Grape Improvements

29 Jun 2005

There is a lot of talk about organically produced wine at the moment

The wine industry is pausing to take stock of where it is going. Not just here in Italy, but also across the border in France, the heart of European wine production. The quality image of its wines is part and parcel of its highly regarded food and wine sector but the industry is feeling the effects of competition from the newer wine producing countries.

The situation is not critical but it has prompted industry professionals to look at policies for the future. So it is interesting for us in Italy, with our equally thriving high quality wines, to hear the news that there is a lot of talk about organically produced wine at the moment.

Pushing the issue into the limelight was a high profile figure, René Renou, an authority on the international wine scene. He is President of the wine division of France’s National Committee of Appellations d’Origine Contrôlées, the organization responsible for overseeing and enforcing the regulations governing premium wines.

In his authoritative and courageous view, there are many wines that no longer deserve to hold the AOC designation. The last fifty years have seen too much use of fertilizers and pesticides. Consequently, current practices no longer correspond to the ‘faithful and continuous local methods’ required by the law that has regulated the area for seventy years. It would be desirable and right to return to a more honest and balanced relationship with the land, which has been so weakened by invasive and unsustainable production methods.

There has been increasing attention on more environmentally-friendly agricultural practices in Italy too, with the wine sector part of this move. Consumers have begun to think about a more modern approach to viticulture which develops beyond a reliance on chemicals. Producers are also showing greater awareness and readiness to meet the expanding demand. For some, adopting organic methods is a good way to make greater impact in a still stagnant market.

We should welcome this development, as long as it does not just become a fashion statement by those buying and a publicity stunt for those selling. That would devalue a desirable change. We should recognize that, from the very beginning, the use of organic methods in Italy was accompanied by the need to safeguard the typical distinctive features of local products. Organic agriculture is deeply rooted in peasant farming culture.

For wine growers, organic methods are a sign of respect for the land which nurtures the grapes, for their work and the people who live nearby. The adverse effects people working in viticulture have suffered due to the use of synthetic products show how important it is to work in a healthy environment free of contamination.

And the land itself suffers and in the end becomes impoverished. Recent studies to combat flavescence dorée, a serious grapevine disease, have shown that only when the soil is not stressed by excessive application of unnatural substances are there enough mycorrhizal fungi, an invisible but valuable microorganism. They live in a symbiotic relationship with the roots of vines, helping them to obtain more nutrients and resist disease.

Using completely organic methods to produce wine grapes with the same qualities as those grown using traditional methods requires more effort, and the price will never be the same. So discerning consumers will need to shoulder responsibility for becoming ‘co-producers’, making an additional small economic contribution in order to have a cleaner product that benefits the environment and everyone. A demanding sommelier can forgive small defects in an organically produced wine, but that of course does not mean that poor quality should be accepted.

First printed in La Stampa on June 20 2005

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