Green bottles


"Organic" is one of those misery-inducing words, like "soya" or "vegan", that makes you want to go on hunger strike the minute you hear it. I'm sorry but I can't help it. I know it's terribly fashionable and very good for you, and I have nothing but respect for those who eke out an existence on a nutritious diet of lentils and lettuces (all right, that last bit is a lie - I despise them) but I would rather spend the rest of my life among cannibals than have to eat organically. At least there'd be some thrill attached to the daily contents of the cooking-pot.

But everyone's organic now, and I ought to shy away from my silly prejudices and try some healthier wine. And it shouldn't be as bad as it sounds. Nothing essential has been stripped from the process. It's not like alcohol-free beer, for goodness' sake. Organic wine is still fermented grape juice and still laden with alcohol (I have one here that boasts 13.5 per cent vol). But the difference between this and normal wine is twofold. First, the grapes are grown without the use of pesticides or other nasty chemicals. Instead of routinely spraying his crop - in this case vines - with something akin to poison, the farmer has to employ lots of labourers to tend to them by hand. Organic people, in their evangelical love-thy-parsnip-type way, try to say that this means more "care" has gone into the vines' growth. I'd say more work, which only makes them more expensive. Some organic wines are simply "made from organically grown grapes", which means that the goody-two-shoes process stops here.

Other wine-makers, however, continue the good work by eschewing the use of chemical additives and, notably, vastly reducing the quantity of the preservative sulphur dioxide used. Here there are some real benefits. Wines that go all the organic way can be a saviour for people like my father, an asthmatic who is allergic to sulphur dioxide and who turns into a living and only just breathing Darth Vader when he so much as takes a sip of ordinary wine.

But perhaps my biggest gripe with organic wine is the way it often promotes itself in such a depressing recycled fashion. No one has to drink wine - they do so for pleasure, and nothing is more pointless than opening a bottle of wine because it is organic rather than because it tastes good. Which is why I admire mail-order Vintage Roots (0800 980 4992), one of the biggest suppliers of organic wine, which, despite producing bottom-of-the-range and thoroughly dismal-sounding Organic Rouge and Organic Blanc (both at £3.99), has a list of about 200 wines, many of which are sold on taste as much as on organicness. And of this I heartily approve.

But my latest love and I have grabbed some organic alcohol from Sainsbury's and are not impressed. He says the Pinkus organic draft beer (£1.15 a bottle) tastes "just how I knew it would taste: depressing". And I find both red (cabernet sauvignon, £8.99) and white (chardonnay, £7.99) versions of the American Bonterra, which is only organically grown, weird to say the least. The white, particularly, has a powerful honey aftertaste. I wouldn't like to say whether it's the organic thing that ruins the wine, or the general wine-making incompetence of people too anxious about the spiritual well-being of the grape to give it a good thrashing when that's what is needed.

I wish we had shopped instead at Freshlands on Parkway in London's Camden Town, which stocks some of the Vintage Roots range. I have it on good, unbiased authority that Vintage's crisp Domaine de Richard Bergerac Sec 1997 (£3.99), peachy Soave Superiore, Fasoli Gino (£4.99) and gutsy red Mas Igneus Priorat 1997 (£8.65) are delicious little numbers. What's more, the lady at Vintage Roots claims that organic wines "don't give you a hangover". "Great," I say, "I will drink barrel-loads of it."

"Well," they say mawkishly, "it depends how much you drink." I can hear sandal-leather flapping in disapproval.

This article first appeared in the 26 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The great Balkan lie