Organic, biodynamic & sustainable winemaking: Does the UK consumer care?

Naturalness, organic, and authenticity are a just a few of the terms bandied about the wine industry that further cloud and provoke the contentious debate regarding sustainable winemaking. Natural winemaking is almost impossible to define yet it remains a key point of reference within the industry as producers and winemakers endeavour to endorse and subsequently practice, or at least appear to embrace, less industrial winemaking techniques. Despite the alleged efforts being made, does the industry think UK consumers care about ‘sustainable’ winemaking enough to alter their wine buying habits? During the London International Wine Fair, CellarVie Wines spoke exclusively to some of the industry’s key players to discuss the relevance of organic, biodynamic and sustainable winemaking in order to determine whether or not people within the industry think their endeavours are being noted by UK consumers.

Adrian Bridge, CEO of the Fladgate Partnership [arguably the most significant of Port producers which encompasses Taylor’s, Croft and Fonseca]: -

“No I don’t think it is at all. I don’t think it’s important to the consumer yet. It will be and I think it is important for the wine industry to endeavour to be sustainable and experiment with organic winemaking. If you are a small or new player and are trying to gain distribution or for someone to follow your brand, you have to show you have the right credentials and that is why people talk about it. They believe in it, but it’s also because it helps in terms of their marketing of products.

“I think there is a reason why it hasn’t yet worked at a consumer level, and I suppose this is one of the reasons why, having created the first organic Port about seven years ago it still remains a niche business. There is a very, very simple reason – consumers don’t think that wine is an industrial product. They don’t think about big vineyards, big wineries – they don’t think of Gallo making more wine than the whole of Australia. They don’t think of it that way, they think of it as people picking grapes off a small farm. To them, its small vineyards and meeting the grower and that’s the way the industry presents itself, and therefore people assume everything is organic. As a result there is this dilemma, as you can’t tell the consumer ‘well hang on there is a lot of wine that is industrial’ in order to have them buy something that isn’t.

“I think consumers that really understand it will perhaps be willing to pay a premium but ultimately it comes down to quality. I think what you’ve got to do and I think it’s something that Taylor’s do really well with our organic Port, is that it has got to be apparent through the flavours. So when people say why is that wine so much more intense, we can respond by telling them that it is because it is organically farmed. Flavour is why consumers pay the premium not because it says it’s organic on the label or sustainable or anything like that. Organic Port is extremely well received by the people that understand it but it is never going to be mainstream. The average consumer doesn’t particularly think about it.”

Michael Cox, The UK head of Wines of Chile: -

“Interestingly, Chile is blessed with a very benign climate and very benign conditions so actually organic or sustainable winemaking is far easier in a place like Chile because there are fewer problems. So a lot of people do practice organic viticulture but to be brutally honest the British consumer and even other European consumer, but especially the British consumer, they haven’t really got to grips with organic wine. They don’t quite understand it and they certainly won’t pay a premium for it, so Chile along with other countries is going down the much broader route of what can basically be described as sustainable winemaking. We have a new code of practice coming into force but really what that means is that we are honouring the land and environment more. We are taking much greater care, not just in the vineyards, but through the winery and even the marketing departments and export divisions; it’s all about making things as sustainable as possible for future generations. Whether that resonates with the consumer, who knows? But it is something we are going to do anyway because it will secure future generations.

“I would love to think the British consumer cares about sustainability, but I don’t think they do just yet. There is a lot of green wash around, not just in our trade but in many trades. It’s a hot topic and I’m a little cynical I’m afraid. I personally think the consumer still has other things on their mind. Quality, price, and provenance will always come before sustainability for the time being. I don’t think the British consumer is ready to make choices based on sustainability or organic winemaking. Having said that, it is a very broad statement and there are obviously people who are willing to embrace it. But regardless, Chile is and wants to go down this route. We want to make wine in a sustainable way. We know, in the loosest possible way that Chilean wines are more natural than most because of our benign conditions, so whether it is actually certified organic or certified biodynamic is not actually the point yet. Maybe one day and certainly there are places actively making an effort, like the Scandinavian countries, Austria and also Germany, and we are already seeing the progress there. More and more countries are going down this route and I think that is a good thing.

“Wine is an agricultural product and it uses quite a lot of water and resources, and it’s about farming so we have a responsibility, but obviously quality remains paramount. If the two can go in tandem then that is great but at the moment I’m not sure anyone could argue wine tastes better because it is organic. Even so, I would rather sell an organic wine if the quality is the same, so there will always be that endeavour.”

Razvan Macici, Nederburg Cellarmaster since 2001: -

“It’s a beautiful concept - to work at one with nature, with the terroir and to be sustainable, I love it, it’s a great idea but I’m not convinced there is a huge market out there for it. For example, organic wines are very difficult to make, there are huge limitations in the vineyard – you are not allowed to spray with this, you are not allowed to spray with that – it’s not easy.

“It also has to make sense financially. If you are producing this wine then you need to have a market for them. I mean, people speak about organic bio, but when they go to the wine shelf very few people will pick organic wines. Everyone is very positive about the concept and it’s great to hear about it, but I know very few people who will just go and only buy bio and organic wines. I would never just purchase a bottle of wine solely on the basis that it was organic. I do like some of them, like the ones which are literally just fermented and bottled, because they are a very true reflection of that wine’s specific terroir, soil, region and ethos. But as it stands the market dictates that it is not a major seller.”

Peter Crameri, UK Sales Manager for LGI Wines: -

“I agree with the idea that the UK consumer hasn’t perhaps quite understood sustainability just yet. What is sustainable? It can mean a whole variety of things; it is quite a broad scope of possibilities. The same applies to organic; what is organic and what isn’t? The implications are a little vague and at the moment I’m not sure whether people are aware of the effects it has on consumer choices.

“Biodynamic viticulture is to some a commercial argument elaborated to make wine selling easier to those consumer groups looking for that. Perhaps hotels looking to be seen by customers as buying into the whole biodynamic ethos – in essence there are occasions it is used as a marketing term. As of yet though, I’m not convinced the UK consumer has bought into the idea.”

Maria Jose Sevilla, Manager of the Foods & Wines from Spain Department at the Spanish Trade Comission in London: -

“Spanish wines have certainly made efforts to be sustainable. Obviously economically, Spain is going through hell at the moment and its interesting that issues that are relevant become a little less relevant during times of austerity. During times of crisis you have to make money and profit is even more important. The huge issues like unemployment take precedence at the moment, but certainly efforts are being made.

“Balancing volume sales and sustainability or organic wines is a difficult juggling act. Why isn’t organic progressing within the market? I think it once again comes down to quality but also there is a little bit of scepticism around the whole concept. For example, and this is controversial, there are some organic wines that will inevitably use more pesticides than non-organic wines. It comes down to control and with organic winemaking it’s not fully controlled or monitored.

“I do think the UK consumer is concerned about sustainability but certainly not as much as some suggest. Market sales show that. They are certainly not as concerned with it as the Austrians or the Germans or New Zealand. On a more simplistic level, we are a little bit further behind in the way we deal with our rubbish and recycling. In Spain we face a big challenge in terms of making a greater effort to be sustainable. Not just in terms of winemaking but as a whole and we are definitely trying despite these challenging times.”

Su Birch, CEO Wines of South Africa: -

“We’ve made huge advances in conservation and in the production of wines in an environmentally sustainable way. We’ve introduced the Sustainability seal and in the last month we have launched the Ethical seal as well, because of South Africa’s history the issue of farm labour has always been important and we’ve had some negative press. It was obvious we needed a seal to protect the producers who are doing the right thing. If there are producers who are doing the wrong thing we can shame them into getting their act together. It’s been incredibly well received worldwide and it’s a wine industry first – there is no other wine producing country that has an ethical ordered system.

“The consumer can therefore be completely confident that the wine has produced in a vineyard that conforms to all the legislation We are not saying sustainability is organic, what we are saying is that there is minimal use of pesticides, there are strong health and safety measures, and it’s about looking after the environment in which the wine is produced. There is a difference.

“Juggling sustainability and volume is an interesting balance because sustainability is not a huge message for consumers in many countries, but it does is that gives confidence to the buyers. The chances of us educating the consumer about the ethical seal are not very good but it does give the buyers confidence and so it positions South Africa in a more appealing light. Buyers want to know that the wine has been produced responsibly and that the labour has been treated fairly and with respect. That is evidently important but individual brands and winemakers must go out there with their own individual story, for us as a generic body, we are selling confidence in South Africa.”
Su Birch & CellarVie Wines' Nigel Barden discuss sustainable winemaking in South Africa at the LIWF 2012 
Main image by Caliterra


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