Organic wine is a rapidly growing market, but publicans have so far been reluctant to take advantage of consumer demand. Ben McFarland reports
With consumer demand for organic food and drink continuing to soar, the organic sector is one that publicans would do well to tap into.
Latest statistics reveal that the annual spend on organic produce to April this year was a staggering £419m, up 54 per cent on last year. The total organic market is now estimated to be worth in excess of £800m, with an increase of 278 per cent since 1996.
Furthermore, it is estimated that if current annual growth rates are maintained the organic market will reach £1bn by 2001.
But while the supermarkets are taking full advantage of this organic boom, by allocating an increasing amount of shelf space to naturally grown products and charging premium prices to boot, a labyrinth of red tape has, once again, prevented the pub trade getting in on the act.
To be able to market organic produce legally, pubs have to jump through more hoops than a performing dolphin at Seaworld. As the law stands, unless pubs have been certified by a recognised body they cannot legally promote dishes as being of "organic" origin. And getting certified is by no means an easy task. Publicans face a rigorous process that involves a series of inspections before the outlet can be officially certified and pubs that continue to use the word "organic" on menus are liable to prosecution.
Singhboulton, a pioneering female partnership who run two wholly organic pubs in London, have to deal with 60 suppliers and often have to change the food menu twice a day as it's impossible to predict what organic food will be available at any one time.
Understandably, these bureaucratic and logistic hassles overshadow the economic benefits and offer little incentive for publicans to take the "organic" plunge.
However, pubs who are still keen to do their bit for the environment and provide customers with an organic offering but are unprepared to endure the rigmarole of complete organic certification could do worse than turn to organic wines.
"It's a much easier way of 'going organic,'" said Lance Pigott, director of Vintage Roots, suppliers of more than 350 organic wines. "Completely organic pubs have to make sure everything is entirely organic from the kitchen to the bar and for some it's too much.
"But with wine it's all done for you and they're all certified so the supplier doesn't have to be certified and neither does the publican," added Lance.
Each wine producing country has its own organic certification body and it is recognised that some, such as Ecocert in France and the AAIB in Italy, are better than others but all wines are verified by a third party in the form of EU regulations.
Although the criteria differs from country to country, the basic pre-requisite for organic wine is that it must be produced without the use of chemical fertilisers or pesticides that pollute water, kill wildlife and, given time, ruin the soil.
However, according to Simon Loftus, chairman and chief wine buyer for Suffolk-based brewer Adnams, if a wine isn't labelled organic it doesn't necessarily mean that it doesn't meet certification criteria.
"Quite a lot of truly great wine producers that make completely organic wines don't want to join these various organisations as some of them have members who are very keen on organic wines but are dreadful wine makers! So, understandably, they don't want to be tarred with the same brush."
As it stands, organic wine only accounts for one per cent of the entire wine market but the range and quality of wines is improving all the time.
Layla Aldridge, an organic wine consultant who works with Singhboulton (when she's not earning a living as a trapeze artist), said: "The market is still growing and the choice from suppliers is still relatively small but it's a lot better than it used to be. But, if you want to source an eclectic list then you really have to do some research.
"Organic wines used to be a bit one dimensional but just like conventional wines the quality has improved with the introduction of new world techniques and acidity levels are a lot lower now," she said.
Recently, Cuvee Gabriel 2000, a Vin de Pays D'Oc Merlot made from certified organic grapes, from the Vintage Roots portfolio won the "great value red wine of the year" award at the International Wine Challenge, beating off more than 9,000 wines both organic and non-organic.
"Organic vineyards can now compete with non-organic wine, that doesn't mean all organic wines are good, but like conventional wines they vary in quality. More vineyards and brewers are converting to organic production methods. Quality is improving, so the standard is now consistently high," said Lance.
Simon agreed and even suggested that in some cases when producers switch to making organic wines, the taste is noticeably enhanced. "In some vineyards that have switched to organic we have noticed a very significant flavour difference with something more rich and intense.
"For example in Burgundy there was a vineyard that had been turned into a desert due to overuse of agro-chemicals, but when it went organic the soil began to gain some of its natural richness and subsequently, the wines have improved as a result."
Despite these improvements in both quality and variety, which has seen substantial growth of organic wines in the off-trade, publicans have remained slow in their take-up.
Lance admitted that compared with supermarkets and off-licences, the pub trade is an extremely difficult market to get into. "Pubs are notoriously conservative when choosing wine and most publicans are very sceptical and aren't prepared to go down the organic track for some reason.
"With a huge choice, good range and considerable profitability, I find it bizarre that people are reluctant to give the customer more choice," said Lance.
The Vintage Roots wine range varies in price from £3.80 to £38 and Lance claims that, unlike a few years ago, it is perfectly possible to get a good quality wine for under a fiver. A fact that will no doubt reassure those publicans that have seen price as a reason to shy away from going organic.
He added: "You don't have to go crazy! It's easy to tap into this demand by just adding an extra couple of wines to the list and give the consumer the opportunity to support a more environmentally responsible way of farming."
Of all the wines available in the Adnams estate approximately half are organic and to highlight this fact, the brewer decided to flag them up on the wine list with a green leaf symbol.
"We're very careful to explain exactly what we mean by the symbol," said Simon. "Our customers seem to be quite keen. What they're looking for most of all is good wine so the fact that it's organic is secondary but nevertheless people still do genuinely care about these things."
From an ecological standpoint, the thorny issue of what customers think about organic wine being transported half-way across the world in fuel-guzzling ships or fume-omitting articulated lorries is not an easy one to resolve.
A compromise can be made by choosing organic wine from nearby France, Spain and Italy, three well-respected organic producing countries, or if you're really feeling green there are a number of English organic wine producers closer to home.
Roy Cook, proprietor of Seddlescobe Organic Vineyard, near Rushworthy county, has been producing an organic red, white and sparkling wine since 1979 and has seen a huge increase in demand over the last few years.
He said: "Being 'local' as well as being organic is a really unique selling point and people like the idea of supporting your local producers.
"But it's no use not exploiting this by sticking the wines at the back of the wine l