What is organic wine?
Organic wine is defined in different ways in different countries. There’s also a difference between the general term ‘organic wine’ and the specific legal term ‘organic wine’ used for labeling purposes.
All definitions of organic wine agree on one thing: it is wine made from grapes grown ‘organically’ i.e. without the use of synthetic fertilizers, insecticides or herbicides. Only natural fertilizers may be used, and only naturally occuring elements such as copper and sulphur may be applied for the purpose of protecting vines from disease.
The above definition covers the ‘grape growing’ aspect of producing organic wine. In addition there is the ‘winemaking’ phase which includes steps such as fermentation and bottling. It’s during this phase that the main differences in definition arise.
In the USA bottles of wine labeled ‘organic’ must be made from grapes grown organically (and certified to be organic). In addition, the winemaking phase must also be organic i.e. without the addition of any chemicals. Specifically, the addition of the preservative sulphur dioxide is prohibited.
In Europe, wine cannot be labeled ‘organic wine’. This stems from the opinion that suplhur dioxide is essential to preserving wine for long periods. Because there is no ‘organic’ alternative it is considered unfair to insist that only sulfur-free wine be termed ‘organic’. As a result organic wines are labeled ‘made with organic grapes’. Sulfur free organic wines bear the additional label “made without added sulphur dioxide”.
In Australia wine labeled ‘organic’ may contain sulfur however in much smaller quantities than regular wine.
Why would I want to drink organic wine?
There are at least 4 good reasons:
1) The Taste
Just as organic fruit and vegetables tend to taste better than those grown with synthetic fertilizers, so organic grapes tend to have better flavor intensity than their chemical counterparts. In the hands of a good winemaker these grapes can be turned into outstanding wines.
2) Your health
The US Environmental Protection Agency considers 60% of all herbicides, 90% of all fungicides, and 30% of all insecticides to be potentially carcinogenic. Pesticides are poisons made to kill living organisms. Residue from these chemicals inevitably end up in the wine you drink.
An NGO investigation of 40 wines purchased inside the EU – including wines made by world famous vineyards – found that all of them contained pesticides, with one bottle containing 10 different types. On average each wine sample contained over four pesticides. The analysis revealed 24 different contaminants, including five classified as being carcinogenic, mutagenic, reprotoxic or endocrine disrupting by the European Union.
3) Support Farmers and Their Health
If you’ve lived in a wine growing area you may have seen farmers spraying their grapes wearing hazmat suits and oxygen masks. It’s a scary proposition to think about why that’s necessary. A National Cancer Institute study found that farmers exposed to herbicides had a six times greater risk than non-farmers of contracting cancer. An estimated one million people are poisoned annually by pesticides. The more that consumers demand organic wine the more organic grapes will be grown, and the less pesticides will be used.
4) Protect The Environment
According to US EPA estimates, pesticides are contaminating the groundwater in thirty-eight states, polluting the primary source of drinking water for more than half the country’s population. Repeated use of chemical fertilizer destroys the natural balance of living organisms in the soil, so that its natural nutrients are almost totally depleted. This effectively deadens the soil, causes serious erosion, and perpetuates a cycle of requiring more and more synthetic inputs.
Isn't wine already natural - why do we need organic wine?
Regular wine is natural only to the extent that it’s made from grapes. How these grapes are cultivated and how the wine is made, is a whole other matter. Non-organic grapes are farmed using chemicals (read the previous FAQ if you wonder why that’s an issue). In addition during the winemaking process additional chemicals, synthetic yeasts, acids, preservatives, coloring etc are added to the wine. (See a list of additives on the More Than Organic website.)
What's the best place to buy organic wines?
Once you know which vineyards are organic you should be able to find organic wines for sale in a wide variety of retail and online stores. Each vineyard profile page on Organic Wine Find contains information about where to buy the wines locally.
There are a number of specialist organic retailers that you may want to check out including Chambers St Wines in New York, Vintage Roots in UK and Organicwine.com.au in Australia.
Can you recommend some good organic wines?
How do I chose an organic wine?
Essentially, you can choose an organic wine in the same way you would choose any wine – by deciding on type (red, white etc), your budget, if you have a preferred style (mild, full-bodied etc), varietal etc. The wine search page allows you to search for organic wines using detailed criteria which you can easily adjust during the search to get your desired results.
There are a few additional considerations to be aware of when purchasing organic wine which you can read about in the article 5 Things You Must Know Before You Buy. Organic wines with added sulfur tend to be more comparable to regular wines in taste. Organic wines without added sulphur can be more unique and eccentric in character – and may not be to everyone’s taste.
Whats the difference between organic wine, and wine made with grapes grown organically?
It depends where you are and in what context the term ‘organic wine’ is being used. In most parts of the world there is no real difference. Organic wine and wine made with organic grapes are used interchangeably.
In the US, there is a difference when it comes to labeling. ‘Organic Wine’ is used on labels to denote wine made both with organic grapes and without any added sulphur (as a preservative). Wine labeled ‘made with grapes grown organically’ will usually contain sulfur.
What are sulfites and are they bad?
Sulphur dioxide is used during wine making at various stages.
- It is often used before fermentation to kill any wild yeasts that might affect the fermentation process.
- It is often used at the end of fermentation to kill any remaining yeast and make sure the fermentation process is finished.
- It is again used at bottling to kill any harmful bacteria that might cause a wine to go off as it ages, and as an antioxidant.
In other words sulfur dioxide is used as a kind of disinfectant and preservative. It is widely considered essential to creating wines that can age over long periods although this is disputed by some natural wine makers. It is also considered to help integrate a wine’s flavors.
The main issue with SO2 is that some people have an allergic reaction and it can contribute to headaches – associated with ‘the morning after’.
More about sulfur is contained in this informative article.
Does organic wine have sulfites?
All wine has some naturally occuring sufites which are a byproduct of the winemaking process, even organic wine. The questions is really to do with ‘added’ sulfur.
In the US, wine labeled ‘organic wine’ has no added sufites. Wine labeled ‘made with organic grapes’ usually does have added sulfur. Some organic winemakers choose not to label their wine organic at all, and this case the wine will invariably contain added sulfites.
In Europe, if a wine has no added sulfur it will invariably say so on the label.
In Australia, organic wine may contain sulfites. Again check the label.
What is biodynamic wine?
Biodynamic wine is organic wine that is farmed using the holistic farming techniques developed by Rudolph Steiner. More information can be found on the What is Biodynamic Wine? page.
What is natural wine?
There is no agreed upon definition for ‘natural wine’. Some people believe that organic wine is natural wine, and some believe that natural wine has a specific set of requirements. There is a growing movement of winemakers and winelovers enthusuastic about wine made without intervention – in otherwords with ‘nothing added and nothing taken away’. This movement believes that wine should be made:
- with handpicked grapes, grown organically
- using wild yeasts
- in small quantities
- with small yields
- without added sugar
without adjusting the wine’s acidity
- without reverse osmosis or micro-oxygenation
What is sustainable wine?
Sustainable wine is made with the aim of causing minimal possible impact to the environment -to be carbon neutral in the vineyard and winery. This may or may not include being organic.
Many ‘sustainable’ farmers prefer to use small quantities of soft chemicals rather than farming organically because it lessens the number of treatments needed to the vines and therefore the amount of diesel and other energy used to spray.
Why do some organic wine producers label, while others don't?
There are broadly speaking 3 types of organic producer (and this is a huge generalization for ease of understanding so please take it with a pinch of salt):
- Organic producers that are committed to excellence and wish to position themselves in the market as an organic product. They label.
- Organic producers committed to excellence who wish to compete in the open wine market without being positioned as organic. These producers prefer to focus solely on the wine’s taste rather than how it is made. They don’t label.
- Wine producers lacking a committment to excellence who have developed an organic program to help market an inferior product. They label in the hope that uneductaed consumers will purchase the product, just because it’s organic.
What is certified organic?
In order to label a wine ‘organic’ or ‘made with organic grapes’ it must be certified by a qualified third party organization (e.g. ecocert) to confirm that it is indeed organic. This certification process takes 3-5 years to ensure that all residual chemicals are out of the vines and soil. During the certification period vineyards are termed “in conversion”.
Does organic wine still have the same amount of alcohol?
Yes, unless the winemaker has specifically chosen to make a wine with less alcohol.
I've heard that organic wine doesn't taste very good, is that true?
In years gone by, organic wine sometimes had a reputation for being a bit eccentric. Today with advances in quality and winemaking technique, organic wines made with small additions of sulphur are on par with, and in many cases exceed the best that the wine world has to offer. Indeed some of the world’s top wines are either organic or in the process of conversion, recognising that organic farming produces the most flavorful grapes and protects the ‘terroir’.
Wines made without sulphur are a matter of personal taste. Some people love being able to taste the un-embellished natural flavors — some find it too unsophisticated for their palette. There are some winemakers that have mastered the art of making wine without sulphur, and there are some that a still working at it.
Organic wine is, in one regard, just like regular wine. There are some great one’s and some not so great one’s, and in the end its all about your personal taste.
If you think of any additional questions that would be valuable to add please contact us.