Clinton Cawood assesses the key developments in organic and biodynamic drinks
Agriculture is at the root of all drinks categories, in some way or another, and they are subject to the same considerations, pressures and consumer trends as any other agricultural products, and concepts such as organic and biodynamic have therefore become more prevalent in recent years.
Within wine, practices like these have been around long enough to have become familiar, but perceptions have changed. “Organic and biodynamic wines have become more popular,” says Harriet Kininmonth, wine trading director at Bibendum Wine.
“We’ve always been passionate about having a good selection of these wines in our range, but this has certainly grown in the past 10 years, and more of our customers are looking for them.”
Along with that demand, the wines have improved. “Ten years ago, the consumer perception of organic was that quality was inconsistent, and not very good. As understanding has grown, quality has increased as demand has grown too,” adds Kininmonth.
Managing director of The Wine People, Stefano Girelli, who owns the organic estates Santa Tresa and Azienda Agricola Cortese in Sicily, agrees. “At the beginning, organic wines were sold only because they were organic, but they were faulty, and super expensive. Luckily, things have changed.”
At Argentinian organic wine pioneer Domaine Bousquet, co-owner Labid Ameri has seen a change too. “In the past five years we have seen several Argentinian wineries, big and small, starting to either create organic ranges or convert totally to organic,” he says.
“The more organic farms we have, the more we improve our land biodiversity and land health. Over the past decade, we have seen significant growth in organic wine sales in the UK and beyond.”
Germany has established itself as a leader in organic wine production, with about 12% of its vineyards cultivated organically. Nicky Forrest, director of wines for Wines of Germany UK, believes the impact on the wines themselves is of particular importance.
“Because organic viticulture places great emphasis on soil health and usually produces lower crop yields, organic wines can be very expressive of sense of place and display great fruit concentration,” she says. “In the UK, this is important because consumers are still primarily driven by style and flavour when choosing a wine, with organic often viewed as an added benefit.”
These practices are gaining ground in spirits too. “Consumers of today are already responding immensely to organic and biodynamic discussions, not merely from a soil health point of view, but from a flavour point of view,” says Mark Newton, head of brand at organic and biodynamic Irish whiskey producer Waterford.
“In our own blind tastings, organic barley rates higher on sensory attributes than conventionally grown barley, and biodynamic even further still.”
At The Oxford Artisan Distillery, which uses heritage grains and sustainable farming methods, managing director of sales & marketing Mark Harvey is seeing a change, too. “Sales of organic produce in general continue to rise. This hasn’t been a primary driver of purchase in spirits, but we see this changing fast,” he says.
“Our mission is to forge a revolutionary path for how all whiskies will be farmed going forward, and we see a huge opportunity with an increasingly receptive audience.”
While consumer perception changes, farming practices are also evolving. “When you start to embrace organic culture, it’s a philosophy of how you approach a piece of land,” says Girelli, who has also conducted some experiments into biodynamics over the past few years.
“Twenty years ago, wine was made in the winery, and then there was a move back to viticulture. Now with organic, and especially biodynamics, you really focus on micro-organisms and the soil.”
Kininmonth has seen a shift. “A few decades ago, some would claim biodynamics was a strange approach to winemaking, but this has changed, with wine critics, consumers and sommeliers now actively seeking out biodynamic wines,” she says.
“Biodynamic viticulture is a growing trend in Germany, as winemakers seek to produce high-quality wines that are both environmentally sustainable and reflective of the unique terroir of their regions,” reports Forrest.
Biodynamic has some way to go in whisky, according to Newton. “We brought out the world’s first biodynamic whisky a couple of years ago, and even today you can count the number of global biodynamic whisky producers on one hand – and still have fingers spare,” he says, adding that organic or biodynamic can double the cost of barley.
Meanwhile, other terms are becoming more prominent, such as regenerative viticulture and regenerative farming. “It’s definitely a buzzword in the trade,” says Kininmonth. “With wine it’s a very early trend, but I think it’s easier for consumers to understand, compared with terms such as biodynamic.”
Ameri agrees that it’s early days. “Perception of regenerative viticulture is where organics was a decade ago, very much an emerging category in wine,” he says. “As we have seen increasing numbers of wineries transferring to organic and biodynamic, interest in regenerative viticulture is growing, but driving consumer awareness and demand will be key.”
Just as important as consumer awareness is availability of these products, and Kininmonth believes this is going in the right direction. “As supermarkets are under pressure to meet corporate social responsibility targets and want to reduce their carbon footprint, there has been more interest in and demand for stocking organic and biodynamic wines.”
For Girelli, there’s more work to be done. “I don’t think there are enough organic products on shelves,” he says. “But I think the consumer is ready. These products obviously cost more money, but I think it’s a small price to pay for the future.”