The Advantages & Disadvantages of Organic Grape Growing

Organic and non-organic viticulture has been a hotly debated topic over the past few years and the effects in the marketplace have been significant. The relative advantages of these systems are largely dependent on where the grapes are being grown (country, region, site) as well as the price that the final product is able to achieve. The question of labeling, regulations, marketing and general corporate philosophy regarding short vs. long term goal setting will all contribute to the advantages and disadvantages of these systems. It is important therefore to look at the how these methods are defined.

Organic viticulture can broadly be separated into two categories, “Organic” and “Biodynamic”. The first organic method produces grapes without the use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides or insecticides. Biodynamic viticulture is an “organic” method that looks at the vineyard as a complex “closed” system, where the use of “preparations” made by herbs and manures is advised to promote soil and vine health. This second method also utilizes the phases of the moon and astral calendar to time vineyard operations and is based on the holistic approaches of Rudolph Steiner from the 1920’s. Biodynamic certification bodies include Demeter (U.S) and Agriculture Booklouse (EU).

Non-organic viticulture can broadly be separated into two categories. The first is “conventional viticulture” where vines are grown with the use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and insecticides. The second form could be described as “sustainable viticulture” or Lutte Raisonnée, where synthetic additives may be used but are discouraged. This second form of non-organic viticulture can be a highly detailed environmental management system such as the “Wine Growing New Zealand (SWNZ)” model or ISO 14001. Lute Raisonnée on the other hand is a self managed “farming by conscience” approach, which requires no auditing or external reporting of the methods employed.

Now that the broad definitions of the production methods have been detailed, it is possible to look at the advantages of the various systems. If you compare Organic and non-organic viticulture they basically achieve the same result i.e. vines are planted which grow to produce a crop of grapes for wine production every year. However the location of the viticultural method will have a large impact on the relative advantages of each system. For example, growing grapes organically in Margaret River is much easier to do than growing grapes organically in Burgundy. This is in part due to the lower humidity in the growing season, resulting in less disease pressure and hence less need for systemic fungicides. This means that it costs less in labour to run an organic vineyard in a Mediterranean climate than a Continental climate. The lack of strict AC regulations regarding pruning methods etc. also helps the Australian example. The same holds true for Biodynamic systems in these two climate types, although it can be done in either. E.g. Cullens in Margaret River and DRC in Burgundy.

Non-organic farming can reduce the risk of losing a crop and hence reduces the overall risk to a business. If a NASSA certified producer in Australia finds powdery mildew in their vineyard they have a choice to spray the vineyard with synthetic fungicides and lose certification (for 3 years) or potentially lose the entire crop. These additional costs and risks can in turn lead to a higher production price for organic wine and/or lower profits. A winery may in turn lose its market following if they are unable to certify their product.

Proponents of organic viticulture say that this system can actually cost less to run, especially in the long term. The use of synthetic chemicals can be very expensive, and over many years this may result in toxicity (especially metals) in the vineyard. Many organic farmers, (especially Biodynamic), believe that their yields have stabilized since converting to these methods. Therefore, the potential to extend the life of their vineyard with consistent yields can be a huge advantage for some growers. Examples include Fetzer in the U.S or Cono Sur in Chile.

The other main differences in organic production occur in the winery, where the use of synthetic additives is the main issue. Most organic certifiers allow the use of Bentonite, egg whites and limited Sulfur Dioxide. Demeter, in the U.S, does not allow the use of yeast, enzymes, MLB for their top Biodynamic certification. The maximum Sulfur residue limits for each certification is different in each country and provides confusion for the consumer. For example, Biodynamic production in the EU, AB limits are 250mg/L for sweet wines compared to 150mg/L in the U.S (Demeter). The strict regulations regarding additives, provides a challenge to winemakers wanting to pursue these wine styles.

Sustainable farming can actually cost more to manage than conventional techniques in some cases. If ISO14001 or another management protocol is utilized then apart from labour, administrative and reporting costs can be substantial. For example SWNZ will cost a winery $550 per year and $375 for their vineyard. In addition, the extra time it takes to manage this system adds up to tens of thousands of dollars for the average winery. The bottom line is whether or not any of these methods can produce a product that achieves a higher average price than their competitors. Although, in the New Zealand example this is exactly what has happened in the UK market. NZ wine holds the highest price per bottle at £6.33.

Unfortunately there is a lot of marketing spin regarding organic wines, and the lack of clarity surrounding the topic has the potential to make the entire point moot for consumers. As long as people are able to charge slightly more for their bottle of organic or sustainable wine, they will continue to proceed with labeling it as such. Despite the inherent risks of organic production (especially in humid areas) many vineyards will continue to produce wine grapes this way regardless of marketing spin offs. Grape growing sustainably can reflect a philosophy that often runs deeper than simply profits. Let’s face it, many vineyards that look after their vineyards “organically”, are not certified and have no intention of labeling their wine that way. It is simply a method of production that helps them sleep at night.