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Yellow fever: Dr Richard Smart says 'grapevine yellows' could prove devastating. Photo: Edwina Pickles

A French winemaker is being prosecuted by the French authorities for not spraying his vineyard with insecticide. Emmanuel Giboulot is a Burgundy winemaker who began using organic practices in his vineyard in 1985 and has since graduated to biodynamic management. He would lose his certification if he sprayed what he is being asked to spray. But he could go to jail or face a heavy fine if convicted for not spraying.

The insecticide is intended to kill a leaf-hopping insect that spreads a serious vine disease called flavescence doree - known in Australia as ''grapevine yellows''. Leading Australian viticulturalist Dr Richard Smart has said this disease could be even more serious than phylloxera in the long run.

The case has created a big stir in France. It's a sign that the tension between ''conventional'' modern viticulture and the gathering trend for sustainable grape growing is creating passionate responses.

Against this background, a number of winemakers who use unconventional viticultural methods recently visited Sydney. Some were here primarily for the Rootstock sustainable food and wine festival.

At Rootstock questions were asked as to what is natural and how natural does one have to be to gain acceptance into Rootstock. The answer is that exhibitors had to be certified organic or biodynamic, or persuade the organisers that they use sustainable practices.

Inevitably, there are vignerons who profess to be "holier than thou"; who look down on those whom they view as less committed to sustainability.

A refreshingly sensible viewpoint was that of Maurice Barthelme, who produces superb Alsace wines at the Albert Mann domaine that is 100 per cent biodynamic (BD). Barthelme, who shares vineyard and winemaking responsibilities with his brother, Jacky, is not a stickler for the rules and is very much his own man. "You have to obey the speed limits when you drive your car," he says, "but if there is an emergency and you have to get to the hospital quickly, then maybe you will drive faster."

He believes biodynamics' emphasis on caring for the environment is more important than slavishly following the application of all of the BD preparations.

"When the water is full of chemicals no one will be able to drink it. If we cannot drink the water, that's the end of us. And if we fill the soil with chemicals we also fill the water with chemicals."

He stresses that biodynamics is a philosophy, not an economic system. He sees problems with too many rules and restrictions. "I prefer to have less laws and more trust in individuals."

He uses the biodynamic horn silica (preparation 501) as an example of his attitude. Some Australian winemakers eschew the silica spray because it focuses solar energy and they don't need more of that. Other BD adherents insist you cannot claim to be biodynamic unless you use the silica spray. Barthelme replies that he does not always use it either: in 2003, for example, a very hot year, he chose not to.

It's important to be flexible, to not do the same things every year just because someone else tells you to, he said.

''You have to respond to the conditions each season brings, and to suit your practices to your own vines and your own terroir.''

Albert Mann vineyards are certified by Biodyvin and have been biodynamically managed since 2000. When asked what difference this has made, Barthelme shrugs. "It hasn't made a big change to anything in particular; the changes are small. There is less variation year to year, because the roots are going deeper. There is more consistent ripeness and perhaps that is partly because of global warming. There may be a little more acidity in the grapes. But, I know that it makes a difference. I can feel it."

Another exceptional French vigneron Louis Moreau, of Domaine Louis Moreau in Chablis, says his grand cru and premier cru vineyards have been managed organically since 2004, but are not certified.

His lesser Chablis ''villages'' wines are conventionally grown.

He says most grand cru Chablis vineyards are organic today, probably because they have the sunniest, best-exposed sites, less prone to disease. "I can see the improvement already in the vineyards: more bugs; healthier vines. The idea is not to have better wines, but a healthier environment."

Olivier Leflaive's comment, circulated last week in the heat of the Giboulot affair, concerned organic versus inorganic sprays against the leaf-hopper. He claimed the approved biological (organic) chemical is toxic to bees and other insects, whereas the inorganic chemical, pyrevert, is selective and doesn't attack other creatures. "In this case … the 'organic' product is more harmful than the chemical treatment! What would you do in our place? 100 per cent organic or sustainable? With no absolute certainty, we decided to be reasonable."

French use the word reasonable as we use sustainable: not BD and not organic, but sustainable.

The problem is, more and more winegrowers are claiming to use sustainable methods without putting themselves on the line and gaining certification. It's easy to claim you're holy when no one can see if you're saying your prayers or not.