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FOOD & DRINK

Bio, natural, biodynamic: 5 things to know about organic French wine

Many of France's most famous products are made to fiercely guarded recipes that are hundreds of years old, but even the venerable wine sector is not resistant to change.

An international organic wine fair in Montpellier, south east France.
An international organic wine fair in Montpellier, south east France. Photo: Pascal Guyot/AFP

And the big change in French wine production in recent decades has been around chemicals. Increasing concern about heavy use of pesticides and weedkillers has led many vineyards to go organic, and a whole industry has sprung up around ‘natural’ wines.

READ ALSO Why more and more French wine-producers are going organic

Here’s what the various terms mean and how to enjoy organic French wines.

Vin bio

This is the official certification of an organic product. It doesn’t just apply to wine, you will find a bio section of fruit and veg in most French supermarkets as well as plenty of other products with a bio label. Most towns and communes regularly host a marché bio –  a market where all the products on sale are organic.

To be certified as bio, producers must follow a set of EU specifications around how products are grown, which limit the use of chemicals such as fertilisers, pesticides and weedkillers. The bio brand is a protected mark.

Vin méthode nature

While bio refers to how the grapes are grown, ‘natural wines’ refers to the process of turning the grapes into wine.  

This is more vague than organic as there isn’t an agreed set of standards for what constitutes a ‘natural wine’. Producers must label their bottles vin méthode nature (natural wine method) but you’ll also frequently see and hear vin naturel or vin nature to describe these products. In general, it means a wine that has no additives used during the wine-making process and no or few added sulphites, which can mean that natural wines taste different.

Not all organic wines are natural and not all natural wines are made with organic grapes, although the two tend to go together.

Vin biodynamique

Growers who embrace the biodynamic method go a step further and as well as cutting out chemicals they also plant and harvest their crop according to the lunar calendar.

Biodynamic isn’t a protected mark and a biodynamic wine isn’t necessarily organic or natural, but vine growers who go to the trouble of following the lunar calendar are generally pretty committed to producing their product in a more natural way. This method is followed by a relatively small number of growers and has sometimes been seen as something of a joke – as the below comedy sketch shows – but it’s growing in popularity as more producers show that it can be commercially successful.

Taste

Obviously lots of things affect the taste of a wine, from the grape and the production method to the soil it is grown in and the weather – which is why wines have ‘good’ and ‘bad’ years.

So it’s not easy to say whether switching from chemical fertiliser to natural growing methods alter the taste of a particular wine. As a general rule of thumb, experts say that bio wines taste pretty much the same as non-organic ones but natural wines can taste different because of the lighter use of sulphites in the production process.

One difference you will certainly notice is the price, as organic and natural wines tend to be more expensive. Some of this reflects the increased production costs of natural methods, but ‘natural’ wines are getting quite trendy, which always knocks up the price of a product.

Hangovers

So is it really true that drinking more ‘natural’ wines helps to avoid a hangover? Sadly not. While wines lighter in sulphites may help some people to avoid headaches, the sad truth is that drinking too much of any type of alcohol leads to a hangover. 

But that’s no reason not to enjoy France’s most famous product in moderation, perhaps with a really good cheeseboard.

READ ALSO Your guide to French cheeseboard etiquette

Member comments

  1. One thing you will notice in bio wines is they don’t keep. Without sulphites the wine will rapidly oxidise, this effect is noticeable particularly in white and sparkling wines where the colour and taste will degrade even a few minutes after opening a bottle.

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FOOD & DRINK

What does the AOP/AOC label on French food and wine mean – and are these products better?

If you're shopping in France it's highly likely that you will see food and drinks that proudly declare their AOP or AOC status - but are these products actually better than the rest?

What does the AOP/AOC label on French food and wine mean - and are these products better?

The French take their food very seriously – a country has to when its gastronomy and baguettes are both listed on Unesco’s intangible cultural heritage lists.

Yes, France is a fast food fountain with an insatiable appetite for burgers and pizza – but it is also justifiably proud of its own traditional cuisine, from boeuf bourguignon to cassoulet – and has put a legal premium on restaurants serving ‘homemade’ food.

That pride extends to food production, with farmers and artisan manufacturers fearlessly defending their techniques – taking their disputes to court in many cases.

READ ALSO French court rules on the appearance of striped cheese

The French developed a labelling system that meant consumers could buy certain agricultural products – from vegetables to cheeses and wines – safe in the knowledge that its production and processing have been carried out in a particular geographical area (the terroir) and using recognised and traditional know-how.

This is the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC).

The designation can indicate a particular geographical area, or that the producer has followed the traditional technique or both.

Under French law, it is illegal to manufacture and sell a product under one of the AOC-controlled indications if it does not comply with the criteria of that AOC. In order to make them recognisable, all AOC products carry a seal, with a number as well as the name of the certifying body. The colour of the seal indicates the product classification: green for field products and red for dairy products.

The origins of AOC labelling date to 1411, when the production of blue Roquefort cheese was regulated by parliamentary decree. 

On August 1st, 1905, AOC rules were introduced for wine – and, in 1919, the Law for the Protection of the Place of Origin was passed which specified the region, right down in some cases to the commune in which a given product had to be manufactured to bear its name. 

As well as wines and cheeses, AOC status has been awarded to Poulet de Bresse, and salt marsh lamb raised in the Baie de Somme; Haute-Provence Lavender Essential Oil; lentils from Le Puy-en-Velay; Corsican honey; butter from Charente, Charente-Maritime, Vienne, Deux-Sèvres and Vendée; and certain spirits.

And these classifications are taken seriously – during the summer of 2022 several cheese producers had to temporarily stop using their AOC/AOP labels because the classification specified that the cheese was made with milk from grass-fed cows and their cows were being fed on hay because of the drought.

The European Union operates a similar geographical protection system that recognises products that are the “result of a unique combination of human and environmental factors that are characteristic of a given territory”.

This is the more common Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP).

The difference? Scale. The two labels are fundamentally the same. Just the former is French and older, while the latter European. 

Most products with AOC designation also have AOP protection under EU law, so they use AOP. However, certain wines with AOP status can still use the French AOC designation, and many use both.

So are AOP/AOC products better than non-AOP ones?

Neither of these labels are a quality mark, they refer only to how and where the product is made or grown, so there is nothing intrinsically better about an AOC/AOP cheese, lentil or wine.

However, the marks tend to go to the smaller, artisan producers who take great pride in their products, so in reality many of the AOC/AOP products are the better ones.

Producers of Camembert have fought a decade-long battle over labelling that pitted the AOP camembert producers (whose product must be made with unpasturised milk, at least 50 percent of which is produced by cows that have been grazing on Normandy grass) against the big factory producers who have no such constraints. 

While both are camembert, the AOP producers will tell you (at some length, if you let them) that theirs is an infinitely superior product. 

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