From the Vineyard To Your Glass

A generational wine grower, whose son eats grapes straight off of the vine (image source)

Living an eco-conscious lifestyle doesn’t mean that you have to be a slave to organic certification. There are countless farmers who practice organic farming techniques, but who are not comfortable in the world of bureaucracy, or who cannot afford the high prices of certification.  We shouldn’t neglect this group of people who do dedicate themselves to growing food in a natural, sustainable way –  who have a passion for what they grow and in turn nurture the land that provides it.  

So, who are these people? Well, when it comes to our wine – YiXin and his business partners have dedicated themselves to finding them.

Their business, KOT Selections, is about sourcing great wine… but not necessarily organic wine. The interesting thing here is that when something is grown and created with dedication, passion and respect – you’ll find that often, they are one and the same.

I asked YiXin to give us a look into that world…

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Little Green Dot: How long have you been selling wine and what got you into the wine business in the first place?

YiXin: We really started in late July, although we had spent the previous half-year travelling in France and Italy, and getting logistics set up in Singapore. All three of us have always been interested in wine – Gavin and I are childhood friends and Jules and I are married. Most of the winegrowers we work with are friends – we’ve been buying privately from them for up to a decade. We’ve thought about turning it into a business for a long time, and eventually we decided that this was the right time to do it – we weren’t getting any younger!

Little Green Dot: What do you look for when choosing to work with a winegrower and what steps have you taken to get to know the various labels that you carry?

Yixin: We joke with our winegrowers that it’s like dating and marriage, as we’re looking for long term relationships. In terms of principles, we look for honesty and trust, which means that we spend a lot of time with winegrowers, getting to know them and their families and friends. We don’t just taste the wines and decide – we often have meals with them, walk through their vineyards, speak with their neighbours and so on.

In practice, this means not going to wine trade fairs or working with agents; we visit each winegrower directly, and spend more time chatting than tasting. We also always insist on visiting the vineyards, even when it’s snowing/raining. There’s a simple test we do – we pick up the soil with our bare hands; even in dry climates, well-farmed soil is friable, moist and smells clean. The reaction of the growers is also important – most of them are willing to get their hands dirty, since they know what compost and chemicals they’ve been using. Good, careful farmers are only too happy to dig into the soil with their bare hands. We also try to visit at different times during the season to see their farming practices – winter for pruning, spring for training (how they shape the vine) and weeding, summer for pruning and canopy management and so on.

Little Green Dot: Can you explain the differences between non-organic, organic and biodynamic vineyards?

Yixin: The requirements for organic farming differ between jurisdictions, but they primarily regulate inputs (e.g. fertiliser/compost), while biodynamics is quite prescriptive about processes. People often talk of biodynamics as being organic+, which is a useful simplification. In that vein, the differences between conventionally farmed and organic/biodynamic vineyards are larger than differences between the latter two types. The most obvious differences are typically biodiversity (both flora and fauna), soil quality and vine health.

Little Green Dot: Many consumers rely on certifications to guide their buying decisions, yet, in your business you have encountered and work with winemakers who practice organic farming, but are not certified. Can you explain the certification process, what it entails and why some vineyards choose to not go this route?

Yixin: I’m not an expert on certification processes, and it differs from country to country, but it typically involves a multi-year period where the vineyards are checked. Examination and enforcement standards vary widely, and one can farm ‘conventionally’ using organic inputs and obtain certification. Not all growers have the time or inclination to jump through the hoops to obtain certification. It costs money and many of them would rather focus on farming and winemaking than doing paperwork.

Little Green Dot: In your conversations with organic and biodynamic wine makers, what are some of the specific challenges that they face?

Yixin: Typically a vineyard takes up to a decade to find its equilibrium after conversion – flora and fauna find their way back in, vines either die off (as they’re immediately more susceptible to diseases and pests) or adapt (although the extent to which they can do so is limited). So they often suffer an initial drop in yields and loss in income.

Farming without chemical aid is challenging – there are no ‘magic bullets’ when the vineyard gets hit by pests or if weeds are growing quickly. There’s a lot more manual work involved.

There’s also a trade-off, especially in steeply-sloped vineyards. Ploughing increases erosion, but without ploughing it’s very difficult to weed a vineyard without the use of chemicals. Almost no one weeds by hand any more.

Little Green Dot: In your experience, have you seen much evidence of careless or excessive use of chemical treatments in vineyards? Who are the worse offenders? And does this present a threat to the health of wine drinkers?

Yixin: Plenty of examples, but it won’t be professional of me to name names. Champagne in particular is bad; growers get paid for quantity, not quality, and it encourages yield maximisation without regard for the consequences. I am not a doctor so I can’t write sensibly about the health effects of drinking such wines, but vineyard workers (like any other farmhands) suffer from exposure to chemicals. That should be reason enough to eschew industrial wine.

Little Green Dot: Finally, could you list half a dozen of your favorite organic and/or biodynamic wines?

Yixin: Clos Roche Blanche in the Touraine, Guy Bossard (Domaine de l’Ecu) in Muscadet, Cappellano in Barolo, Coulee de Serrant in Anjou, Laherte in Champagne.

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If you’re looking to expand your wine repertoire,YiXin works closely with clients to help determine which wines best suit your palate and requirements. Have a look on their website for more information.

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