enhanced in 2018
Organic grapes and natural wine
The European label of "organic wine" is deceitful. Learn the difference between "organic wine", wine without sulfites, and natural wine. Even though some European bottles are labeled "organic wine", the winemaking process is not organic (but it could be respectful). Let me explain in turn: organic farming, sulfites and natural wines.
Conventional wine growing
Wine growers buy lots of pesticides. ‘Terra Vitis’ is not a label of organic farming. It is the label of Integrated Pest Management Agriculture. This approach puts a cap on the use of pesticides and other pollutants. It enables conventional agriculture to proclaim their will to reduce their adverse effects on environment while continuing to pollute. Here is more about the chemicals in wine and their effects on the body.
The growing of grapes can conform to organic farming. Organic farming is defined by regulation (country-specific) or stand-alone certification. It avoids chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. Organic farming uses non-chemical fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides (notably the "Bordeaux mixture", a mixture of copper sulfate and slaked lime used as a fungicide). Copper and sulfur are spread in the fields.
Herebelow are some certification organisations. They are roughly ordered from loose specification to stringent requirement:
On the US market, for a wine to be labeled ‘Organic’ and bear the USDA organic seal, it must be made from 95% organically grown ingredients. It thus may contain up to 5 % produce from conventional farming. Certification is handled by state, non-profit and private agencies that have been approved by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
- the State agency.
ECOCERT is a company which delivers organics or biodynamics certificates in France. They do not always take soil or plant samples to submit to laboratory to check e.g. for traces of pesticides.
- Demeter is a global independent brand for biodynamics.
Organic farming is better for the local biosphere. This includes people: organic viticulture harms vineyard workers less — much less than conventional viticulture.
In itself organic growing does little for the taste of the wine to be consumed.
Many wines labeled ‘organic’ are actually made with conventional methods: only the grapes are organic. The famed Ridge winery has a complementary view on the matter.
From the 2012 vintage European Union labels show ‘organic wine’. This label allows all the below practices and thus permits big producers to benefit from the consumer requests for organic produces.
Your wine is not organic
There are no such things as green cars or organic wines. These marketing concepts are pushed by commercial interests. They mislead to sell.
Once the grapes are farmed organically, the wine is made. If it is made in a ‘natural’ fashion, the label usually does not say ‘organic’ or ‘natural’.
On the contrary the organic grapes can be turned to wine with the conventional means. European Union definition of ‘organic wine’ permits:
- mechanical harvesting;
- innoculation of commercial yeasts;
- pomace pummeling;
- reverse osmosis, MOX;
- use of ion exchange resins, acacia gum, oak chips, pectolytic enzymes;
- addition of sulfites, acid, tannins.
Problems with sulfites
Sulphur dioxide is the chemical compound with the formula SO2. Its usual form is that of a dense toxic gas.
A sulfite is a compound that contain the sulfite ion SO32-. Free sulfites smell like a struck match (a match head is basically sulfur and phosphorus). Sulfites (or sulphites) also cause nasal irritation if present in large amounts in wine.
Taking sulphites may cause headaches, migraines or asthma crisis. It is not so much that wine would be of bad quality than it is that there are too much sulphites in the wine. Some white grapes (typically chardonnay) give relatively stable wines even with low amounts of sulfites. Other white varietals may have some sugar left over from vinification and thus need greater amounts of sulfites. Avoid sweet white wines as they tend to contain more sulphites than others.For example: Perigord, France | Hong Kong, China | San Francisco, CA
Why add sulfites to wine?
Sulfites are the most widely used and controversial additive in winemaking. Their main functions are to inhibit or kill unwanted yeasts and bacteria, and to protect wine from oxidation. Oxidation is the reaction of wine with oxygen. It can alter its colour and odour (tending to make wines darker and dryer) and is often dismissed as a fault. Moreover many wine authorities will tell you that it is impossible to make a wine which ages well without using sulphur dioxide. This is just not true. The SO2 drastically inhibits the process of oxidation. The alternative is to control oxidation.
There are four points at which sulfites are commonly used in conventional winemaking, although the winemaker may choose to make further additions if he is feeling nervous.
Sulfur is applied in the form of metabisulfite to inhibit the action of native yeasts and prevent oxidation. It means the grapes don’t have to be rushed to the winery.
Sulfur is added to prevent fermentation from beginning with ambient yeasts before cultured yeasts can be added. Commercial yeasts are bred to be more resistant to sulphur dioxide.
Sulfur is applied at any point during fermentation, but most commonly at the end to stop or avoid malolactic fermentation. A natural winemaker has to wait for the malo to finish naturally.
Sulfur is added to prevent oxidation or any microbial action in the bottled wine. In sweet wines there is the danger that fermentation will restart.
A natural wine maker would only ever use sulfur at bottling, only in white wines, and only in very small quantities. Using none at all is risky.
According to the Guidelines for Labeling: Wine with Organic References from the U.S. Dept. of Treasury - Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms:
"100% Organic" products cannot use added sulfites in production. Therefore, since no added sulfites are present in the finished product, the label may not require a sulfite statement. In these cases, a lab analysis is necessary to verify that the wine contains less than 10 ppm of sulfites.
The legislation of the European Union imposes a similar sulfite indication since 2005. Food ingredients that must be labelled include:
Sulphur dioxide and sulphites at concentrations of more than 10 mg/kg or 10 mg/litre expressed as SO2.
Natural vs organic wine
Natural wines are a movement, not a label. The idea is to stop considering that a person is making the wine: the vintner is rather accompanying the winemaking. A natural wine is one with:
- permaculture or organically-grown grapes;
- harvested by hand;
- rushed to the winery;
- fermented on wild yeasts;
- no rape pummeling;
- low levels of sulfites (or none at all).
The USDA’s NOP (National Organic Program) labels "organic wines" wines made from 100% organically grown grapes that have been vinified without the use of added sulfites. It specifies that even naturally occurring sulfites (found in every wine, natural or not) must be under 10 parts per million. So this labelling satisfies the items 1 and 6 of the list above but not items 2, 3, 4 and 5. Furthermore so-called "organic wines" may contain GMO.Iceland | Manhattan, NYC | UK
Differences in taste
A wine made from organic grapes can taste conventional : the palette includes some standard aromas.
A natural wine essentially is fermented grape juice. It is one of the alternatives to the standardization of taste. Please read more on such considerations in my wine tasting manifesto.
So called "organic wine" gives headaches. Find wines that are good for you and that have more taste. You can discover varied tastes if you buy recommended wines near you. They can be found by entering a location name in a search box on this page.