Organic wine is gaining popularity, but not necessarily for its taste. Instead, the growth can be attributed to pricing and a commitment to pesticide-free farming.
That is the opinion of French wine dealer Laurent Robert whose business ethos leans towards boutique-styled winemakers, and vineyards that are environmentally-friendly.
“You want to know the difference? Maybe ask yourself the next morning,” he laughs, implying good news for people who suffer from morning-after hangovers.
Jokes aside, Laurent believes that having less synthetic materials in winemaking is not only good for health but is also becoming a popular trend as more consumers get increasingly health-conscious, demanding organic food or ingredients sourced from sustainable practices.
And he’s not wrong about the growing demand.
Research by IWSR commissioned by Millésime Bio, a trade show devoted to organic wine, and its organiser SudVinBio, point to a surge in organic wine consumption in just under three years. The data notes that by 2023, consumption of organic wine is expected to rise to one billion bottles, up by more than half since 2013. France is one of the top producers and contribute to the 3.3 billion euros organic wine market and is also third in the world in organic wine production – right behind Spain and Italy.
From Laurent’s experience, he says another reason for an increased preference of organic wines is affordability. “There’s hardly any price difference between a non-organic wine and organic wine,” he says.
He experiences this from running his wine import business in Kuala Lumpur, Delia Wines which is geared towards promoting smaller vineyards or lesser-known producers. Since starting his business five years ago, he has been slowly increasing the imports from French organic vineyards.
Today, his organic wine range makes up more than 50% of the brands brought in by the business. Prices of these bottles of wines include duties, and are within the RM100 to RM300 range, depending on the vintage.
He says cultivating organic grapes is relatively simple: use organic grapes and yeast, and avoid all herbicides and pesticides while working with nature to manage weeds or boost diversity.
The methods may be labour intensive, but proves to be worth it for those keen on investing in organic winemaking.
He also adds that winemakers who are moving towards producing organic wines must have patience. The land must be managed without use of any artificial chemicals for three years, in order to gain an EU stamp of approval. On top of that, vineyards will have to go through strict audits to maintain their labels.
The EU prohibits the use of sorbic acid and desulphurisation. If sulphites are used, its content level must be lower in an organic wine compared to its conventional equivalent. Sulphites are used in winemaking as a preservative to maintain the wine’s freshness and helps prevent oxidisation.
Laurent finds that wine from a less humid or a drier and cooler environment tends to have less need (or none at all) for sulphites compared to wine made from grapes grown in a wetter climate. He finds that grapes harvested from a more humid environment will need the compound to prevent fungi growth in the wine.
He also says winemakers are also dabbling with biodynamic viticulture. Loosely defined, biodynamic methods involve rehabilitating and nourishing land based on a lunar timetable by non-mechanised approaches.
But at the moment, the 51-year-old remains passionate about sustainability and continues supporting organic producers as well as viticultural schools such as the one that produces Domaine des Pontecys.
“At this school, the students also learn how to rear goats to produce goat’s cheese. They use manure from the animals and turn it into a natural fertiliser for the grapevines, keeping waste to a minimum in a closed-loop system.”
Laurent’s love for winemaking stems from a long history of managing grape farms. He and his brother inherited the Robert Estate managed by his great grandparents, Jules Robert and Juliette Bauchet.
After World War 2, Jules’s son, Maurice (Laurent’s grandfather) set up a co-operative in their native village of Cui in Champagne to provide a facility for all grape farmers to process their harvest. The co-operative continued to be run by the Roberts family through Laurent’s father, Daniel.
Fast forward to today, Laurent says that of the 1.16 ha land he owns, some 50% to 60% of the harvest is sold to other wine producers, while the remaining crop is developed into his own boutique-styled champagne under the Laurent Robert brand.
On a good year, the land can produce 12,000 kg of grapes, amounting to around 20,000 bottles of champagne.
This year he is unveiling a brand dedicated to his great grandmother with the label Juliette Robert. Prices of his champagnes are about RM200 per bottle, reasonable for champagne lovers, he adds.
Even though the Robert estate is not certified organic at the moment, he explains that their farming methods abide by culture raisonnée or agriculture raisonnée (sustainable agriculture) methods.
This term has been used in the early 2000s in a French decree, to qualify certain farms as sustainable farming.
Based on the French agricultural system, this approach aims at optimising yield by controlling the quantities of inputs, and particularly the use of chemical substances to minimise the impact on the environment.
Laurent saw the opportunity to import organic wines into this region as a new income stream, after moving to Malaysia from South Korea in the mid-1990s to work in the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning sector.
Although his wine business has not begun to profit yet, he’s passionate about wines and believes more people will fall in love with organic wines.
Since Delia Wines’ inception, revenue has grown by 50% to 70%, a figure that sounds encouraging but Laurent maintains that was easy as the company started from “zero.” His next steps are to further educate wine lovers through a wine bar – to offer clients a chance to taste organic wines and champagnes.
In any case, he wants to carry on his first love – farming – which is a long-time Robert family tradition that he does not wish will end with him.
The fourth-generation Robert says, “When you grow up in this environment, you have no choice, your father tells you to go to the farm, you listen to him. But farming has been in our blood, and I like it. I hope for my son to continue this.”