At Wines by Jennifer®, we’ve seen an increased interest in organic wines, but there is much more to this subject than meets the eye, so let’s spend a few minutes learning about the various vineyard practices in use today.
Viticulture (taken from the Latin word for vine) means the cultivation of grapes, and when the grapes are used for winemaking, it is better known as viniculture. Viti/viniculture is but one branch of the broader science of horticulture.
There are four categories of vineyard practice available to a viticulturalist. Listed from the most human intervention to the least, they are:
• Conventional Vineyard
• Sustainable Vineyard
• Organic Vineyard
• Biodynamic Vineyard
In order to be certified beyond the Conventional Vineyard category, a vineyard will be subjected to strict production standards, on-site inspections, and legally binding contracts to protect the producers and buyers of the end-product. Of course, with this certification process comes increased cost, so expect to pay more for wines that are certified sustainable, organic, or biodynamic.
Now, let’s take a closer look at each category:
Like other conventional agriculture, the Conventional Vineyard is human-centric and seeks to control nature to the fullest extent possible to benefit man. The soil is seen as an inert growing medium; i.e., nutrients are provided to the plant, not the soil.
Both pre-emergent and contact use of synthetic chemicals is approved to control weeds and disease. Irrigation and the use of synthetic fertilizers are common, and tractor use in the fields is utilized whenever necessary.
The Sustainable Vineyard is ecosystem-centered and part of the larger concept of sustainability. It seeks to preserve the natural resources of the earth and create an economy and society that is sustainable over time, allowing future generations the same opportunities to farm that are enjoyed today.
The Sustainable Vineyard sees the soil as a living organism to be fed and enriched so that it can feed the plant. Only contact herbicides are allowed for weed control, and chemical use is limited for disease control.
Synthetic fertilizers are freely allowed, while irrigation is allowed but regulated.
Tractors are used as little as possible, with bio-diesel tractor use preferred.
With the advent of USDA National Organic Standards, “organic” has become a legal term. Certification is a rigorous process taking a full three years.
The Organic Vineyard is ecosystem-centered, and views the soil as a living organism to be fed and enriched with organic compost and cover crops.
No chemicals are allowed for weed control. Only certified-organic products are allowed for disease control and fertilization.
Irrigation and tractor use is allowed as necessary.
The Biodynamic Vineyard takes organic to a whole 'nother level. It is cosmos-centered; i.e., the farm is managed as a living organism in complete harmony with the energy and life-force of the sun, moon, and planets.
The soil is viewed as the underground part of the universe with its own life and cosmic force, to be built through the use of compost and biodynamic sprays.
No chemicals are allowed for weed control. Disease control is accomplished only through the use of biodynamically prepared organic materials.
Fertilization is limited to the use of biodynamically prepared organic products. Both irrigation and tractor use are discouraged, with horse-drawn equipment as the preferred alternative to tractor use.
But it’s important to understand that vineyard practices are just one piece of the equation affecting a wine’s organic status.
So let's go beyond the vineyard and explore organics from the winemaker’s perspective, while examining the techniques employed in the winery itself in producing organic wines.
Because the building that houses the winery must be built in a certain way to produce wines organically, the decision to “go organic” should be made prior to the construction of the actual winery. This will become clearer as we delve further into the process.
There are many stages involved in converting harvested grapes into wine. These stages vary depending upon whether the grapes are white or red, and on the wine maker’s personal style and preferences, but generally, the stages appear like this:
•The grapes are crushed.
•The crushed grapes (known as “must”) are de-stemmed.
•Primary fermentation of the juice begins.
•Secondary fermentation occurs.
•Finally, the fermented juice (wine) is moved to barrels (for reds and some whites) or tanks (most whites) for aging.
In a conventional winery, the grapes are processed through these stages by mechanical means, such as the electronic pump over systems commonly seen during fermentation. However, in an organic environment, the grapes are moved through these stages by the use of gravity. To accomplish this, the different staging areas in an organic winery are usually situated in a sequential, descending fashion. For this reason, many organic wineries are built on a hillside to best utilize the forces of gravity. (It is interesting to note that many conventional wineries also utilize gravity systems for economic reasons.)
In an organic winery, the barrel room is typically underground to maintain the necessary temperatures without the use of electricity. The owners will often plant wild flowers and other plants on top of the barrel room (unless it is a cave) to provide for natural ventilation of the toxic gases that are natural byproducts of the wine making process.
An organic winery will also use only biodegradable products to clean equipment and facilities. Because only natural processing is allowed, no sulfur is used to preserve the wine and no dry ice, chemicals, or tanks with electronic cooling systems are used to keep the wine cool during fermentation.
From the vineyard to the winery, there is obviously more than meets the eye in the production of organic wines. While we’ve just touched on the highlights here, a trip to Wines by Jennifer® can provide you with a more comprehensive picture, along with the opportunity to sample the best in organic wines from our broad selection.