What's the latest word in healthy drinking? Here's a clue - it's not made from rhubarb, it doesn't taste of goat's droppings, and its creators are not hairy hippies living in teepees. It is organic wine, which has swung back into fashion for what producers say is its second coming. This time, with a mainstream following and new respectability, it could be here to stay.
Jem Gardener, of wine merchant Vinceremos Wines, which specialises in organic wine, outlines the two important stages in the growth of this sector. "There was a big boom in the late 1980s," he remembers, "and a sizeable group of consumers and restaurants started to show an interest. Then recession hit, and consumers lost some interest while smaller organic producers really suffered. It all went a bit quiet until about 1995."
Since then, Gardener reports a steady, "bordering on rapid", increase in sales of organic wines. "It's partly because the economy has picked up, but also because the organic movement has become so much more acceptable. Before, it was still considered cranky. But anyone who hasn't learnt something about organic produce by the late 1990s must have been living on another planet."
And Gardener is supplying an increasing number of restaurants with organic wine. "It has always been the case that most of them are vegetarian restaurants, but now we are seeing quite a few that are not. Instead, they take a pride in using organic foods and publicising the fact on the menu. It makes sense to continue the theme through on to the wine list."
So what exactly makes a wine organic? A recent visit to the beautifully maintained, large-scale organic vineyards at Fetzer in Mendocino County, California, revealed that it is quite simple. "Organic wine is made from grapes that have been grown without the use of herbicides, pesticides or fungicides," says Fetzer wine-maker Phil Hurst, standing in vineyards where flowers grow freely between the rows of vines, and birds fly down to pick insects off the ground.
Hurst calls these chemicals the three "cide sisters", and explains that it takes several years after the final spray for a vineyard to be legally registered organic.
And that, really, is all there is to it - no funny ingredients, no changes to the basic viticultural process, no pagan rituals. The grapes are the same - Chardonnay, Cabernet and Viognier in this case.
But you have to be able to create the right conditions for grapes to grow without the aid of chemicals. "We are relatively lucky in this corner of California," says Hurst. "We have very dry summers so there is little rot and fungus, and the earth is naturally well-composed." Fetzer's organic wine range is called Bonterra, meaning good earth.
But grape-growers have to understand their plot of land and its idiosyncrasies to turn organic, and they have to be prepared for emergencies. Most fight nature with nature. If a destructive insect invades the vineyards, the organic way of dealing with it is to introduce a natural predator. Ladybirds are popular among organic growers, for example, and are shipped in by the crate-load to deal with an aphid attack.
strong forces of nature
Even so, the forces of nature sometimes win. There are plenty of stories of organic wine-makers who have had to turn to sprays in an emergency and have been forced to remove the words "organic" from the label for several vintages until the natural equilibrium was restored.
And Tom Piper, Fetzer's vineyard manager, says many growers are put off converting their vineyards to organic methods because of the initial high cost. "Herbicides are undeniably cheaper to use for clearing weeds than human labour, but that should only be hard at the beginning. Once you've gained control of the vineyards, you don't need to work so hard at them, and I believe our organic vines are healthier, with stronger immune systems and a longer life ahead of them, than ordinary vines. It all evens out in the end."
That's a grape-grower's viewpoint. But what about the consumer? Why should a customer plump for the wine that says "organic" on the restaurant list?
It's partly because many consumers now support the idea of sustaining a natural environment. Anyone who has seen the stunning, flower-strewn vineyards in Mendocino would approve of the decisions being made there simply from an aesthetic point of view.
Neil Palmer, of Vintage Roots, another UK organic wine specialist, thinks that consumers have become more concerned about what goes into a bottle of wine since two other food issues raised their ugly heads: BSE, and pesticides used in vegetable and fruit farming.
"There's been a lot more publicity about what we eat and drink and whether or not it is harmful," he says. "It's not black and white - I'm not saying that non-organic wine is bad for you, but people would rather know for a fact that chemicals have not been used in the production of their wine." Endorsement on a label is usually by regulatory organic body, the Soil Association.
Although levels are within legal limits, traces of the "cide sisters" have been found in non-organic wine. Organic wine should contain none. Sulphur can still be part of the production of organic wine, but it is used less heavily (usually about half the normal level). "As a result," says Palmer, "some of our customers who are allergic to ordinary wine tell us they don't suffer the same reactions if they drink organic stuff."
The catch comes in the form of a higher price tag. "Organic wine tends to cost around 5-10% more than non-organic wine," admits Gardener. The reason is that most organic producers are (unlike Fetzer, which is owned by Brown-Forman) small, family-run businesses and the organic process simply costs them more. "You have to make wine on an industrial level to achieve economies of scale," says Palmer.
Most organic wines come from France, although no one seems to know quite why. Southern France, and Languedoc-Roussillon in particular, has a relatively high proportion of organic vineyards, although Palmer says there are now organic wines coming to the UK from Italy, Spain, Greece, Australia, New Zealand and Argentina, as well as France and California. The New World examples tend to be more expensive but better than most, particularly the Fetzer Bonterra range, Penfolds' organic red and white (Southcorp), and those from Millton Vineyards in Gisborne, New Zealand.
Do they taste different from non-organic wines? No. As a group of wines, they taste no better or worse than their counterparts at the same prices. But, argue converts, what is a few pence extra in exchange for a wine that has been made from healthy, chemical-free grapes, growing in a natural environment where birds, bugs and flowers flourish?
But, despite the new wave of popularity for all things organic, many are still suspicious of organic wine. And people are more wary of trying a new type of wine in a restaurant than they are at home. Despite the current wave of interest, keen restaurateurs may find they are having to justify the inclusion of organic wines with a lot of educational notes on the back of their wine lists. n