Organic Wine Defined

January 24, 2011

We have all seen organic fruits and vegetables, dairy products and deli items, but organic wine? What exactly is organic wine and what's the difference?

Organic wine is made from the same grapes, in the same regions and in the same way that wine has been made for thousands of years. The only thing missing is the chemical residue sometimes left over from conventional grape growing. In order to achieve this, the soil in which the grapes are grown has to be free from pesticides, chemicals, etc. for a period of time, which varies from country to country; here in the US it is a three year minimum.

What is an organic vineyard? An organic vineyard has a viticulture regime that excludes artificial fertilizers, synthetic chemicals, including pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, soil fumigants, and growth regulators or hormones.

The one thing that is added to some organic wines is sulfur dioxide for shelf life. Organic wines fall under two certifications in the US; “organic” and “made from organically grown grapes”… what's the difference? You guessed it, sulfites.

Winemakers traditionally use a small amount of sulfur to help stabilize wines and prevent them from oxidizing. Organic winemakers who seek to label their wines “organic,” avoid this practice. This is good news for those who are allergic to or choose avoid sulfites, as they can still enjoy wine if they select those sporting the “organic” label. (contains less than 10 parts per million).

The second organic wine certification, “made from organically grown grapes” does allow additional sulfur dioxide to be added during the fermentation process, although no more than 100 parts per million and this information is clearly stated on the label.

The next level of organic farming is “biodynamic.” This concept stems from Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s. The approach incorporates a farming system based on the cycles of the moon, and includes animals and biodynamic preparations that come from the earth. In this self sustainable environment every living thing has its place. Chickens eat cut worms, sheep eat weeds, cows and horses provide manure, and vines are tied to trellises with golden willow branches or tule reeds, which rot and fall as the vine grows, adding to the richness of the soil.

Soil is the key to “organic” and “biodynamic” viticulture. Healthy soil produces a healthier grapevine, and wine lovers say a more flavorful fruit is the outcome.

A lot of wineries have jumped on the environmentally friendly-bandwagon for marketing purposes, but many of the top wineries in the world, do not boast these practices but actually do practice organic viticulture because they think it produces the best fruit.

Keep in mind that the grapes may be organic, but that doesn't mean the wines’ flavor hasn’t been manipulated by winemakers. I.e. changing alcohol level, using additives like oak chips and packaged yeasts to provide that sought after flavor. None of these tricks affect the organic status. Visit your favorite vineyard’s website to find out what types of practices they employ.