Organic wine: On the side of Nature

If Covid-19 has taught us anything about how Brits respond to a crisis it’s this: when the proverbial hits the fan, we reach for the wine.

Off-trade wine sales surged by 31.1% during the first six months of the pandemic, putting an extra £815 million through the tills (Kantar, 24 weeks to September 6).

Of course, this was partly down to the March closure of Britain’s pubs and restaurants and diners’ reticence to return once they reopened in July. But dig deeper into the numbers and you’ll find some encouraging signs. Sales of pricier organic wine are booming, according to figures for the full year.

Waitrose has realised organic wine sales growth of 56%, Aldi is up 45% and Sainsbury’s 41%. What’s more, Kantar says the big supermarkets – bar Asda, which has the smallest share of the organic sector out of its peers – have seen their share of sales fall, indicating that range extensions could drive stronger growth for them.

So why are drinkers buying more organic wine to sup at home? Is this a sign that shoppers are becoming more ecologically and ethically minded when it comes to their drinking choices? Or is it just a Covid-related blip that will be reversed by the recession we’re heading ever deeper into?

Specialists, independents and importers also report booming sales of organic wine. “Our leading organic wine brand, Purato, has enjoyed year-to-date sales growth of nearly 50%,” says Kim Wilson, managing director of North South Wines, which was set up in 2014 to sell sustainably produced wines from family wineries around the world.

“All retailers are investing in organic and have grown their ranges, and their sales. Waitrose has probably been the most outspoken about this and has actively sourced new organic SKUs,” says Wilson.

“We’re happy to see Majestic taking big steps to widen its organic portfolio after being relatively cautious previously. We also trade with organic specialists such as Abel & Cole, which has grown enormously this year and reached new customers.”

So, the growth is partly down to retailers broadening their ranges. It can also be attributed to increasingly conscientious consumers who view the environmental impact of their food and drink choices as being just as important as taste.

“Consumers are buying into an ideal, rather than into a different quality of wine,” says Katie Jones, co-founder of Domaine Jones, an organic winery in the Languedoc.

That said, Jones suggests that farming organically, which she says adds about 30% to the cost of production, does bring a certain je ne sais quoi to the finished product. “In terms of quality we find that there is a better balance in the wines, which comes from a better balance in the soils and in the plant,” she says.

And Juan Pablo Murgia, chief winemaker for Bodega Argento, also believes a focus on healthy soils, with no chemicals or pesticides, leads to better quality wines.

He says: “Organic winemaking with less intervention produces more vibrant wines with greater fruit expression, personality and typicity.

Our focus was on getting the absolute best from our vineyards – organic certification followed naturally as a result of our work, but it was not our prime objective.

“Of course, we face challenges like any other vineyards, but I strongly believe our vines are better equipped to deal with problems such as pests or droughts than most.”

The Argentinian producer’s new organic, Fairtrade, off-trade label, Artesano de Argento, launched in January.

RICHER BIODIVERSITY

Jones agrees the natural approach leads to wines which are “uplifted and enhanced”.

She says: “The vineyards too are much richer in biodiversity – the wildflowers and wild herbs are abundant, and the olive and almond trees bear more plentiful fruit than before. We will continue to work organically even if customers stop promoting organic wines.”

There doesn’t seem to be much chance of that.

“Demand for clean organic wines continues to grow,” says Richard Ellison, founder of Wanderlust Wine, which imports lesser-known wines from around the world.

“The growing importance of provenance is not a trend that is going away.”

Wanderlust’s performance bears this out, with its wine club membership having doubled in the past year and Ellison doubling the range to 360 wines to cope with demand. But that wasn’t without its challenges. “Supplies ran out during Covid, with supply chains from short-haul Europe affected by a seven to 10-day delay, doubling lead times,” says Ellison.

“South Africa closed its exports. And if you didn’t have enough New World stock you had to wait for two to three months. During Covid the demand spike was ridiculous, with a 300% to 500% increase versus the same months in 2019. Very healthy demand continued into the summer, with many on and off-trade venues closed.”

Covid has, of course, driven growth in most types of wine in the off-trade. But Stefano Girelli president of Italian producer The Wine People, says the pandemic has led to far stronger demand for organic.

“We’ve seen more interest in organic wines – it seems clear that Covid has spiked demand for environmentally-friendly products,” he says. This pandemic has shown us how weak we all are. Taking better care of our planet is step one of consumers’ response to this.

Producing organically is more expensive but by the time the wines reach the shelf there’s only a minor difference of maybe 10-12%. From what we’ve seen, consumers are starting to appreciate the quality of organic.”

Calum Chance, buyer for Cheltenham’s Tivoli Wines, has also observed the growing environmental conscientiousness of drinkers.

“I’d say it’s broadening out from organic wine to minimal intervention and biodynamic wines too. It stands to reason that in the middle of a health crisis people are looking for wines that are healthier for the planet,” he says.

But the proliferation of different environmental accolades and claims presents challenges for retailers when it comes to categorising their offerings and making it easier for shoppers to find what they are looking for. “We’ve introduced different colour tags to identify vegan, organic, minimal intervention wines and so on,” says Chance.

“We’re trying to make it easier for people who come into the store looking for organic or biodynamic wines or whatever.

“We’ve also replaced the previous search function on the website and invested in a new search tool that ranks the different attributes of the wines and makes it far easier to find what you’re looking for.”

Buyers, meanwhile, are still on the hunt around the world for undiscovered gems to feed the UK’s growing thirst for sustainable wines. Chance tips the Loire’s Nicolas Reau Pompois as a “minimum intervention Cabernet Franc with an amazing rockiness, blackcurrant and dark fruit depth and acidity and surprising freshness”.

Wilson at North South Wines adds: “In the past 12 months we’ve added several new organic products and ranges to our portfolio, including a sustainable Cava from Vallformosa, and several producers we work with have vineyards in conversion, such as our shareholder De Bortoli and 100% wind turbine powered Scheid Family Wines from California.

“We’re confident that the organic category is very much here to stay. Sustainability and wellness are high on people’s agendas. As a result of Covid, more people have chosen to support local and are more conscious about tracing the route from grape to glass, which will continue to drive demand for organic wine.”

We’ll drink to that.

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