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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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CULTURE

Le goûter: The importance of the afternoon snack in France

The French have developed an entire cultural tradition around the idea of an afternoon snack. It's called "Le goûter" and here's what you need to know about it.

Le goûter: The importance of the afternoon snack in France

With all those patisseries and viennoiseries tempting the tastebuds in high street boulangerie after boulangerie, there can be little wonder that France  – which takes food very seriously – has also invented the correct time to eat them.

Let us introduce you to the cultural tradition of le goûter – the noun of the verb “to taste”, and a cultural tradition in France dating back into the 19th century, perhaps even as far back as the Renaissance … allowing for the fact that people have snacked for centuries, whether or not it had a formal name. 

It refers to a very particular snack time, usually at around 4pm daily. This is the good news.

The bad news is that, officially, le goûter is reserved for children. This is why many schools, nurseries and holiday activity centres offer it and offices don’t. The idea is that, because the family evening meal is eaten relatively late, this mid-afternoon snack will keep les enfants from launching fridge raids, or bombarding their parents with shouts of, “j’ai faim!”.

Most adults, with their grown-up iron will-power, are expected to be able to resist temptation in the face of all that pastry, and live on their three set meals per day. Le grignotage – snacking between meals – is frowned on if you’re much older than your washing machine.

But, whisper it quietly, but just about everyone snacks (grignoter), anyway – a baguette that doesn’t have one end nibbled off in the time it takes to travel from boulanger to table isn’t a proper baguette. Besides, why should your children enjoy all the treats? 

We’re not saying ignore the nutritionists, but if you lead an active, reasonably healthy lifestyle, a bite to eat in the middle of the afternoon isn’t going to do any harm. So, if you want to join them, feel free.

What do you give for goûter 

It’s a relatively light snack – we’re not talking afternoon tea here. Think a couple of biscuits, a piece of cake, a pain au chocolat (or chocolatine, for right-thinking people in southwest France), piece of fruit, pain au lait, a croissant, yoghurt, compote, or a slice of bread slathered in Nutella.

Things might get a little more formal if friends and their children are round at the goûter hour – a pre-visit trip to the patisserie may be a good idea if you want to avoid scratching madly through the cupboards and don’t have time to create something tasty and homemade.

Not to be confused with

Une collation – adult snacking becomes socially acceptable when it’s not a snack but part of une collation served, for example, at the end of an event, or at a gathering of some kind. Expect, perhaps, a few small sandwiches with the crusts cut off, a few small pastries, coffee and water.

L’apéro – pre-dinner snacks, often featuring savoury bites such as charcuterie, olives, crisps and a few drinks, including alcoholic ones, as a warm up to the main meal event, or as part of an early evening gathering before people head off to a restaurant or home for their evening meal.

Un en-cas – this is the great adult snacking get-out. Although, in general, snacking for grown-ups is considered bad form, sometimes it has to be done. This is it. Call it un en-cas, pretend you’re too hungry to wait for the next meal, and you’ll probably get away with it.

Le goûter in action

Pour le goûter aujourd’hui, on a eu un gâteau – For snack today, we had some cake.

Veuillez fournir un goûter à votre enfant – Please provide an afternoon snack for your child.

J’ai faim ! Je peux avoir un goûter ? – I’m hungry! Can I have a snack?

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