When it comes to organic wine, things aren’t always as clean as they appear at first glance. (That's part of the reason we've rounded up our 103 favorite organic and biodynamic wines for you to try.) Organic farming certainly forces winemakers to eradicate dangerous synthetic chemicals from their production, but much like in massive monoculture organics for food, when it comes to wine, a chemical product may be replaced by a more natural substance that could also be harmful.
In winemaking, the major culprit is copper. Used as a fungicide, copper sulfate is pretty much the only possible recourse for organic winemakers looking to eradicate downy mold and mildew: a death sentence for vines.
“You kind of don’t have a choice,” says Caroline Conner, current Master of Wine student and expert wine teacher at Wine Dine Caroline. “If you’re dealing with mildew and rot, copper is one of the only things that organic producers can do.”
But used to excess, it can also have devastating effects on soil microbiomes.
“What starts as small deposits in the soil and vines, after decades, become larger deposits which are damaging to the soil,” explains Tanisha Townsend, Chief Wine Officer of Girl Meets Glass, a wine lifestyle and education agency. “[They] can seep into the vines, changing the flavor and texture of the grapes.”
Many producers who don’t want to use synthetics perceive copper is the lesser of two evils in battling powdery mildew, especially as other products, like essential oils, just don't have the same success rate.
“We have things that can help us reduce the use of copper, but for the moment, we don’t have another product," explains Alsace organic winemaker Vincent Stoeffler. "We know that there are things that work, things like nettles, but since that doesn’t make money for companies, tests are limited."
Copper in the fields is reason enough for concern, but many winemakers also add copper just before bottling. At this stage of winemaking, copper cuts down on the chance of reduction, a flaw that can lend wine a smell of rotten eggs or worse.
“It’s something that is just sort of part of the package,” says Conner. “It's not necessarily the best solution – it’s just kind of the only one in the arsenal.”
A Question of Terroir
When it comes to copper as a fungicide, not all winemakers are playing on the same field. Fungus is more of a problem in some areas than in others, specifically places with a lot of rain and not a lot of wind. For Nigel Greening, owner of New Zealand’s organic and biodynamic Felton Road, copper sulfate isn’t used in the vines simply because downy mildew isn’t a problem they face.
“That being said we are, of course, well aware of the issue,” he says. “It seems to me that the certifier’s excuse for allowing copper and sulphur is that it occurs naturally, and therefore isn't classed as chemical. Well so is arsenic and cyanide, but that wouldn’t be a reason to include them in organics!”
In France’s Champagne and Burgundy regions, however, the situation is far more dire – and the decision to use copper or not is far more controversial.
“Producing grapes for wine without cupric products is currently almost impossible in our climatic conditions and with current grape varieties,” explains Hervé Dantan, Chef de Caves at Champagne Lanson.
“It’s hard to follow the organic regulations in places that are wet,” adds Conner. “And we’ve assigned this quality value to it in a weirdly judgmental way: like you’re good or bad.”
Indeed, for Conner – and many professionals – it’s possible to use synthetics judiciously in order to prevent degrading the soil microbiome with an overuse of copper.
“Good winemakers can use synthetics carefully and wisely, just like we can take a paracetamol when we need one,” says Conner. “It’s not like winemakers are out there laughing over bubbling cauldrons, giggling as they spray Roundup all over their vines. There obviously are Frankenwines and science project wines, and huge, mass-produced garbage wines. But for most winemakers, being organic could be really impossible.”
Antoine Malassagne, the fourth generation Champagne producer at AR Lenoble, earned the Haute Valeur Environnementale (High Environmental Value) label in 2012. In addition to methods that protect his vines, such as a reduction in yields that allows wind to circulate more easily within them, he prefers using small quantities of synthetics to treat the occasional outbreak of mold or mildew.
“Today, we know that when mildew is bad, synthetics remain extremely effective,” he says. “And we know that when mildew is bad, organic requires the use of large quantities of copper.”
“The truth is that this is the focus of a clash of cultures: on one hand is the idea that 'chemicals' are wrong and we shouldn't use them. On the other is the more scientific approach, which is to use chemicals that are the least damaging and most environmentally sustaining. The anti-chemical stance is simple: people understand it, like it and to subvert organics by allowing ‘good’ chemical treatments has powerful cultural opposition.”
For Malassagne, following rules set out by organics – especially rules that apply across the board and around the globe – is a far less interesting proposition than remaining true to a philosophy.
“I’ve done what I think best,” he says, noting that a good winemaker also remains flexible. With the effects of climate change in Champagne, rainfall is at a record low. If this continues, he may hardly need to use synthetics at all.
“Since March, we’ve had almost no rain,” he says. “So this year, yes, we could have been organic.”
But he has yet to seek out the organic label – and he doesn’t plan on it. Neither does Silvia Altare of Elio Altare in Piedmont, despite her decision to use copper sulfate instead of synthetics to fight against mildew.
“We believe it's hard to be dogmatic and follow the exact same rules every year,” she says. “Each vintage is different, and we want to feel free to use common sense rather than sticking to fixed rules.”
In other regions, however, producers can and do abide by organic regulations. Such is the case of Stoeffler, who notes that despite worries over copper, the rules over how much one can spray – 4 kilos per hectare per year – “are fairly strict.”
“For regions like Alsace, they don’t pose any problem,” he says, “because we use much less anyway.” In this dry, semi-Atlantic climate, Stoeffler can easily get by with just 1 to 2 kilos.
But in order to do this, one has to be willing to do the work.
“There are grades in organic just like in conventional,” he says. “There are people working clean in conventional and people working less clean in conventional, just like there are people working clean in organic and people working less clean in organic.”
Label-Free and Even More Sustainable
Jean and Simon Baltenweck of Clé de Sol boast the organic certification for their Alsace vineyard. They are also part of a natural wine movement taking strides to actively reduce their use of any additives: synthetic, organic-approved, or otherwise.
“Copper,” they say, “is a transitory solution.”
Doses of copper have dropped significantly in Europe over the past century. While, according to research, amounts of up to 30 kilos per hectare were once observed, in 2018, the European Union lowered permissible loads from six kilos per hectare to just four; the French average at the time was just under three.
But copper does not degrade over time, and damage has already been done to local soils. That's part of the reason why, like Stoeffler, the Baltenwecks use a fraction of what is permissible: between 500 grams to 1 kilogram per hectare per year. To do this, they rely on plant-based preparations – nettles, above all, but also willow, horsetail, sometimes comfrey. All of these plants are grown on-site. In addition to other methods, such as biodiverse planting, they are able to eradicate most outside inputs from their vineyard.
These more biodynamic methods are becoming ever more popular among sustainable winemakers who want to actively reduce their copper use – even in damp Champagne. Dantan notes that “with proper and balanced nutrition the use of pesticides could be greatly reduced.”
“Science is at the heart of regenerative grape growing (RGG) we are developing in our vineyard,” he says, “a new science that is not applied to dominate the environment, but to cooperate with it in harmony.”
“I think the idea that you have to use copper sulfate to be organic is not completely true,” agrees Josh Adler, founder of the Paris Wine Company. “I think it’s difficult, and it requires a lot of work, but I know that there’s a lot of producers who work specifically to reduce their amount of copper sulfate that they use in their vineyards.”
When seeking wines to sell for his company, he looks for people who don't stop simply at an organic label.
"It's important to us to work with people who ask themselves the question: what can I do to reduce the impact on the earth?" he says. "Different people come to different answers, but for me, what’s interesting is that somebody is asking themselves the question, looking for an answer that makes sense to them."
As for how to find these elusive wines? To hear Conner tell it, it's imperative to do your research and shop from small, independent shops.
“Smaller is better," she says. "And medium is fine too. But huge, massive brands, even if they’re organic... you’re going to lose something when you get to a level of scale.”
“For me as a professional, looking for producers to work with, I’m selecting the best-tasting wines that have unique flavor, high quality, unique aspects,” says Adler. “But I also believe that the best way to produce those wines is with environmentally friendly methods.”
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