The biggest problem for consumers hoping to enjoy organic wine is not the lack of high quality products on the market-- it's the confusing and sometimes contradictory information plastered online and on wine labels. Like me, you may want to make choices about what you consume in hopes to NOT wreck the environment. For a wine drinker, it's time to ask what is organic wine and why does it matter?
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This confusion is not aided by the National Organic Program (NOP), the USDA's governing body that certifies products as organic, who define organic wine as being: "a wine made from organically grown grapes without any sulfites." Right, very informative. Since organic wines supposedly reduce the frequency of headaches among consumers, why does learning about them have the opposite effect?
The Confusion about Certification
Taking organic certification off the table for a moment and getting to the heart of the matter, organic wine is simply wine made from grapes that are grown without chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides or fungicides. Eliminating the use of these chemicals is healthier for the soil, the plant and the consumer.
The best way to ensure you are purchasing an organic wine is to buy one that says it on the label. Just about every major wine producing country has a governing body that regulates the use of the word "organic" on product labels. The problem here though is that different countries have different regulations (however, they are similar and generally all uphold the standard of use of not using chemicals). To complicate the issue further, the NOP allows four different uses of the word organic on wine labels: 100% Organic, Organic, Made with Organic Ingredients, and Some Organic Ingredients.
The difference between the first two categories is that 95% of the contents of a standard "Organic" labeled wine must comply with the organic regulations as opposed to the "100% Organic."
The majority of organic wines on the market fall into the category of "Made with Organic Ingredients.'" Even though more than 95% of the material in these wines is organic (and some as much as 99.99%) they are excluded from the standard "organic" category for one simple reason: sulfites. 100% Organic and Organic wines cannot have any added sulfites, whereas wines made with organic grapes can.
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The Battle over Sulfites
Sulfites have long been the scapegoat for anyone complaining of flushed faces, wheezing and headaches after drinking wine. While people with severe allergies can have deadly reactions, the 1986 study by the FDA concluded that less than 1% of the population is sensitive to sulfites and only 5% of that 1% is sensitive to a dangerous level.
Sulfites are a natural byproduct of the fermentation process, thus only accidents of nature produce completely sulfite-free wines. Most wines generate between 6 and 40 parts per million (ppm) during the fermentation process. Organic wines must not have any sulfites added, and the natural sulfites in the bottle must be less than 10 ppm.
The addition of sulfites during the winemaking process has two main functions: to serve as antiseptic and an antioxidant. Wine can fairly easily be spoiled by bacteria and wild yeast present on the grape skins or in the winery. Wine is also prone to oxidation which can cause the color to turn brow and ruins the fresh fruit flavors. Adding sulfites helps to reduce this type of spoilage and stabilize the wine to ensure it arrives to the consumer in the best condition. Commercial wine can contain up to 350 ppm of sulfites, but wines labeled as "made from organic grapes" must contain less than 100 ppm.
Is Organic Always Better?
Just because a label says "organic" does not mean the wine will be better, or better for you, than a wine without the certification, and vice versa. While organic wines are less likely to contain remnants of dangerous chemicals, well made non-organic wines are pesticide free and have the added benefit of great stability due to sulfites.
Certification isn't everything: many winemakers, particularly in Europe, have been practicing organic viticulture for decades but have never gotten certified. This can be for a variety of reasons, but for many smaller wineries it is just too prohibitively expensive to spend years proving to some governing body that the way they always make their wine complies with the regulations. The benefits simply do not outweigh the drawbacks. And as the winemaker for White Rock, a small family-run winery in Napa, recently put it, "If I get certified and a neighbor uses chemicals that wash into my vineyards then I lose my certification, and that has the risk of hurting my image much more than I would gain from being certified organic in the first place."
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