Sales of organic wine have soared, as we connect the way in which we farm to the quality of our drinks and the impact on the planet. In fact, the UK market share for organic wines is set to double by 2022.
But it wasn’t always like that – when Neil Palmer set up wine company, Vintage Roots, in the 1980s, it was quite an unknown topic. The questions he got asked included, ‘is it made from carrots?’
“Times have changed and moved on”, he explains, “the wine industry is waking up to the idea that now it absolutely has to be sustainable in order to survive. Organic vineyards are spreading quickly as demand grows, and whole regions and areas are developing new sustainable standards.”
Today Vintage Roots has over 450 certified organic wines, beers and other drinks and in the last three years, in particular, he has seen organic wine move from niche to much more mainstream.
“It is perfectly possible to have great quality, nutritious food and drink that does not harm the environment and biodiversity, so why not choose it?”
What does organic alcohol really mean?
When you opt for organic alcohol, you’re choosing a product that’s been certified to organic standards by law, meaning that you can be sure it has met strict requirements, covering everything from pesticide use and land management, to preservation and storage.
Organic grower Will Livingstone, who spent five years as Head Gardener at River Cottage, has just opened a wine shop, Selected Grapes, in Bridport, Dorset - encompassing his passion for food, culture, geography and the natural world.
“Organic wine has been produced under organic standards, meaning the grapes have been grown without the use of artificial pesticides and fertilisers. In some cases organic wine will have low or no sulphites, usually indicated on the bottle,” he says.
“Protecting environmental diversity in food production is one of the most important things we can do,” he says, “Organic viticulture is growing and I think a lot more people will look for organic wines as we become more aware of the climate crisis.”
Does organic taste better?
Organic farms put soil at the heart of their practice. ‘Terroir’ describes the way geography, geology and climate come together to affect taste and flavour. If a farming system takes soil and the environment into such close consideration, does a good wine terroir follow?
“I believe that organic wine holds a truer expression of the terroir. But ultimately, flavour is more about the quality of the fruit and the skill of the winemaker.” says Will Livingstone.
Neil Palmer from Vintage Roots agrees. “Sometimes organic wines are better but it’s not always the case. Organic wine does not have a specific or different taste, but the likelihood of higher quality is more probable.”
Are sulphur-free wines better for you?
You may have heard the terms 'no-added-sulphur', 'low sulphur' and 'sulphur-free', but what does it mean?
Sulphur is added to help protect and stabilise wines in bottles. The vast majority of wines contain sulphites. But it is important to note that it’s also a natural by-product of the fermentation process, although in small quantities. There is no such thing as a 100% sulphur-free wine.
Soil Association organic standards place strict measures on the quantity of sulphur dioxide used in certified organic winemaking. The maximum levels for organic are below that of conventional wines, so you will never come across an over-sulphured organic wine.
Neil from Vintage roots adds: “Some people are highly allergic to sulphur and need to avoid it, others just choose to cut out unnecessary chemical additives that might be doing them no good. Again, selection is vital, it is not so easy to make good sulphur-free wine and some are downright nasty!”
Organic gin, anyone?
As well as wine, there are plenty of other alcoholic drinks that are available with organic certification.
Fatty's Organic Gin is an award-winning London Dry Gin, founded by Philippa Gee. It is 100% organic and certified by the Soil Association. Even the bottles are sprayed in organic ink which is applied at low temperatures so it is more environmentally friendly.
Philippa saw a gap in the market for an organic gin, and knew if it was something she was looking for, others would be too.
“I am a massive believer that your organic lifestyle shouldn’t change just because you are drinking alcohol. Consuming organic is a choice and a way of life, and that can be true from the food on your plate, to the gin in your glass, to your beauty cream and hair care,” she says.
She makes her gin using organic grains and, where possible, Fairtrade botanicals.
“Quality ingredients make a huge difference to the taste and smoothness of gin, so being organic really does make for a much better gin. Wine is leading the way in the organic alcohol industry, the same awareness in spirits isn’t there yet, but I am working on changing that!”
Balancing profit and purpose – not your average beer company
In 2006, Greg Piley founded the Cotswolds' Stroud Brewery. It’s one of only five organic craft brewers in the country. The business is also a registered B-Corp which means that it balances purpose and profit by meeting high social and environmental standards.
“No system of farming has higher wildlife benefits than organic. Most of the barley we use is grown within 20 miles of the brewery. We work with one of the UK’s last two traditional maltings, Warminster Maltings, who use time-honoured methods for making malt, following slower, more gentle procedures.
“We only use ingredients which have a positive effect on our environment, we do not believe in exploiting our ecosystems and particularly soil for capital gain, this is why organic is so important to us.”
Are organic drinks more expensive?
For beer, being organic and using local malted barley comes at a cost.
“Organic hops are about 25% more expensive, explains Greg, “Then you have to be able to sell that organic story into the pubs and your customers and explain why your beers are a little more expensive.”
For wine, Neil from Vintage Roots sells organic bottles starting at a very reasonable £7.50. He says the younger generation are happier to pay for products with good ethical credentials.
“Organic wines cost more to produce usually (because of higher labour costs), so yes, they do cost a little more. Big production, large scale non-organic vineyards are often playing by different rules, and we all end up paying for the associated clean-up costs to the environment.”
Lastly, a word on hangovers…
With wine, organic and sulphur-free will be among the purest you will ever find. Some people report a much better ‘morning-after’ reaction - although the usual advice around drinking responsibly still applies!
“Customers who had given up drinking wine for years, have come back to find they can enjoy organic without the bad side effects,” says Neil from Vintage Roots.
Philippa of Fatty’s Organic Spirits says “Ultimately you are still drinking alcohol, but as there are no artificial pesticides in there, an organic gin is often much kinder on the head.”