All you need to know about organic wine
I wrote a little about organic wine in my blog post on the differences between natural, organic & bio-dynamic wine without going into much detail about the term "organic wine". And since "organic" is one of the most searched for terms on the Wines With Attitude website, it seems to be a priority for discerning wine consumers perhaps because of one or a combination of the following concerns: the environment, health, quality of product, animal welfare and / or provenance. This blog post will therefore focus on organic wine and answer questions such as:
- what is organic wine?
- how do you know if a wine is organic or not?
- are organic wines better wines?
- and is it worth buying organic wines?
What is organic wine?
It is important to differentiate between organic wine and organic grapes because a wine can be made from organic grapes but the wine itself may not be organic. How so?
Wine produced with organic grapes but not itself organic will be labelled “wine made from organic grapes”. The organic practices required in the production of wine made from organic grapes are limited to the vineyard so for example there are strict limits on the use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers but the winemaker will have more freedom in what he or she can add to, or take out of, the wine during the wine production process. For example, he or she may chose to add sorbic acid to wine made from organic grapes albeit amounts are limited by the EU; this substance may be used to prevent yeast fermentation in the bottle but the practice is frowned upon by more reputable winemakers as the issue can be prevented by careful filtration and good hygiene. In addition most people can detect sorbic acid at levels of 135mg per litre whilst EU limits are above that at 200mg per litre.
A truly organic wine must be produced from organic grapes AND follow strict regulations dictating the production of the wine in the winery. So using the above example an organic wine would not be permitted to have any sorbic acid added. Other limitations include most notably sulphur dioxide levels in still wine which must be at least 50mg per litre lower than the levels allowed in non-organic still wine (read more on sulphites in wine). This is the equivalent of 33% lower for red still wines and 25% lower for still white wines.
Therefore an EU organic wine will be produced from grapes that have seen have no pesticides or fertilisers but, contrary to popular belief, it may have had extra sulphites added, though the levels will almost certainly be lower than in non-organic wines. And as you can read in my sulphites blog post sulphites are not necessarily a bad thing as long as limits are controlled.
Note that to answer this question I focused on the EU guidelines by which EU organic wine producers must abide. I used this source because EU wines account for a large percentage of wines consumed in the UK. For your information, non-EU organic wines are imported into the EU under "equivalency rules" which means that they have been produced and controlled according to a standard equivalent to the EU system. However there can still be differences in definitions; in the USA for example organic wines will have no added sulphites (or sulfites) and carry this label.
How to find organic wines
Organic wines are usually easily identifiable; look for the EU organic logo (green leaf with stars) on organic wines produced in the EU after July 2012 and country-specific organic certification logos (like the UK Soil Association below or the French 'Agriculture Biologique').
Certification of organic grapes and of organic wine is controlled by various control bodies in each country authorised by the EU to monitor the winemakers; there is a conversion period of at least two years before the organic label can be used and annual checks are carried out to ensure organic principles continue to be applied. Only a small percentage of the world's vineyards are certified organic though increasing numbers are striving to gain certification.
The UK Soil Association is one of a number of regulators in England. Unfortunately different certifying bodies can have slightly different criteria and regulations about growing grapes though all must ensure that the EU regulations are adhered to.
Uncertified wines may still be produced according to organic principles as producers may be working towards certification or prefer to remain uncertified for whatever reason. Some of these producers may boast on the label of production "according to organic principles". But they are often referred to as organic wines even if not certified (I mention in the tasting notes on the website if my wines are not certified organic).
Are organic wines better wines?
The organic wine industry first gained some traction in the 1970s but has had a chequered history until relatively recently. In fact as mentioned earlier it was only in 2012 that the EU came up with a written definition of organic wine, after the USA, Chile, Australia and South Africa had already set their own organic wine regulations and standards. And whilst there is an ever-increasing number of people buying organic food, sales of organic wine are not increasing at the same pace. I am asked more about vegan wine than organic wine.
One of the problems for organic wine is its definition. There is no worldwide standard for organic wine as we have seen. There is added confusion from the often interchangeable but incorrect use of the terms "organic", "bio-dynamic", "natural" and "raw" wines as mentioned in my blog post on the differences between those terms. And in the early days of organic wine there was also a problem with rapid deterioration in some low sulphite wines which did not help the reputation. Fortunately winemakers have improved their techniques and management of sulphites so that this is rarely a problem now.
There was also resistance from within the industry which perhaps saw organic wine as a threat to the norm and there was a more general lack of belief that more naturally produced wines were of a higher quality as was and is still claimed.
The EU's Organic Farming website gives the following definition of organic grapes: "Organic grapes are grown on vines in soils, managed in harmony with nature, containing large numbers of earthworms, beetles and other organisms. The grape varieties chosen are adapted to local conditions and as resistant to disease as possible. From these organic grapes local wineries and chateaux produce high quality and rich wines."
And according to the EU, organic farming relates to "agricultural production systems that seek to provide the consumer with fresh, tasty and authentic food while respecting natural life-cycle systems...".
The EU links organic production to high quality and taste. Are these claims justified?
In terms of quality it can be argued that less intervention in wine produces purer wines which are more reflective of their terroir. And in my experience winemakers who really care about how their wine is produced usually achieve the elements of high quality wine which are in my opinion balance, complexity and finish.
But only you can be the judge of whether organic wines taste better.
Is it worth buying organic wines?
To go back to the question at the beginning whether it is worth buying organic wine, it depends...
- if you are concerned about sustainability and the environment, then an organic certification can give you certain assurances about how your wine was produced
- if you want to make sure that you are tasting the best wine, not necessarily so... after all and as I say often, wine is all about your personal taste. Buying organic does not necessarily mean that you are going to like a wine better than a non-organic wine.
As regular readers of my wine blog posts and followers of Wines With Attitude will know that I like wines from smaller, artisanal producers who practise minimal intervention and let the wines speak for the terroir, the vintage and the condition of the grapes - see my blog post on terroir for more information. This usually means that these producers:
- show respect for the environment and sustainability even if they do not always farm according to certified organic standards,
- often harvest the grapes by hand,
- use yeasts that occur naturally in the winery rather than adding any manufactured (specifically cultured) yeast,
- do not add vitamins or enzymes or intervene with the natural acidity, tannins or sugar of the wine (something that commercial wine producers regularly do)
- do not alter alcohol in wine by harsh processes such as spinning or reverse osmosis
- add minimal (or no) sulphur
Not all Wines With Attitude wines are organic - but they are all tasty and all of high quality.
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