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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

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

One thing everyone can agree on is that France has a lot of cheese - but exactly how many French fromages exist?

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

Question: I often see a quote from Charles de Gaulle talking about ‘246 different types of cheese’, but other articles say there are 600 or even 1,000 different types of cheese and some people say there are just eight types – how many different cheeses are there in France?

A great question on a subject dear to French hearts – cheese.

But it’s one that doesn’t have a simple answer.

Charles de Gaulle did indeed famously say “How can anyone govern a country with 246 different types of cheese”, but even in 1962 when he uttered the exasperated phrase, it was probably an under-estimate.

READ ALSO 7 tips for buying cheese in France

The issue is how you define ‘different’ types of cheese, and unsurprisingly France has a complicated system for designating cheeses.

Let’s start with the eight – there are indeed eight cheese ‘families’ and all of France’s many cheeses can be categorised as one of;

  • Fresh cheese, such as cottage cheese or the soft white fromage blanc
  • Soft ripened cheese, such as Camembert or Brie
  • Soft ripened cheese with a washed rind, such as l’Epoisses or Pont l’Eveque
  • Unpasturised hard cheese such as Reblochon or saint Nectaire
  • Pasturised hard cheese such as Emmental or Comté
  • Blue cheese such as Roquefort 
  • Goat’s cheese
  • Melted or mixed cheese such as Cancaillot

But there are lots of different types of, for example, goat’s cheese.

And here’s where it gets complicated, for two reasons.

The first is that new varieties of cheese are constantly being invented by enterprising cheesemakers (including some which come about by accident, such as le confiné which was created in 2020).

The second is about labelling, geography and protected status.

France operates a system known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC or its European equivalent AOP) to designate food products that can only be made in a certain area.

As cheese is an artisan product, quite a lot of different cheese are covered by this – for example a blue sheep’s milk cheese is only Roquefort if it’s been aged in the caves in the village of Roquefort.

There are 63 listed AOC cheeses in France, but many more varieties that don’t have this protected status.

These include generic cheese types such as BabyBel and other cheeses that are foreign in origin but made in France (such as Emmental).

But sometimes there are both AOC and non-AOC versions of a single cheese – a good example of this is Camembert.

AOC Camembert must be made in Normandy by farmers who have to abide by strict rules covering location, milk type and even what their cows eat.

Factory-produced Camembert, however, doesn’t stick to these rules and therefore doesn’t have the AOC label. Is it therefore the same cheese? They’re both called Camembert but the artisan producers of Normandy will tell you – at some length if you let them – that their product is a totally different thing to the mass-produced offering.

There are also examples of local cheeses that are made to essentially the same recipe but have different names depending on where they are produced – sometimes even being on opposite sides of the same Alpine valley is enough to make it two nominally different cheeses.

All of which is to say that guessing is difficult!

Most estimates range from between 600 to 1,600, with cheese experts generally saying there are about 1,000 different varieties. 

So bonne dégustation!

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