Wednesday, March 12, 2014

What Makes a Wine "Organic" in the U.S?

Organic wine is defined in the U.S. as a “wine made from organically grown grapes, without any added sulfites.”  This definition comes from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) as listed in their National Organic Program, the federal regulatory body governing organic food.

The terms organic or organically grown mean that synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides or herbicides were not used during the growing process.

Traditional vs Organic
Wine grapes are an agricultural product.  Traditionally these grapes have been grown and treated like any other ag-related crop.  Vineyard owners and managers use chemicals on the grapes to control viruses, weeds, fungus, pests, and to help increase their yields. Just like grain farmers do.  The problem with grapevines is that they absorb these chemicals through the roots.  The chemicals sprayed directly on the grapes can also be absorbed and end up in the pulp.  Either way, this chemical residue may be found in the finished wine.

Organic farming deals with keeping the soil healthy and free of chemicals.  Rainwater may be gathered and used to irrigate the vineyard.  Rather than using synthetic fertilizers, composted animal manure is utilized.  Instead of herbicides, cover crops are grown.  No pesticides are sprayed, instead natural predators of grape pests are introduced.

What About Sulfites?
Contrary to popular myth, organic wines are NOT sulfite-free. ALL wines contain sulfites, naturally.  Sulfites, also known as Sulfur Dioxide, (SO2) are a natural by-product of the fermentation process.  Sulfites may also be added during fermentation by the winemaker in order to stop the growth of mold and unwanted bacteria, and to preserve the quality and flavor of the wine, thereby reducing spoilage once the wine is bottled.  Traditionally, sweet wines contain more sulfites than dry wines, and white wines have more sulfites than red wines.

Traditionally-grown wines can legally contain sulfite levels up to 350 parts per million (ppm.)  Wines that have been labeled “Made from Organic Grapes” can contain 100 parts per million of sulfite – less than 20 milligrams per glass. Since 1987, the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, formerly known as the BATF; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) has required that all imported and domestic wines, beers and spirits in the U.S. must include the wording on the label “Contains Sulfites” if the wine, beer or spirit contains more than 10 parts per million of sulfites. Most organic wines contain from 6 to 40 parts per million of sulfites, naturally.

Currently the U.S. upholds the strictest organic wine standards in the world.  In order to be labeled as completely organic, a wine cannot be produced with any added sulfites.  These two words make the difference in the definition of organic wine. But this again presents the problem of crafting a stable wine that can retain its quality over time without the addition of extra sulfites. This could lead to organic wines creating a more negative perception when they cannot hold up to most traditionally accepted wines due to oxidation or bacterial spoilage in the bottle.

The general consensus of a select group of wine consumers regarding  wines labeled as organic indicate that consumers hold a lower opinion about organic wines than conventional wines.  The reason? Wine drinkers said organic wines did not taste as good, were not as easy to store, and generally, lacked the quality of traditional wines.

Organic wine producers exist all over the world, but the term organic is only as meaningful as its definition in the country in which it's produced. Something to remember when purchasing non-U.S. "organic" wines.