How unhealthy is copper actually in your natural wine?

When it comes to organic wine, things are not always as clean as they seem at first glance. (This is one of the reasons we’ve rounded up our 103 most popular organic and biodynamic wines for you.) Organic farming certainly forces winemakers to remove dangerous synthetic chemicals from their production, but similar to massive monoculture organic foods for food, when it does.When it comes to wine, a chemical product can be replaced with a more natural substance that can also be harmful.

In winemaking, copper is the main culprit. Copper sulfate is used as a fungicide and is pretty much the only recourse for organic winemakers looking to get rid of mold and mildew: a death sentence for grapevines.

“You kind of have no choice,” says Caroline Conner, current Master of Wine student and experienced wine teacher at Wine Dine Caroline. “When you’re dealing with powdery mildew and rot, copper is one of the few things organic producers can do.”

But used too much, it can also have a devastating effect on soil microbiomes.

“The truth is that this is the focus of a clash of cultures: on one hand, there is the idea that ‘chemicals’ are wrong and we shouldn’t be using them. The other is the more scientific approach of using chemicals that are the least harmful and the most environmentally friendly. The anti-chemical stance is simple: people understand it, like it, and undermine organics by allowing “good” chemical treatments, have strong cultural opposition. ”

“What starts out as small deposits in the soil and in the vines turns into larger deposits that damage the soil after decades,” said Tanisha Townsend, chief wine officer of Girl Meets Glass, a wine lifestyle and education agency. “[They] can penetrate the vines and change the taste and texture of the grapes. “

Many non-plastics manufacturers believe copper is the lesser of two evils in the fight against powdery mildew, especially since other products like essential oils simply don’t have the same success rate.

“We have things that can help us to reduce copper consumption, but at the moment we have no other product,” explains the Alsatian organic winemaker Vincent Stoeffler. “We know there are things that work, things like nettles, but since it doesn’t make money for businesses, the testing is limited. “

Copper in the fields is a cause for concern, but many winemakers also add copper just before bottling. At this stage of the winemaking process, copper reduces the likelihood of a reduction, a flaw that can give the wine a rotten egg smell or worse.

“It’s something that is just kind of part of the package,” says Conner. “It’s not necessarily the best solution – it’s just the only one in the arsenal.”

A question of the terroir

When it comes to copper as a fungicide, not all winemakers play on the same field. Fungi are a bigger problem in some areas than others, especially in places with lots of rain and little wind. For Nigel Greening, owner of New Zealand’s organic and biodynamic Felton Road, copper sulfate isn’t used in the vines just because downy mildew isn’t a problem they face.

“That being said, we are of course aware of the problem,” he says. “It seems to me that the certifier’s excuse for approving copper and sulfur is that it occurs naturally and is therefore not classified as chemical. Well, arsenic and cyanide are too, but that wouldn’t be a reason to include them in organic matter! “

However, in the Champagne and Burgundy regions of France, the situation is far worse – and the decision to use copper or not is far more controversial.

“We believe it is difficult to be dogmatic and follow exactly the same rules every year. Every vintage is different and we want to feel free to use common sense instead of sticking to hard and fast rules. ”

“The production of grapes for wine without copper products is currently almost impossible under our climatic conditions and with the current grape varieties,” explains Hervé Dantan, Chef de Caves at Champagne Lanson.

“It’s difficult to comply with organic regulations in humid places,” adds Conner. “And we assigned it this quality value in a strange way: as if you are good or bad.”

Indeed, it is possible for Conner – and many professionals – to use plastics wisely to prevent the soil microbiome from degrading through overuse of copper.

“Good winemakers can use plastics carefully and wisely, just like we can take a paracetamol when we need one,” says Conner. “It’s not like winemakers out there laughing and giggling at bubbling cauldrons as they spray roundup over their vines. There are obviously Franconian wines and scientific project wines as well as huge, mass-produced garbage wines. But for most winemakers it really could be impossible to be organic. “

Antoine Malassagne, the fourth generation champagne producer at AR Lenoble, received the Haute Valeur Environnementale label (high environmental value) in 2012. In addition to methods that protect its vines, such as: B. a yield reduction that allows the wind to more easily circulate in them he prefers small amounts of plastic to treat the occasional outbreak of mold or mildew.

“Today we know that plastics remain extremely effective against bad mildew,” he says. “And we know that when powdery mildew is bad, organic requires the use of large amounts of copper.”

Greening agrees.

“The truth is that this is the focus of a clash of cultures: on one hand, there is the idea that ‘chemicals’ are wrong and we shouldn’t be using them. Second, it’s about the more scientific approach of using chemicals that are the least harmful and the most environmentally friendly. The anti-chemical stance is simple: people understand it, like it, and undermine organics by allowing “good” chemical treatments, have strong cultural opposition. ”

For Malassagne, it is far less interesting to follow rules set by organic companies – especially rules that apply across the board and around the world – than to stick to a philosophy.

“I’ve done what I think is best,” he says, noting that a good winemaker is flexible too. With the effects of climate change in Champagne, rainfall is at a record low. If this continues, he may have to use very little plastics.

“We have had almost no rain since March,” he says. “So this year, yes, we could have been organic.”

“Science is at the heart of the regenerative viticulture (RGG) that we develop in our vineyard,” he says. “A new science that is not used to dominate the environment, but to work in harmony with it.”

But he still has to look for the organic label – and he doesn’t plan to. Neither does Silvia Altare from Elio Altare in Piedmont, although she has decided to use copper sulphate instead of plastics to combat powdery mildew.

“We believe it is difficult to be dogmatic and follow the exact same rules every year,” she says. “Every vintage is different and we want to feel free to use common sense instead of sticking to hard and fast rules.”

In other regions, however, producers can and must comply with organic regulations. This is the case with Stoeffler, who found that despite worries about copper, the rules for the amount of spray – 4 kg per hectare and year – “are pretty strict”.

“They are not a problem for regions like Alsace,” he says, “because we use a lot less anyway.” In this dry, semi-Atlantic climate, Stoeffler can easily get by with only 1 to 2 kilos.

But to do this, you have to be willing to do the job.

“There are organic varieties as well as conventional ones,” he says. “There are people who work cleanly in conventional areas and people who work less cleanly in conventional areas, just like there are people who work cleanly in ecological areas and people who work less cleanly in ecological areas.”

Label-free and even more sustainable

Jean and Simon Baltenweck from Clé de Sol have organic certification for their Alsatian vineyard. They are also part of a natural wine movement that is taking steps to actively reduce the use of additives: synthetic, organic, or otherwise.

“Copper,” they say, “is a temporary solution.”

“Smaller is better,” she says. “And medium is good too. But huge, massive brands, even if they are organic … you’re going to lose something when you hit an order of magnitude. “

Copper cans have dropped significantly in Europe over the past century. While studies have shown that amounts of up to 30 kg per hectare were observed once, the European Union reduced the permissible loads from six kg per hectare to just four in 2018; The French average at that time was just under three.

However, copper does not degrade over time, and local soils have already been damaged. This is one of the reasons why the Baltenwecks like Stoeffler consume a fraction of what is allowed: between 500 grams and 1 kilogram per hectare and year. To do this, they rely on herbal preparations – especially nettles, but also willows, horsetail, sometimes comfrey. All of these plants are grown on site. In addition to other methods, such as biodiversity planting, they can remove most of the external debris from their vineyard.

These more biodynamic methods are becoming increasingly popular with sustainable winemakers who want to actively reduce their copper consumption – even in moist champagne. Dantan notes that “with a proper and balanced diet, the use of pesticides could be greatly reduced”.

“Science is at the heart of the regenerative viticulture (RGG) that we develop in our vineyard,” he says. “A new science that is not used to dominate the environment, but to work in harmony with it.”

“I think the idea that you have to use copper sulfate to be organic is not entirely correct,” agrees Josh Adler, founder of the Paris Wine Company. “I think it’s difficult and requires a lot of work, but I know there are a lot of producers who are specifically working to reduce the amount of copper sulfate they use in their vineyards.”

When looking for wines for his company, he looks for people who don’t just stop at an organic label.

“It is important for us to work with people who are asking themselves: What can I do to reduce the impact on the earth?” he says. “Different people get different answers, but for me it’s interesting that someone asks the question and looks for an answer that makes sense to them.”

How do I find these elusive wines? To hear Conner tell us it is imperative that you do your research and shop in small, independent stores.

“Smaller is better,” she says. “And medium is good too. But huge, massive brands, even if they are organic … you’re going to lose something when you reach a scale. ”

“For me as a professional looking for producers to work with, I choose the best tasting wines that have a unique taste, high quality and unique aspects,” says Adler. “But I also believe that the best way to make these wines is through environmentally friendly methods.”

Based on bio-authority
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