Grape hopes for organic wine
11th September 2019
September is National Organic Month and wine editor James Viner discovers the benefits of organic wine and two local producers who are creating a natural selection of top-notch vinous beauties
The organic gospel is spreading around the world and unlike most organic food, organic wine won’t cost you much extra. Mounting interest in ‘good for you, good for the environment’ wines, including organic ones made from grapes grown without the use of synthetic chemical sprays or fertilisers and with a minimum of additives in the cellar, is creating an exciting opportunity for savvy wine retailers to open up the category.
The 2019 Organic Market Report of the Soil Association, which certifies around 70 per cent of all organic products in the UK, revealed that the organic market grew by 5.3 per cent last year. The UK is seventh in the world for organic sales, with the US still the leading market; Germany and France are second and third (at €10billion and €8billion respectively, compared to the UK’s €2.6billion – or £2.4million).
The study also showed that organic wine – now relatively less expensive and more enjoyable than ever – is actually taking a share from the non-organic market, with a compound annual growth rate of more than 11 per cent from 2012-17.
UK consumers are willing to pay on average 38 per cent more for a bottle of organic versus non-organic wine
Organic viticulture forbids most industrially synthesised compounds such as herbicides, pesticides and fungicides, as well as anything genetically modified. The goal’s a chemical-free vineyard with healthy soils, using green-waste composts rather than chemical fertilisers. ‘Organic wine’ can only be produced from organically certified grapes and in the EU can contain lower maximum levels of sulphites/SO2, a naturally occurring efficient preservative.
With their hot, dry and relatively disease-free vineyards, Spain, then Italy and France in second and third place, account for 74 per cent of the planet’s organic wine production. There may be relatively high cost implications of being organic in cooler, wetter marginal wine regions like England but it’s still possible to grow high-quality grapes.
Though still tiny – there are less than 20 organic vineyards (Languedoc’s Hérault department alone has 543 producers) – the UK’s organic wine scene is slowly increasing with improving wine that’s worth seeking out, as my recommendations below will show you. Furthermore, the leading organic vineyards are just on our doorstop!
Going Green in Kent & Sussex:
Oxney Organic Estate, Rye
Oxney is the UK’s largest single estate organic vineyard, established in 2012 with the first bottling in 2014. Like Davenport in Horsmonden it started out as an organic farm and received its organic certification from the Soil Association in 2012. It’s perfectly geared up for idyllic winery tours and tastings, and can accommodate large groups of travellers – it can cater for up to 29 people across the estate.
It produces the following grape varieties: Chardonnay (37.5 per cent), Pinot Noir (37.5 per cent), Pinot Meunier (10 per cent), Seyval Blanc (10 per cent), Pinot Précoce (5 per cent).
James Viner speaks exclusively to its co-founder and local organic wine royalty, Kristin Syltevik, who runs Oxney with her partner Paul Dobson:
What are the principal pleasures of organic grape-growing and winemaking in the UK?
The main pleasures are providing wine lovers with a natural and clean, high-quality product.
And what are the main challenges?
The main challenge in the vineyard is disease control. Looking after the vines using organic methods is difficult as it requires a very vigilant approach but you obviously cannot use chemicals, only a number of natural sprays.
'The goal’s a chemical-free vineyard with healthy soils, using green-waste composts rather than chemical fertilisers'
In the winery we’re restricted in terms of the level of sulphites we can use but we don’t think these are problems. In fact they are what everyone who farms or has a vineyard should be doing to safeguard our environment and ensure clean and healthy products for consumers.
Why did you decide to farm organically?
We’ve always eaten organic food as we had a smallholding where we grew our own food before we started farming. We bought our first farm in 2009 and immediately started converting it to organic, working with the Soil Association. It didn’t enter my mind that the vineyard wouldn’t be organic, it was a natural progression of our environmentally sound, natural and sustainable farming venture.
What practices did you adopt and how soon did you see the results?
It’s taken us on average two years to convert the land we’ve bought to organic. When you’re going through the conversion process you farm organically but you can’t sell your crop as organic. The main results – apart from growing natural foods – are that the insects and bird life have exploded on the land we look after. I’ve had instances where I walk through swarms of insects on our land, flocks of birds feeding. It’s just what the countryside should be like but sadly isn’t due to conventional farming.
How do you protect the buds against pest and disease in the spring?
First of all, knowledge is king – we need to know exactly when the frost is hitting the vineyard. We’ve a weather station which sends us text messages when the weather’s entering the danger zone. We’ve used different methods over the years but we now have a machine that we pull after the tractor which heats up the air around the vines. We’re always researching the best options for frost control and will without doubt try to innovate a sustainable solution.
How many bottles were produced in 2018?
A total of 25,000. Of those 7,000 were still and the rest sparkling. Our key exports tend to be to countries like Norway and Germany.
Must try 1: Oxney Pinot Noir Rosé 2018, East Sussex, Alc 12.5 per cent (£16.50-£17.95, www.oxneyestate.com/Fuller’s Farm Shop/Vintage Roots)
Late summer in a glass, this is a splendid organic pink from a game-changing vintage. It cracks on with red cherry, strawberry, dried herb and redcurrant flavours, some blossomy notes too. Persuasive throughout, lingering nicely.
Must try 2: Classic bubbly made from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay Oxney Estate Classic 2016, Alc 12 per cent (£32-£35, www.oxneyestate.com/Fuller’s Farm Shop/Vintage Roots)
A fine, persistent mousse is, like everything else in this traditional method fizz, striking; stone fruit, baked apple and citrus flavours come through with utmost clarity on the long, perfectly balanced palate, plus a touch of honey and a memory of brioche. Will grow with further time in bottle. Sign up for future releases!
OXNEY VINEYARD, Hobbs Lane, Beckley, Rye, East Sussex, TN31 6TU
Tel: 01797 260 137
Award-winning, Roseworthy-trained Will Davenport has long been a champion of sustainable farming and organic viticulture. He started growing vines at Horsmonden in 1991 and organic accreditation from the Soil Association followed in 2000. From applying green-waste compost to avoiding herbicides and pesticides, Will’s taken every facet of his winemaking and found sustainable answers. Negligible packaging and lightweight bottles are used and his wines are mainly sold within a 100-mile radius of the Rotherfield winery, which is capable of making 80,000 bottles of wine per year – a record 50,000 bottles were achieved in 2018’s dream vintage.
Must try 1: Davenport Vineyards, Diamond Fields Pinot Noir 2017, Rotherfield, East Sussex, Alc 12 per cent (£19.50-£20.75, www.davenportvineyards.co.uk/Vintage Roots/Abel & Cole)
I love this wonderfully pure, beautiful, silky organic red for its pretty floral aromas, savoury edges and buoyant, fresh and youthful Morello cherry/tart redcurrant/blackcurrant flavours. It’s unfiltered with lifted acidity, fine tannins and texture. Delicious!
Must try 2: Davenport Vineyards, Bottle-Fermented Limney Estate Sparkling Wine 2013, Rotherfield, East Sussex, Alc 11.5 per cent (£27-£28, www.davenportvineyards.co.uk/Vintage Roots/Hay Wines)
Among the very best organic English fizz yet made, this is Will’s flagship sparkling wine grown in the original vineyard plot at Horsmonden and made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Auxerrois. Exceptional for its price with dazzling fruit purity laced with elegant bubbles, underpinned by minerally, very natural-feeling acidity.
DAVENPORT VINEYARDS, Limney Farm, Castle Hill, Rotherfield, East Sussex, TN6 3RR
Tel: 01892 852 380