You've probably heard organic wine is good for the environment, but how does it taste? Learn everything you ever wanted to know about organic, sustainably produced wines.
Organic Wine Classifications
National Organic Program (NOP) under the USDA maintains the organic standards in the United States. The NOP classifies organic wine in four categories deciding how the wine is labeled. This helps the consumer choose the wine that is best for them.
100 Percent Organic Wine
This is the ultimate designation for organic wine. It is indicated with a USDA seal on the bottle showing the wines contain 100 percent organic certified grapes. This means sulfites, nitrates and other non-organic ingredients have not been used in the wine's production. Wines that qualify are allowed to claim the 100 Percent Organic Wine classification, but must also indicate the certifying agent's name. Keep in mind that sulfites are a naturally occurring ingredient in wine, infiltrating via the grape's skin. If the level rises above 20 ppm, then the USDA's 100 Percent Organic label cannot be used.
Sulfites also help the wine maintain stability during storage. It can be difficult to make wines with consistent flavor when no added sulfites are used.
Organic, Made with Organic Grapes
If at least 95 percent of the wine is from organic grapes, the winemaker can put an organic label on the bottle. The other five percent can include non-organic material, like yeast, that is not available in organic form. The no sulfite added and certifying agency label rules still apply. There can be no added sulfites in this wine. This category still qualifies for a USDA seal.
Made with Organic Ingredients
This is the lowest classification for organic wine, and it does not qualify for a USDA seal. At least 70 percent of the grapes used must be organic, with the remaining 30 percent being non-organic material. In some cases, sulfites may be added but should be indicated as an ingredient with the wine containing no more than 100 ppm. The ingredients must be listed when organic labeling is used. The certifying agency and address can be listed as well as their seal but without the USDA seal.
Some Organic Ingredients
This category is worth mentioning because organic grapes may be included. However, this will be less than 70 percent with more than 30 percent non-organic agriculturally produced ingredients allowed. The label needs to identify the organic ingredient with percentage when indicated on the label. There will be no USDA or certifying label.
What's the Bad Rap on Sulfites?
Sulfites appear to be one of the hurdles to making organic wine. Wines with more than 10 ppm of sulfite must bear the label, "Contains Sulfites." While the label connotes a warning, the fact is sulfites occur naturally during fermentation, primarily coming from the skins.
Sulfites are nothing new. They have been used as a food preservative for decades, often with fruit and vegetables. Winemakers may add small amounts to prevent oxidation and spoilage, which is particularly helpful for aging wines. Some people are sensitive to sulfites. They may experience allergic reactions including headaches and dizziness upon ingestion.
USDA and Other Regulating Organizations - Who's in Charge
In the United States, the USDA is not the sole governing body to oversee and monitor the organic laws of the country. They are in charge, but other agencies get to grab a piece of the pie. This doesn't help make it easy for the winemaker to get that organic label on their wines. First, a USDA accredited certifying agent must verify a producer's claim regarding organic wine. Second, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) is responsible for wine labeling, and the government agency will review the organic status application for compliance. The ATF becomes the enforcer to ensure that organic producers do not misrepresent the wine's ingredients. Consequently, some wineries have determined it is not worth the effort and expense to get the certified organic label on their wines.
Is It Worth It?
Producers have struggled to make wines with character and depth. Reducing the sulfites to practically nothing can handicap wines from developing a rich and profound personality. Happily, many producers are improving techniques, and their winemaking processes are allowing them to turn out excellent and flavorful wines without added sulfites.
Similar to other organic products, the supply and demand for organic wine is growing worldwide.
As you would expect, the largest percentage of organic wine in the United States comes from California, particularly from Mendocino. Around the world, organic wine is taking hold in France, Spain, Italy, Argentina, Chile, Australia, and New Zealand. The trend should continue into the future.
Many winemakers are not making a concerted effort to get their wine labeled as organic. One reason may be that the certification process is a pain. Another issue may not be organic grape production, but rather issues arising in the winemaking. Many of the processes such as fining, filtration, and handling still need qualification and regulation. Then again, the term "organic" may carry a negative stigma in marketing that wineries want to avoid.
There are not a lot of organic wineries in the world but the number is growing right along with consumer demand. Following are a few of the award winning organic wineries in the United States.
Frey Vineyards is a family owned winery in Mendocino County, California. They create award winning wines in many types.
Tablas Creek creates both red and white estate grown, organic wines.
Patianna Vineyards creates a variety of certified organic wines.
Organic Wines Are Gentle on the Environment
Organic wine, whether it is certified or not, is an environmentally responsible choice. When growers use organic farming methods to grow their grapes, the entire eco-system benefits. Choosing organic products, whether wine or food, is good for your health as well as the earth.