculture. To this day, if you see these three letters on any kind of fertilizer bag, it’s a ratio of these three things for whatever that bag of soil in Home Depot is telling you it’s going to do. It doesn’t always have NPK. Sometimes, it’s just numbers like 5, 10, 5. And those are the respective percentages of that compound in your soil. So it would be 5 percent nitrogen, 10 percent phosphorus, and 5 percent potassium.
Well, this NPK fertilizer was eventually industrialized, and by the 1920s it was highly employed into Europe’s agriculture. Around this time, farmers in Europe were getting worried about this particular chemical, this particular industrialized fertilizer. Because it was producing agriculture, but there were issues around that that were changing the landscape of agriculture almost before their eyes. Things like deficient soils as well as soil erosion. And these issues plagued both annual and perennial agriculture. Annual is basically agriculture that you have to plant every year for it to thrive, which is basically grains. Perennial agriculture are plants that hang out all year round and you don’t reseed them. They continue to grow and produce fruit, like vines and grapevines. But industrial fertilizer, which then became industrial herbicides, which then became industrial pesticides, started becoming frequently used. From the 1920s until after the Second World War, this worry was constant, but it was not internationally recognized. What was called a “green movement” starting in the 1920s continued on as a fringe movement, trying hard to reduce the amount of industrialized chemical fertilizers and stuff being put into agriculture. In the 1920s, around 1924 or 1925, there was an Austrian philosopher by the name of Rudolf Steiner, who gave a series of lectures on how to go back to the pre-industrialized world of agriculture. In the next episode, we’re going to dive heavily into that.
I’m about to get into a bunch of stuff here, but this is the crux of it all. The whole idea of the green/organic movement — and this is as true today as it was then — is that industrialized chemical agriculture will give the plant what it needs to produce what we want it to produce. But what it will not do is maintain, stimulate, and add health to the environment in which that plant grows. What industrial chemicals do is they spray onto the soil, they spray onto the leaves, and they give that law of the minimum to the plant and nothing else. So all it does is produce. When it comes to the entire ecosystem around that plant, that’s not what is important. When it comes to industrial chemicals, what’s important is that fruit, and to make that fruit happen. The consequence is that these NPK fertilizers and other things are targeted for certain parts of the plant, not everything else. It’s not helping the overall health of the plant and its surrounding environment. What’s actually happening sometimes is, when this stuff runs off the plant and into the soil, into rivers, it has to be decontaminated. Through the desperation to change this whole landscape here, that is where Rudolf Steiner comes in for biodynamic agriculture in the 1920s, which we’ll talk about in the next episode.
But for our purposes here, it wasn’t until 1972 that things started improving for agriculture when it comes to organics. In that year, the International Federation of Agricultural Movements (IFOAM) was formed. The formation of this organization helped bring the organic idea from a fringe element into the mainstream. Through the ’80s and the ’90s, because of better communication and more and more people getting into this idea, the organic movement became a very attractive idea. Why are we doing this? Why are we letting all this runoff into our systems when we could try to do this the way it was before the industrialized chemical fertilizer era. One of the ways of selling this, especially with the French, was saying that this organic movement that we need to be paying attention to will help us get back to terroir, the word they created back in the Middle Ages. As we know now, through the ’80s and the ’90s into the early 2000s, we as a country became very interested in organics, whether it be food or wine. Of course, California pretty much led the charge of organics here in this country. You had the Alice Waters thing where she had Chez Panisse and she was doing farm to table. We’ll talk about it a little bit in the next episode, but there is a guy named Jim Fetzer who did some really cool stuff in Cali to bring a sexiness to this kind of agriculture. It worked. But really, that’s what it comes down to.
Organic wine is made from wine grapes that were grown using organic viticulture. The main goal of this type of viticulture is to not use man-made materials in the vineyard. No man-made fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides — can’t use it. Broadly, this is really great. What this does is instead of using things that were man-made to target certain aspects of the vineyard (we’re talking about vines now), what you’re doing is you’re helping to maintain, sustain, and even create more of an ecosystem below, above, and around your vine. Every year, when that vine produces fruit, it’s getting stronger and more armored because of an ecosystem that is naturally being built around your vine in your vineyard. That ecosystem continues to build and strengthen your agriculture. The thing with these industrial fertilizers and stuff, they’re what’s called “soluble fertilizers.” They’re dissolved into water and added to the plants, and that’s all they do.
With organic fertilizer, which is basically compost, the nutrients that the vine and the soil need are actually released in a slower, more delayed process like nature actually does. This creates what winemakers and organic farmers call a soil food web. Little critters like earthworms, slugs, and snails are called reducers. And they reduce all that earthly material down a little bit so that other little microscopic animals called protozoa or nematodes can then eat off that material and break it down even more so, eating stuff like leaf litter and animal excrement. They break all that down, and then you have the decomposers that are even smaller organisms. They colonize those fragments that are broken down by the protozoa and nematodes and convert that into what is called humus, which is basically soil. All this feeds into the overall biomass of a vineyard, giving it health, giving it strength, and allowing things to naturally occur. Other things that organic winemakers, vineyard growers, or vineyard managers will do is plant cover crops among the vines. Not only for competition, because we always talk about how vines need competition to go further into the earth, but also for soils to combat soil erosion. If you have a lot of cover crops, perennials and annuals within the inter-rows of a vineyard, you’re actually binding the soil together and holding it up so it doesn’t erode to the point where you have to add more soil. That actually helps and benefits the biomass of everything. Do you see how this is going? We’re creating a symbiotic relationship between the vineyard and its surroundings. And that’s awesome.
But the thing is, we went through many, many years of non-organic agriculture. It’s very hard to get the world back to it. In the beginning, you had a lot of smaller companies or smaller winemakers that were either always organic and just adhered to what was new, or winemakers or vine growers or vineyard managers who needed to convert from what we call “conventional wine” to organic. And that’s a lot. That’s where we get certifications. That’s where everything gets a little bit red tape-y, but it’s important. It could be an organic vineyard or organic winery — you can do all the organic stuff — and never get certified. But because of the popularity of organic wines, having the certification really helps you in the market. Because everywhere is different, every country and even some states have different organic certifications than others, depending on where they are. Often these organic certifications have to be what’s called ISO 17065 compliant. That weird “lost”-style thing that I just said, all that really is, is “a product certification bodies accreditation standard.” Being compliant with that ISO 17065, you are conforming to the organic global baseline of that international organization I mentioned before, IFOAM. That’s how it all gets legit. I know, like I said, it’s red tape-y. But we need these things so that everyone that wants to be is becoming organic. We’re only trying to improve the global biomass, man. You know?
This is what’s crazy, wine lovers. It takes three years for a vineyard to convert to organic. That makes sense, though, doesn’t it? If you have a vineyard that’s been targeted by NPK for so long, it’s all deficient. The soils are deficient, they’re eroding. There are things going on. It’s dry. There’s not a lot of health there, except for the vine doing what it needs to do based on targeted fertilization and herbicides and stuff. You have to literally convert that entire land into organic. You have to increase the biomass of the ecosystem; it doesn’t happen overnight. Some of this in the organic wine companion in the fact that it’s being stated as kind of a big deal, is that the second and third year of this conversion are the most precarious. It’s when the ecosystem is vulnerable, it’s still being formed. It needs time to settle itself. That’s just phenomenal, and that’s scary, and it’s a very expensive process. But when it’s over and it’s done, you have the certifiers coming in. They check everything. They have a list. They can’t tell you what to do, they just tell you what you need to achieve and they leave you on your own. They come back and check on you. And then at some point, they look at your biomass and the ecosystem and everything and they say, “OK, this is legit. You are now an organic vineyard. Please maintain this.” Because of the time and how expensive it is, this is one of the reasons why organic agriculture is slowly but steadily converting. It takes time for a lot of these companies to convert, especially companies that are very large. They have to do it very carefully. They have different areas with different environmental specifics going on in those areas.
This episode could go for another 30 minutes, but let’s wrap this up with what you’re going to see on the shelves to understand organic wine in retail or on a wine list. When you see organic wine or wine made from organic grapes on a wine label, this is what you’re seeing. A lot of the organic labeling is for the application of sulfur dioxide, SO2, or sulfites. Because if you are making a wine from organically grown grapes, it’s going to be organic no matter what. But from 1992 until 2011, wines sold from organic grapes in Europe in the E.U. had to be listed or labeled “wine from organically grown grapes,” instead of just organic wine. This is no matter what sulfites or SO2 was being added. But then after 2011, from 2012 and on, that long quote, “organically grown grapes” was too much. So they just went for organic wine. No matter whether you use sulfites or not, if your grapes are grown organically and made into organic wine, it’s organic wine. But the thing about these European winemakers that are making organic wines is, they don’t really add a lot of sulfites; between 25 and 30 percent, which is a very small amount.
In the U.S. and Canada, organic wine refers to wine made from organic grapes, but without the addition of SO2 or sulfur dioxide — sulfites. This is where things get a little bit confusing, so just bear with me here. In the U.S. and Canada, the term “made with organic grapes,” not just “organic wine,” applies to the same certification of organics that is needed but is also allowed to contain up to 100 milligrams per liter of SO2, which is still a very small amount. With all European wines being made from organic grapes and the allowance of some sulfur additions, because of that sulfur addition, if it’s sold in the U.S., it must be labeled “made with organic grapes,” even though that same wine in Europe is just labeled “organic wine,” whether it contains sulfur or not. It can get very confusing.
If your head is spinning a little bit right there, maybe think about it this way: Organic wine is not necessarily about the sulfur additions, because sulfur additions are being minimized all over the world anyway. What we’re doing is drinking wine that is grown from organically grown grapes — grapes that are grown in a vineyard that’s happy, that has a wonderful biomass, that has a soil biota. An ecosystem that’s healthy, with worms and animals doing the work that they would do naturally to help something be sustained and to grow. That’s what we’re doing when we’re drinking organic wine. And in doing so, what you create is this one farm-like organism. That term was created by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who we’re going to talk about in the next episode when we talk about biodynamics. But that’s what organic wine is. There’s so much to organic wine. I tried to cram as much as I could into the small little 20-minute space. I hope you have a little bit more of an understanding about it, because next week we’re going to dive into some really interesting stuff. I mean, astronomically interesting.
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And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.