subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now
Sustainability comes with its own rewards. Picture: 123RF
Sustainability comes with its own rewards. Picture: 123RF

There was a time — not so long ago — when the idea of organically produced food and drink was definitely edgy, alongside Swazi print outfits, whole grain bread and home produce markets. It’s pretty much mainstream now, as a new generation of consumers who are anti big pharma, more considerate about the planet and opposed to globalised uniformity influence purchasing patterns.

But this is not the whole picture: the international fine wine scene bought into organic viticulture long before the idea of chemical-free farming had achieved traction in general agriculture. Here it was the early embracers whose influence counted. If they had been less mainstream this might have taken longer. But as it was, once a few of the really big names in Burgundy formally adopted organics (and in some cases the altogether more extreme biodynamics), a real momentum ensued.

Today many of the major high-end producers in Europe are managing their vineyards in a way largely compliant with organic protocols. For some it is a transitional process, the intention being to obtain certification in the near future. While their customers are not necessarily expecting to find a Demeter organic certification seal on a bottle of Lafite or Latour, they are increasingly conscious of the role played by organic practices in driving the kind of quality that is essential if they are to compete with their peers.

The risks organic producers take during this transition are significant. As the vineyards give up their dependency on chemical fixes they are at their most vulnerable. Where producers apply the additional mindshift that leads to biodynamics — the far more holistic idea that the entire ecosystem, not simply the vineyards, must be self-sustaining, regenerative and not simply pharma-free — the downside can be devastating.

In 2016 Chateau Palmer, which had moved through all the stages of the transition and was a fully functioning biodynamic property, lost around 25% of its crop to downy mildew. The devastation throughout Bordeaux in 2023 will be at least as great, though the disease pressure has been such that even those producers still dependent on chemical fungicides may be at least as badly off: their vines have absolutely no resilience, so the slightest lapse in the spraying routine has proved catastrophic.

If warm, dry places are in principle the easiest locations to transition from pharma-driven viticulture, then the northern continental appellations such as Champagne would appear to be no-go zones. Nevertheless, it is here that there seem to be the beginnings of a groundswell towards sustainable vineyard management.

The leading organic producer in the region is Louis Roederer, with more than 100ha (in other words 50% plus) of the company’s vineyards certified. At the end of 2022, this represented about 12% of all the certified organic vineyards in the region. You don’t need matric maths to work out that in the whole of Champagne there are less than 1,000ha of organic vines — around 2.5% of the total.

It is not entirely surprising that Champagne Telmont, the latest producer trying to penetrate SA’s booming fizz market, is using sustainability (and transparency) as part of its marketing message. At this stage most of its own vineyards are organic; those it manages are largely in transition. By 2031 it expects to be entirely organic.

There is also no doubt about the commitment to transparency: one glimpse at the labels makes this clear. Every possible (sometimes quite geeky) piece of information is shared, from the percentage of each harvest in the multivintage brut reserve, to the component varieties, the number of bottles produced and the sugar dosage. There is an equally important commitment to reducing carbon emissions, with a pioneering lightweight bottle for the more recent vintages.

The quality is obviously good, with the 2016 rosé pretty and supple and the brut reserve savoury and soft. The price point suggests that Champagne Telmont is not expecting to displace any of the big-volume brands. Whether it can hook enough buyers willing to spend upwards of R1,200 remains to be seen.

subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now

Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.