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Andrew Chalk

Cava DO (Denominaciones de Origen), the governing body for Cava wine, the most famous sparkling wine of Spain, has announced that, effective from 2025, the production of Cavas de Guarda Superior, a category of the highest quality that includes Cavas Reserva (minimum 18 months of ageing), Gran Reserva (minimum 30 months of ageing) and Cavas de Paraje Calificado (from a specific area and with a minimum of 36 months of ageing), will be 100% organic.

The adjective ‘organic’ elicits such uncritical joy among some wine drinkers that they were already, like performing seals, clapping their flippers when this was announced. However, Cava producers may find that it ultimately counteracts their goal of higher quality wine and concern for the environment.

Consider the options for a winegrower on a spectrum from one end where there is unlimited permitted use of artificial pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers, to the other end where zero amounts of each of these is permitted. That point is called organic agriculture. While it is sometimes described as some type of ‘ideal’ agriculture it is in fact an edge case. It is not an environmental health. or grape quality maximizing, point born of rational experiment. It is an a priori dictated edge case, chosen without regard to the scientific evidence.

The results of such viticultural theory freelancing can be seen in Bordeaux. Widespread adoption of organic agriculture has left growers with only one solution to control downy mildew -- copper sulphate. Copper is a heavy metal that accumulates in the soil, rendering it lifeless. It concerns the European Union so much that the EU reduced the allowable limit in 2019. Hervé Jestin, head winemaker for Champagne Leclerc Briant told Drinks Business that he believed the newly changed limits would prompt a sharp decline in the number of wines produced to certified organic standards. He considers eliminating the use of copper as a fungicide as the biggest issue in the wine business over the next 10 years.

The problems with organic viticulture are not confined to northern climates. Cava’s Iberian neighbor Adrian Bridge, CEO of The Fladgate Partnership in Portugal, has analysed results from taking different agricultural measures on their properties and concluded that “Your carbon footprint is significantly higher with organics, and you don’t need to go organic to make great wine.” He continues “Currently, our carbon footprint for Taylors LBV is 2.8 kilos of carbon per litre, which is down 7% over the past two years, but, if I compare that figure to 2014, when it was 2.4 kilos, then you would think that we have got worse – we are producing more carbon dioxide”. Continuing, he explained, “But, no, we haven’t got worse, it was because in 2014 we had much higher yields, so my point is this: with organics, when you are likely to get 25% lower yields from your vineyards, you end up producing more Carbon Dioxide per litre – and you’ll be using more Copper Sulphate too, which builds up in the soil.”

He concludes “So it’s far better to be a sustainable farmer, and eliminate herbicides, and cut down on pesticides, but you don’t have to remove them altogether.”

Fellow Spaniard Miguel Torres has said that he will not be converting all his estate to organic because of the increased amount of energy required to manage vines in this manner.

More generally, dictating organic agriculture has the alarming prospect of ossifying Cava agriculture where it is today as other, non organic, regions improve. How will Cava producers compete in product markets against these ‘new agriculture’ wines? Mandatory organic is also a blow against innovation as all non-organic methods are banned. Indeed, if Hervé Jestin is right, the solution to the copper poisoning problem may be the artificial treatments currently in use by non-organic growers in Champagne. A development as embarrassing as so-called ‘natural wines’ having to accept the use of sulphur.

Cava did not have to mandate organics to burnish its reputation or establish its environmental creds. It could have let member producers decide for themselves. The organically developed mix of organic and non-organic results would have answered, far better than a quasi-legal dictat, the best way to farm grapes for Cava.



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