Organic Wine: What Charles Dickens Can Teach Us
By Amanda Ellison
Organic wine? Charles Dickens? The dots don't immediately connect.
But they have more in common than you might think.
Read on to see how both have the power to challenge our everyday habits.
Charles Dickens helped to popularise Christmas. Along with Prince Albert’s introduction of the Christmas tree, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a Victorian favourite that has stood the test of time.
Nostalgic as this novella may be, it still has lots to teach us about our current lifestyle. And just like Ebenezer Scrooge is forever changed by the visitation of three spirits, perhaps the same idea holds true for our habits as consumers. By looking at our wine-buying habits of the past and present, we can make positive, informed changes in the future.
And what better time to consider converting to organic wine than the festive period, when wine sales traditionally escalate?
What Is Organic Wine?
The average Victorian reader was blissfully unaware of the impact of their behaviour. It took A Christmas Carol to open the public’s eyes to societal issues and encourage them to be more mindful in future. In much the same way, why should consumers switch from their favourite wine to an organic alternative, when they may well be oblivious to its benefits? Knowing exactly what organic wine is may just help us to make more informed choices.
Simply put, organic wine must be produced by adhering to legal guidelines regarding the cultivation process. In other words, it is made from organically-grown grapes. For example, the use of pesticides is stringently restricted: EU law permits only 20 out of a possible 300 pesticides to be used – and all 20 these derive from natural ingredients. Organic vineyards rely on practices that help promote biodiversity, leading to a self-regulating ecosystem – which decreases the need for harmful chemicals. Biologically active soil is paramount, with organic farms typically attracting up to 50 per cent more wildlife such as birds, bees and butterflies. Organic wine is, therefore, better for the environment. Lindsay Talas, wine expert and co-founder of planet-friendly and vegan-friendly Terra Organica, says: ‘Drinking organic wine isn’t going to save the planet alone, but if we switch to organic wines and food it will help’.
Wine of Christmas Past
Traditionally, wine-consumers of yesteryear have been far less environmentally-savvy than they are today. With past priorities largely based on price, this inevitably means wine that is mass-produced and chemical-infused. In 2013, sales of bottles of organic wine were around half that of the current market. This gives some indication of the Scrooge-like transformation that has been taking place. Nevertheless, the seeds of growth in the organic wine industry were planted a lot earlier than we might imagine. Wine expert Luisa Welch, DipWSET, AWE puts the movement into context:
The ‘organic movement’ has become associated with Generation Y but it started much earlier, during the first half of the twentieth century in fact, when modern agricultural practices began to appear.
So while the development of organic wine has been evolving for some time, its popularity has certainly escalated over recent years, coinciding with an increased urgency to ‘do our bit’ to help salvage our planet and take better care of our health.
Wine of Christmas Present
The modern consumer is more likely to choose organic products than in the past – and pay for the privilege. But, according to Welch, this does not always extend to wine. Price is the key factor here, with import duty and taxes making the same bottle of organic wine far cheaper in Europe than it is in the UK.
But UK consumers are also acutely aware of the benefits of converting to organic: the absence of the headache-inducing sulphites associated with the production of non-organic wine is a plus factor, as it the knowledge that organically cultivated land provides a haven for wildlife, hence more natural and sustainable agricultural practices.
Yet while consumers may feel reassured that their purchase is organic because the label on the bottle announces it as such, is that always strictly accurate? Welch explains that it’s not always that simple – while the word ‘organic’ means that strict requirements have been met (minimal or no pesticides, land management and storage regulations, for example), it does not take account of the yeasts or fining agents used in the process, some of which may not be suitable for vegans or vegetarians.
Moreover, the market is complicated by the fact that producers cannot label their wine as organic unless they have adhered to organic methods for a minimum of three years, after which time they are eligible for certification. Thus, your bog-standard bottle of wine that you walk past en route to the organic shelves may well have been made from organically cultivated grapes. You just don't know it. And bear in mind that some producers may be reluctant to undertake the bureaucracy associated with the labelling procedure, therefore wine-buyers may be completely unaware of a wine’s real status.
Like Scrooge, the present-day market is in transition – but the signs are promising: the growth of UK producers of organic wine will minimise the need for imported product; escalating sales may mean that prices will decrease somewhat; and ever-growing concern over what we put in our bodies and where it comes from can only augment the positive trend that is already well under way.
And - again like Scrooge - what better time to ring the changes than the festive season?
Wine of Christmas Yet to Come
This terrifying spectre essentially presented Scrooge with two choices: maintain the status quo and suffer the consequences, or embrace change and reap the rewards. Clearly, as a metaphor for converting to organic wine, this is a tad dramatic. As mentioned earlier, the switch to organic wine will not, in itself, save the planet. But every little helps.
And sales indicate that many of us are coming around this way of thinking. In the twelve-month period up to January 2021, sales of organic wine, beer and spirits rose by 32.9 per cent. This compares to the 12.5 per cent growth of overall organic supermarket sales across the same period. From these figures it seems logical to divine a rosy future for organic wine.
So when it comes to our Christmas wine shopping, perhaps it wouldn’t be too ironic to take a leaf out of Scrooge’s book …