Organic Wine vs. Made with Organic Grapes
Over 8,000 out of the 615,000 acres of wine grape vineyards are now farmed certified organic in California. All that fruit from those vineyards then produce organic wine, right? Wrong.
This is one of the biggest disconnects in wine understanding, especially when it comes to marketing. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has very strict stipulations regarding what is an organic wine and what is not, and the rules don’t stop at organically grown grapes. In fact, there are a whole bunch of additives that can be introduced to organically grown grapes as soon as they are harvested to make (an inorganic) wine. The fruit can come in ugly with sunburn, rot, unwanted botrytis, bird and wasp damage, volatile acidity, you get the point. More than likely, there is a legal additive or “ingredient” to fix every one of those “problems,” but to some extent, do make the wine taste better and filter some of those nasty bits out. An organic wine must be grown from organic fruit. Remember the square-rectangle argument? A square is a rectangle but not vice versa. Organic wine cannot be made with conventionally farmed vineyard fruit. The biggest issue with organic wine is how it’s defined here and abroad and deals with one additive in particular: sulfites.
What are sulfites?
Sulfites are a group of sulfur based-compounds. In this case, we’d be talking about Sulfur Dioxide or SO2. They occur naturally on grape skins but are also produced in the winemaking process. An allergy to sulfites affects approximately one in 100. Chances are though, you’ll know whether you have an allergy to sulfites long before you’re old enough for your first glass of wine. In fact, sulfites are a preservative in many other foods, including dried fruits, canned veggies, soup mixes and potato chips. Raisins and prunes carry some of the highest amounts of sulfites between 500-2000 ppm while wine has an average of 80 ppm. They are added as a preservative and are responsible for increasing the shelf life of your wine.
Farming Organically “from organic grapes”
This means growers are forbidden from using synthetic materials on the fruit. Round-Up is definitely out of the question here and it goes for synthetic herbicides, pesticides, insecticides and so on. The wine as an end product cannot contain more than 100ppm of sulfites. The label will say “Contains Sulfites.” What, then, do wineries do to prevent destruction by bad bugs, birds, fungus and other farming detriments? They create a vineyard ecosystem, or culture to attract natural predators to drive these harmful birds and bugs away. Installing bird boxes will attract a predatory bird population to scare away starlings, who can damage a vineyard block within minutes. A great example of an organically farmed vineyard is Tres Sabores in Rutherford, an almost 40-year old vineyard, farmed organically. If you have the opportunity to enjoy a tasting there, you can’t help but notice the beneficial flowers and wildlife that the property attracts.
U.S. Organic Wine vs. European Organic Wine
What causes the most confusion among organic wines is that, as stated above, they are defined differently in the U.S. and Europe. Here, if sulfites are added to the wine, the USDA law says it cannot be labeled “organic” but in Europe, organic wines may include the use of sulfites. You can imagine this gets a little tricky importing and exporting…
The USDA’s limit on parts per million in organic wines is 10ppm.
Are sulfites really needed in winemaking? Why?
Let’s just say you probably wouldn’t want your 2010 Chateau Lafitte wine to be USDA certified organic. If you have any intention to age these wines, you’ll want some kind of preservative in them, especially if you paid top dollar and want to enjoy them on the 21st birthdate of your first born child…or something.
When sulfur is added, it greatly slows, almost stops microbial activity and prevents premature oxidation and color degradation. In addition, it can be added to wines to stop fermentation by inhibiting yeast activity. This is very important when making an off dry or sweet wine.
Sulfur can be added as a powdered form as well during crush, or right after the fruit is picked to prevent the wild yeasts found on the berries’ skins from a spontaneous fermentation as well. Sometimes a spontaneous fermentation is desired and is very common with biodynamic winemaking, but if wineries need to produce a very consistent style and flavor profile year after year, they will often use a cultured or commercial yeast.
Where to Find Truly Organic Wines
Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods both carry organic wine labels such as Frey Vineyards, who is probably the leader in premium organic winemaking. Last time I checked, they carry Frey Vineyards and Well Red
See a little more on Frey organic wines here: Introducing Frey Organic Agriculturist Wine, from America’s 1st Organic Winery
There are so many topics to explore in the venn diagram of Organics and Winemaking, but we’ll stop here for now. Next, we’ll explore the basics of Biodynamics.
For more information on organic, sustainable and biodynamic information, check out our other posts:
Wine Folly: The Bottom Line on Sulfites in Wine