What is Organic Wine
And Is It Better for You?
You’d think that organic wine would be as simple to shop for as, say, organic apples. A label is a label, right? But it’s actually more complicated than that. Here’s a quick guide to deciphering what you see on the bottle, plus answers to the most common questions about organic wine.
What is Organic Wine?
“Organic” or “100% Organic”: If these words appear on the bottle’s front label, the wine was made with organically farmed grapes, in compliance with the USDA and most global organic certification agencies. This means the grapes were grown without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides or herbicides. It also means that in the cellar, they were vinified without any of the dozens of additives permitted in conventional winemaking—such as coloring agents, flavor enhancers, pH-adjusters, even industrial chemicals like polyoxyethylene 40. European organic winemakers, though, are allowed to add a minimal amount of sulfites (for more on sulfites, scroll down).
“Made with Organic Grapes” means the grapes were organically farmed, but certain additives—most often sulfites—were added in the winemaking process.
“Organic grapes” listed as an ingredient on the back label means at least 70% of the grapes are organic.
Organic, Biodynamic or Natural Wines — What’s the Difference?
Biodynamic wines have to meet the same standards as organic wines, but
the biodynamic certifying association, Demeter, requires additional steps. In biodynamic winemaking, vineyards are self-sustaining ecosystems. All inputs (like fertilizers and pest controls) must come from natural sources within the vineyard itself. Instead of trucking in fertilizer, for instance, a winemaker might keep a few cows around for manure, or let chickens and ladybugs gobble up aphids instead of applying a spray.
“Natural wine” isn’t a regulated term, but has come to mean wines that are made with minimal intervention and inputs, both in the vineyard and in the cellar. Many organic and biodynamic wines fit this description. Because they’re handled with a relatively light touch, natural wines often clearly express the landscapes and seasons that formed them.
Does Organic Wine Have Sulfites?
Sulfites are preservatives widely used in winemaking (and many processed foods, too) to keep wine from spoiling and turning brown. All wine, including organic, has a small, inescapable amount of sulfites, because sulphur dioxide is released naturally during fermentation. Organic wines, though, aren’t dosed with added sulfites during the winemaking process, and in the United States, must have less than 10 parts per million of sulfites (in other words, .001%). In Europe, the allowable limit for organic wines is a bit higher: 100 ppm for red wine and 150 ppm for whites and rosés. Conventional wines can have 350 ppm or more.
Is Organic Wine Vegan?
Not necessarily. Organic winemakers can use animal products, including egg whites or animal enzymes, to get rid of impurities and sediment in a process known as fining. Makers of vegan wine (who may or may not follow organic practices) turn to charcoal, diatomaceous earth or clay instead, or they may choose to skip fining altogether. If you want a wine that’s organic and vegan, look for certifications that support both claims.
Is Organic Wine Better for You?
In a word, yes. Organic grapes are grown without synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or fertilizers, so you won’t be sipping those harmful residues along with your chardonnay. You also won’t be ingesting any of the many chemical additives allowed for conventional wines (see above)—none of which, shockingly enough, are required to be listed on the label.
What about sulfites? Organic wine has less of them, but sulfites really only pose a problem for the fraction of people who are genuinely allergic (1% of the population, according to the FDA). Headaches often get blamed on sulfites, but scientists
now think the likelier causes are the flavonoids and histamines in grapes, or the dehydrating effects of alcohol. Organic wine won’t save you from a pounding head if you drink a lot of it.
Under-the-Radar Organic Wines
What about uncertified winemakers who follow organic practices, both in the vineyard and cellar? Many small, traditional family-owned wineries have made wine organically for generations but have chosen not to get certified, because the process is expensive and time-consuming. Find your way to these worthy wines by asking wine-shop owners about the bottles that interest you, and by reading up on local wineries.