The new Parisian shop Lavinia, which bills itself as Europe’s largest wine and spirits shop, devotes a generous section to French organic wines. But they cannot be found among the hundreds of bottles laid out appealingly in stylish wood and glass racks. The enviable selection is tucked away at the back of the shop, in the basement.
This choice may not be deliberate, but it seems to reflect the situation of the organic wine business in France. It is blossoming: production is growing by 15% to 20% annually, and demand is increasing both in and outside of France. But the industry remains painfully under-exploited. As the lack of visibility at Lavinia testifies, the average French wine drinker is probably completely unaware if his drink is organic or not, and might care little about it.
“France is the world’s first organic wine producer,” said Marie-Christine Monnier, head of the National Federation of Wines produced from Organic Viticulture (FNIVAB). “But in many cases the organic aspect isn’t pushed forward because winegrowers do not think it is necessary.” Even winemakers who have gone organic are reluctant to promote the fact, since in earlier years organic wine was perceived to be of poor quality, Monnier explained.
But things are changing. Over the last 10 years, the number of organic winegrowers in France has surged. From a dozen in the 1980s to more than 1,000 by the end of 2001, organic enterprises are growing exponentially. In the southern regions of Languedoc and Provence, they make up more than half of the total wine-growing land area. Today, 500,000 hectares (1 hectare = 2.47 acres) are in the process of being converted to organic methods.
This sudden interest in organic agriculture was triggered by one main reason. After years of intensive viticulture, much of France’s soil began to die. In the Provence and Languedoc, regions formerly known for producing abundant quantities of table wine, overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides seriously damaged the land. Today, these are France’s largest organic wine producing areas.
“Winegrowers were seeing their soils die before their eyes, so they needed to do something in order to be able to continue working,” said Gael Chauvet, wine buyer at Lavinia. Monnier agrees. “Winegrowers want to save their land, and their future. This is why they are changing their methods of production.”
The Hudelots made the change three years ago. Their property is tucked away in the fertile hills of the Bourgogne region, where Patrick Hudelot makes white Aligote, and red and white Haures-Cotes de Nuits which in a good year, can total up to 190,000 bottles. His domain, found in the bucolic hamlet of Villars Fontaine, is surrounded by villages such as Nuits St. Georges and Gevrey Chamberrin, whose names sound like heaven to wine connoisseurs.
“Bourgogne is very traditional,” says Hudelot, who is one of the few organic winemakers in the region. “Here people think we are mad, like aliens in this profession. But they watch us from a distance, because we achieve good results, and our wines stand out from the rest.”
Hudelot’s decision was sparked off by the Mad Cow epidemic which broke out three years ago, devastating the French farming industry. “Before, we used substances made from cattle in our vinification process. I thought that if the press got hold of this, we would have serious problems,” he says. “But first and foremost, I wanted to make a natural and healthy product.”
Three years later, Hudelot is very happy with his decision, as the benefits of organic agriculture are widespread. “The chemicals I used before were harmful for humans. Some of my helpers were getting eczema, and couldn’t wash the chemicals off their hands. Now, we work barehanded, and we are all in better shape. The machinery lasts longer, things are better all around. And the taste of the wine is incomparable.”
Converting to organic viticulture is not easy. Under the European Union, organic farmers must follow legislation which bans the use of all chemical fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides and any genetically modified substances. Only substances which themselves are certified to be organic are allowed. These are not always very effective in fighting pests, and consequently a great emphasis is placed on preventing diseases, since it is often difficult to cure them once they have spread. For the winegrower, this means constantly checking the vines for signs of disease.
“Any kind of herbicide is forbidden,” Hudelot explains. “So we go at it with a shovel and spade. And we can’t use chemical fertilizers, only organic compost, so we have a plough. But you need to find one which can move between each vine. The hardest thing though, is fighting disease. I apply homeopathy. That means using insects against other insects, or fungi to fight other fungi.”
Hudelot’s production costs have risen by 10% since he converted, and his work is physically much more demanding. The EU does help organic farmers by offering some financial aid, but winemakers like Hudelot who strictly adhere to European legislation cannot sell their produce as “Organic Wine.” The only label an organic wine producer can use in the EU is: “Wine Issued from Organic Grapes.” Until now, member countries have not come to an agreement about what additives should be allowed in the vinification process. “While the wine producers are waiting for the EU to come up with an agreement on organic wines, they can have the choice of using private charters. These are a form of commitment, a framework,” Monnier says. The charter set up by the FNIVAB will enable winegrowers who adopt it to put the following label on their wines: “Wine Growers adhering to the Organic Wine Charter.” This charter has stricter rules, such as a lower use of copper salts (which are used as fungicides) than is allowed under the EU. But until a decision is reached, even the most thorough organic wine producer will not be allowed to sell his product as fully organic.
Inadequate labeling is just one of the obstacles facing this new industry. France has been producing wine for thousands of years, and although there are exceptions, marketing is generally frowned upon. Many wines simply do not advertise the fact that they were produced using organic methods.
The Association of Organic Wines from Languedoc & Roussillon (AIVB) understands the importance of promoting the organic label. Over the last 10 years, AIVB has been working closely with organic winegrowers. The organization believes that the main obstacle for the development of organic wines is an insufficient budget for marketing and promotion, along with lack of adequate labeling and the outdated notion that organic wines are a low quality product. “New World wines can sell for 3 euros ($3) a bottle. The French winemaker must move away from the New World market very rapidly and offer something else, away from genetically modified substances, and intensive agriculture.”
Patrick Hudelot took on a marketing manager six months ago. “People think I am crazy. Can you imagine having a marketing department? Here, people have never seen this before. In France, there is a belief that you don’t need to market your wine. And that way we are being left behind. In Australia for example, they spend 50% of their budget on marketing, and they give away a thousand bottles to sample.”
Getting rid of the old stigma many French winegrowers and buyers have about organic wines will take a long time. “Organic Wine? The concept is a harmless joke,” said Patrick Courty, head of a small but established Paris wine shop, Les Vendanges. “I have been running this shop for years and not five people have asked me for organic wine. It’s a marketing ploy.”
In the future, the joke might just be on him. Hudelot is confident. “I think there will soon be an explosion of organic wines. At the moment, we are negotiating with Carrefour, which is planning to open an organic wine section in September.” Carrefour is one of the world’s largest retailers, a good sign that in this industry, the lights are turning green.
(Emilie Boyer King is a Scottish-French freelance journalist who has worked in Paris for the last five years. Her journalistic career started at the French wine magazine L’Amateur de Bordeaux. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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