A Primer on Organic Wines

Organic wines have been attracting much interest lately. More consumers are now demanding organic alternatives to traditional wines and this explains the increasing number of wines with organic claims that appear on store shelves.

What is organic wine?

Following the creation of the National Organic Program, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines an organic wine as "a wine made from organically grown grapes and without any added sulfites".

From this definition, organic wines are therefore made from organically grown grapes (or organic grapes). But a large majority of "organic wines" in the market today are not 100% "organic" since they contain about 100 ppm of sulfite.

Types of organic wines

There are three types of organic wines: 100% organic, 95% organic, and 70% organic. 100% organic wines refer to those made from certified 100% organically grown grapes and do not contain any added sulfur dioxide.

The other two types of organic wines are wines that have at least 95% and 75% ingredients, respectively, from certified organic sources and may have 100 ppm of sulfites added to them.

The "organic" issue

Wines without added sulfur dioxide are very few and have an unstable quality. As many people from the wine industry would say, "No winemaker in his or her right mind would make a wine without sulfites."

Another problem is the USDA definition, which excludes wines having 95% or 70% organic ingredients from being labeled as "organic" just because they have sulfites added to them. Even with a 100 ppm added sulfites (a high permissible level), the wine can be still 99.9% organic.

The overkill attention given to the sulfite issue only distracts the public from more important issues such as soil erosion and depletion, loss of biodiversity, water pollution, resistance to pests, ecological impact, product standardization, and chemical dependence.

Matter of taste

Jonathan Aslop, founder and executive director of the Boston Wine School, said that the really good wines are produced by winemakers who avoid using agrichemicals as much as possible. According to him, "Winemaking doesn’t really lend itself to the practice of Big Ag, because whatever you do to the grapes you will ultimately taste in the wine."

Nowadays, French organic wines figure prominently and are consistently considered as one of the top ten best wines of any region. Many magazines cite them as the most interesting, personalized, and innovative products around.

The outstanding taste may be explained by the fact that organic vineyards are more resistant to pestilence or poor weather, and thus tend to perform better than many non-organic ones. Also, grapes are most of the time hand picked, allowing only the healthiest and ripest bunches to be processed, with a minimum amount of damage or stress to the fruit, vine, or fruit. These all reflect in the quality of organic wines.