Organic wine growing in FRANCE: Grape expectations

Over the last decade, organic wine growing has emerged out of relative obscurity to become a major driving force, propelling France to the number 2 spot worldwide, after Spain and ahead of Italy. Whether they produce organic or biodynamic wines, growers have a common ambition: to show respect for the environment and make quality wines. This report looks at the story so far and prospects for the future.

The recession has failed to put a dent in the thriving organic wine sector: according to Agence Bio/OC which promotes French organic farming, vineyard area farmed organically virtually trebled between 2007 and 2012. Currently, 64,610 hectares divided between 4,916 properties are certified  organic or in the process of being certified, translating to 8.2% of national vineyard area. Specialist organic wine merchant, vice-chairman of France Vin Bio and of Sudvinbio (the Languedoc Roussillon organic wine marketing board) Jacques Frelin provides the following explanation for the surge: “European grants provided a decisive incentive for growers looking to convert to organic at a time when demand for organic wines outstripped supply.”


Despite  a recent decline in the number of growers, conversions to organic wine should continue at a slower, yet more consistent rate.

Three-quarters of France’s organic vineyards, however, are located in just four regions: Languedoc-Roussillon (20,571 ha), Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (15,128 ha), Aquitaine (9,742 ha) and Rhône-Alpes (5,120 ha). In regions such as PACA, Lorraine, Franche-Comté, Alsace, the Centre and Rhône-Alpes, the share of organic vineyards is in excess of 10%. “Factors which promote organic wine growing on a local scale include a favourable climate, as in the South of France, and a strong political commitment in some regions. Also, wine regions with a weaker bottom line to start with tend to be more inclined to switch to organic, whereas more profitable areas such as Champagne and Burgundy have less of a propensity to do so,” explains Jacques Frelin. After an initial surge in conversions, the current trend is for growers to consolidate their organic vineyards. In fact, 2013 saw a 3 to 4% decline in the number of growers in Champagne, Alsace and the Loire, rising to –8% in Corsica and Poitou-Charentes. “Balance has been restored to the marketplace and supply now covers all product ranges and types of wine. Also, grants have fallen, which in fact is a blessing in disguise because the industry has to support itself.” Conversions to organic should therefore continue at a slower, yet more consistent rate. As Jacques Frelin points out: “The move towards organic farming must continue due to the increased pressure of environmental issues. We are actually seeing more and more young wine growers making the switch to organic, which is also a source of employment.” Even the co-operative wineries are gravitating towards organic viticulture: in 2013, 197 secured organic certification compared with just 70 in 2009. 


More and more French consume organic wine

At the same time, one in three French people claim they now drink organic wine according to consumer research conducted by IPSOS/Sudvinbio, equating to a market worth half a billion euros. Organic wine consumption soared by 22% in 2013 over the previous year with nearly half of French organic wines exported (44%).


Organic Wine: highly regulated and strictly controlled

‘Organic wine growing’ implies that growers use no agrochemicals or GMOs in the vineyard and must rely solely on natural compounds (sulphur, copper) and mechanical techniques to remove weeds (ploughing the soil and manual weeding for instance). In the winery, European legislation focuses on three main points: limiting SO2 and inputs as well as certain techniques (filtration, thermovinifi cation); others are simply banned (concentration through cooling and dealcoholisation). Compliance with all of these regulations is checked by approved certifying bodies such as Ecocert. The change-over period lasts three years. Believed by some to be too liberal and favourable to the large players, “the law on organic wine making did allow a consensus to be reached between the 27 EU member countries. Changes are likely to be minor when the text is reviewed in 2015,” comments Jacques Frelin. Biodynamic wine growing not only has to comply with organic specifications but also independent endorsement. It goes a step further by reducing inputs as much as possible, starting with sulphur. What sets biodynamic farming apart is that it takes a holistic approach to the relationship between the earth, the plant and the environment. Its three fundamental