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Celebrate Organic Harvest Month

Since 1992, the Organic Trade Association has chosen September as the month to honor organic agriculture.  Serendipity Wines will be featuring some of our favorite organic wine producers while harvest is in full swing.  We invite you to explore the stories behind these preeminent winemakers and their wines as we celebrate all things organic all month long!

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Featured Organic Harvest Brands

bareksten
Casa Emma
Lunaria
Marchesi

What is Organic Wine

Organic Harvest Post 1

What is organic wine?  That’s a question people have been asking for a little over one hundred years.  In it’s broadest sense, organic wines aim to eliminate the use of synthetic chemicals.  But between the rise of the natural wine movement and disparities across certifying bodies it’s probably easier to say that organic wine is its own can of worms– its elusive definition has the habit of squirming just beyond our collective reach.  Part of the difficulty is that you can’t have a conversation about organics without also talking about what is ‘natural’.  And what exactly is ‘natural’ can mean many different things to many different people.

One thing for certain, though, is that organics is a conversation in full swing.  There are a few general principles that many of us can agree upon.  We know that organics in wine is a fundamental step in sustainability, as well as biodynamic farming.  We also know that it is an intention.  It’s a way for the industry to hold itself accountable for the ecosystems it relies on and become purposeful, rather than passive, stewards.  We know that healthy relationships with land, plant, animal and people are all reason enough to adopt practices that maintain that well-being, however different that might look across the world. 

  

We also know that when we’re talking about organics in wine it is essential to distinguish growing grapes from winemaking.  The growing of organic grapes, or viticulture, has a unique set of organic standards that might not be resumed during winemaking (or ‘viniculture’).  In essence, a winemaker could easily use organically grown grapes but not employ organic winemaking practices.  There are many formidable reasons why that might be their decision, which we’ll dive into later.  The two distinct phases of organic production are one of the reasons it can be a challenge to call a wine decidedly ‘organic’ or not.

Taking these nuances to heart, organic wines are produced all over the world.  There are numerous certifications available worldwide and a proud number of producers who make organic wines, certification not withstanding.  We have laws and labelling that acknowledge its unquestionable value, and entire wine programs curated solely to the organic.  And while it might be in its youth, perhaps the reason it’s nearly impossible to pin down an exact definition of organics in wine is that it’s very much still a conversation in progress.

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Organics: A Short History

Prior to World War I, conversations about organic wines did not exist.  Organic farming practices were the nameless, sweeping global default.  The world experienced a good 8,000 years of organic winemaking before industrialization and an effort to solve food shortages altered modern agriculture altogether. During World War I and then beyond, mechanized, synthetic tools transformed global farming.

What exactly are synthetic compounds?  They’re inorganic pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers.  All tools used to efficiently protect crops and yields, including wine grapes, the introduction of synthetics was an unquestionable solution to the devastation brought on by both world wars.  A landmark period called the ‘Green Revolution’ stretched from the 1950’s until the late 1960’s.  This is when agriculture, in a jarring but effective deviation, focused on volume above all else.  A technology driven attitude resulted in the expansive use of agrochemicals (DDT, Roundup), higher yielding seed varieties (which is not ideal for quality grape growing), and precipitated the eventual adoption of GMO’s.

The Green Revolution was celebrated in its time for saving over a billion people from starvation.  Today, hindsight and research reveal the cost of practices that exceeded their window of need.  Sadly, the use of agrochemicals has been linked to cancer, degenerative disorders and other debilitating medical conditions.  Out of sight from consumers, the repeated exposure to toxic sprays put people who were the least visible at the most risk— farmworkers.  Despite some progress, the ability to provide healthy work environments for marginalized farmworkers remains an urgent issue to date.

Organics is not a fad

A deliberate movement towards organic practices cropped up in the 1940’s.  Scientists Sir Albert Howard, Walter James, and J.I. Rodale are credited with launching the movement.  They triumphed the limitation or flat out prohibition of those synthetic pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers.  They focused on building up farming ecosystems— ones that strengthened plant immunity, improved soils and had long-term minimal impact on indigenous flora and fauna.  By shifting away from quantity, they were able to encourage quality and health.  And not just the health of their bounty, but the well-being and safety of farmworkers. 

In America, popular demand for organically farmed foods blossomed in the seventies.  Farming communities in California rallied to advocate for federal regulation in an effort to improve the industry as a whole.  One of the first groups to assemble was the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) in 1980.  The non-profit coalition began developing a definition for ‘organics’ and eventually would become a certifying body.  As a result of their work, the USDA created the National Organics Program and federal legislation took effect.  A homogenized definition of organics moved standards away from regional to national criteria and organic certification became available in the U.S.  For reasons we’ll touch on later, the EU would not adopt a regulatory certification until 2012.

Enthusiasm for more organics in wine has been leisurely, with results that have been a challenge to track.  Certifications vary by country and then, sometimes too, fluctuate within individual certifying bodies.  The general trend has been a steady increase in organic wines as their desirability has also been on the rise.  Prolific wine writer and biodynamic consultant Monty Walden estimated that in 1999 less than 1% of the world’s vineyards were certified organic, as opposed to his current estimation of 5-7%.  Sounds like a long way to go, right?  You might be happy to know this small but fierce category is gaining momentum.

Organic Harvest Production 2020

2021 Organic Harvest Updates:

The harvest season for grapes is a unique period in the winemaking timeline. It is a time that is both delicate and fierce— when a sudden shift in the weather can potentially steer a vintage wildly off course or create circumstances for the utterly sublime. Universally, too, it’s a time when winegrowers and makers alike are at their busiest. As we’re coming over the halfway point in Italy’s harvest season, Serendipity checked in with a few of our featured organic producers to get the dirt on this years’ vintage:

Located in rocky, high-elevation soils in Central Italy, the Vitticcio winery has certified organic holdings across Tuscany in both Greve & Maremma. To date, they’ve already started harvesting Vermentino, Merlot, Syrah and Sangiovese. When October hits, they’ll begin gathering Sangiovese for their Chianti Classico and finish out the season with Cabernet Sauvignon. This year they invested in a green harvest back in August, which involved them cutting and throwing away half of their green bunches to elevate the concentration in remaining grapes.

So far, their harvest has been a success with zero diseases in the vineyards. While their full report won’t be ready until mid-October, the Vitticcio team has been able to reflect on the balanced year they had:

“This year’s climate for both areas was pretty similar. Cold and rainy winter. First part of spring was warm and rainy. There were two nights of frosts in April that brought many damage in all Europe— we pruned vines in late March and fortunately we were not hit as much as others. The summer was mild– not hot, but very dry. The second part of August was really hot and from the 28th of August arrived weather that balanced everything. More humidity, warm during the day and fresh at night.”

Close to the south of Castellina in the Chianti district, Casa Emma is hopeful for the quality of their grapes after taking a hit on their production numbers. After a substantial spring frost followed by a lack of rain in the summertime, it’s looking like grape yields will be 35% less this year, compared to 2020. For producers that are doing regenerative agriculture, though, it’s the quality of grapes and their potential over quantity:

“The next few weeks will be decisive, especially from the climatic point of view. We must hope that the weather will hold up and that torrential rains will not begin, which could damage the grapes. But the quality of the grapes is excellent. And we expect a wine that can enter the ranks of the best vintages.”

Organics is not a fad

Of course, growing grapes for wine doesn’t come without its challenges. One of the biggest obstacles they’ve had to overcome in 2021 is uneven ripening. It seems this year some grapes showed up to the party early, while others have been fashionably late. One thing for certain, though, is that Casa Emma will be continuing to produce their signature grape-skin flour (Polvere di Sangiovese). Made exclusively from their best pomace of Sangiovese, they are estimating to produce around 500kg of it this year.

Further south and on the eastern coast of Abruzzo surrounded by the Mariella Nature Reserve, Cantina Orsogna produces the wines of Lunaria & ZeroPuro. A co-op of almost 500 farmers, all of which are certified Organic and/or Certified Biodynamic, the scale of their harvest is a little more complicated. Grapes begin to arrive at one of three wineries starting in September and will continue to arrive beyond October for wines made in the ‘Apassimento’ method. Much like Casa Emma, this area suffered water scarcity in both the spring and summer. Their commitment to Demeter biodynamic principles & practices– established in 1997– continues to date. They rely solely on rain water and treat their vines carefully & individually, allowing them to develop a relationship with their vines that is developmental and not mechanical.

The yields for Cantina Orsogna might be lower this year (around a 30% reduction), but they have much to be excited about for the future. One of their newest sustainable practices involves regenerating the local bee population and symbiotically using them to grow native yeasts. Cantina Orsogna is also embracing a new certification called the Biodiversity Friend. As the first winery in Abruzzo to be certified for biodiversity (which safeguards soil fertility, water resources, and pesticide management), the 2021 vintage and beyond pose a promising future.

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