The Truth About Organic Wines

The Myths, Legends and finally, as we understand it, "The Truth".

As the food and wine industry addresses the consumers growing concern about what they eat and drink, there are a growing number of wineries who are producing wine that in one way or another can be called "organic". Organic and sustainable farming has been practiced at small wineries since the beginning of the industry. A great portion of European wineries and sections (rapidly growing sections) of US wineries have been farming organically and using sustainable agricultural methods for decades. Many small wineries do not get certified because of the extra cost of getting approval from a Government or other certifying organization. However, they have chosen to grow their grapes utilizing eco-friendly practices for their own reasons. There is some confusion on exactly what "organic" means as it applies to wine and how they are labeled. Some wines are labeled as "100 Percent organic" while others say that the wine is .made from organically grown grapes". There are also many confusing layers of official Government agencies and other bureaucracy including counties, cities, states, regions, appellations and nations trying to regulate and set standards. In addition, there are several non-profit organizations that certify organic growers. Hopefully the following will eliminate some of the confusion.

In the United States, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been responsible for setting standards for organic products in the US since 1990. Unfortunately organic wine producers hit the wall with the Bureau of alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), (responsible for regulating wine labels) who didn.t allow for a wine to be labeled as organic even if the USDA did. After 12 years of discussion, the USDA created the National Organic Program (NOP) in 2002 to implement label standards and oversee the production, processing and certification of all organic producers of food and other products in the US. After combining and simplifying all of the specifications and information from the various government agencies (USD, NOP, TTB, etc), you basically come up with four categories of eco-friendly wine. One important fact to remember is that most wineries prefer to add sulfites or sulfur dioxide (SO2) for preservation. I find that most wineries that do not add sulfites or sulfur dioxide make very inconsistent wine. In addition, the wine is very temperamental in normal conditions that most wine will experience in the supply chain. By using these methods, winegrowers using organic grapes are prohibited from labeling a wine as organic. This commonly utilized and arguably necessary step in wine production dramatically reduces the number of wines that might qualify as organic.

This is an outline of the United States standards.

1. 100% Organic Wine

For a wine to be labeled .100% Organic. and bear the USDA organic seal, 100% of the grapes used to make these wines have to come from a vineyard that has been certified as organic. A statement must be on the label identifying the organic ingredients as well as information about the certifying agency (California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF)) for example. There can be no added sulfites.

Note: These wines may have naturally occurring sulfites, but the total sulfite level must be less than 100 parts per million. There are also conditions that must be met for a vineyard to be certified organic which include not using chemical fertilizers or pesticides for three consecutive years.

2. Organic Wine

Nearly identical to the requirements of 100% Organic wine, .Organic. labeled wines need only be made from 95% organically grown grapes. A statement must be on the label identifying the organic ingredients as well as information about the certifying agency. There can be no added sulfites.

Note: These wines may have naturally occurring sulfites, but the total sulfite level must be less than 100 parts per million.

3. Wine Made With Organic Grapes

Refers to wines made with at least 70% organically grown grapes. A statement must be on the label identifying the organic and non-organic ingredients as well as information about the certifying agency.

Note: These wines may contain added and naturally occurring sulfites, but the total sulfite level still must be less than 100 parts per million.

4. Wine Made With Some Organic Ingredients

Refers to wines made with less than 70% organically grown grapes. It cannot bear the USDA seal nor have any information about a certifying agency or any other reference to organic content.

Europe and other nations have different sets of similar rules, but must follow the NOA for labeling and legal importation to the US Market. One of the most recognizable, and oft-discussed, styles of grape production in the organic world is Biodynamic agriculture. Biodynamic Agriculture was inaugurated in 1924 by Austrian scientist Rudolf Steiner. A worldwide movement, biodynamic agriculture is the oldest, non-chemical agricultural movement and pre-dates organic agriculture by some twenty years. Biodynamic farming and gardening does more than avoid chemicals; it seeks to work actively with the health-giving forces of nature. Farms and wineries, among others, may be certified Biodynamic by the Demeter Association, a national, independent, non-profit corporation. The US Government agencies go no further than 100% Organic when a winery is Biodynamic.

I have included some more information, key term definitions and links below if you wish to read any further about this standards discussed in this article.

Definitions and other terms associated with farming and production practices from around the world:

Biodynamic (BD)

Biodynamic farming is a method based on the research of Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner. Integral to the approach is a holistic view of the farm with an emphasis on the self-nourishing inter-relationship of the soil, plants, and animals. Biodynamic agriculture excludes the use of synthetic chemicals.

Demeter (D)

Similar to the USDA organic certification, Demeter certification is globally recognized as a symbol for nutritious products grown or raised using approved biodynamic methods. In the U.S., a Demeter certification is said to exceed the standards of the U.S. National Organic Program (NOP).

Sustainable (S)

A farming practice with a focus on protecting the environment, as well as the health and welfare of the farm.s employees. Crop rotation, soil enrichment, cover crops that retard erosion and control weeds, and natural predators that help control pests, are all techniques used in sustainable farming. Chemicals and pesticides are used very sparingly. Sustainable agriculture is a method where no irreversible damage is caused to the ecosystem. The primary goals of sustainability are long-term crop productivity, and economic viability.

Lutte Raisonee (LR)

Lutte Raisonee, a French term analogous to sustainable, is a minimal intervention approach in which synthetic chemicals may only be used as a justifiable last resort.

Vegan wines (V)

Winemakers, both organic and conventional, are not obliged to declare on the label when they use animal by-products as fining agents to clarify wine. These include egg white (to brighten red wines), casein (a milk protein to make wine taste softer), gelatin (removes bitterness) and isinglass (derived from fish). A vegan wine, on the other hand, uses no animal products whatsoever.

Conventional (C)

A common method of farming where production yields are the primary concern. This is usually achieved through the liberal use of chemicals and pesticides.

Interesting Links if you wish to gather more complete information...

Dry or Not Too Dry All About Port Wine Pronunciation