The Truth About Organic Wine Classifications

Karen Frazier
Harvesting organic red wine grapes

You've probably heard organic wine is good for the environment and your health, 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 two categories deciding how the wine is labeled. This helps the consumer choose the wine that is best for them.

Organic

This is the ultimate designation for organic wine. It is indicated with a USDA seal on the bottle showing the wines contain 100 percent certified organic grapes.

  • All ingredients used to make the wine must be certified organic by the USDA.
  • Grapes used must be grown organically and Certified Organic by the USDA.
  • All agricultural product that goes in the wine during the winemaking process must also be Certified Organic.
  • All non-agricultural product must be on the list of allowed substances and cannot exceed 5% of the total product. No prohibited substances can be used.
  • Wines that qualify are allowed to claim the 100 Percent Organic Wine classification, but must also indicate the certifying agent's name.

Sulfites, nitrates, and other non-organic ingredients have not been used in the wine's production. Keep in mind that sulfites are a naturally occurring ingredient in wine, infiltrating via the grape's skin. If the level rises above 10 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.

Made With Organically Grown Grapes

The second classification is Made with Organically Grown Grapes (100% USDA Certified Organically Grown Grapes).

  • 100% of grapes used must be grown organically (USDA Certified Organic).
  • Any remaining agricultural products used do not need to be organic.
  • All non-agricultural product must be on the allowed substances list.
  • Sulfites can be added to less than 100 parts per million in the finished wine.
  • Must be produced and bottled in a certified organic facility.
  • Label must state the name of the certifying agent.

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.

Organic Wines Around the World

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.

Organic Wine Without the Label

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.

Organic Versus Biodynamic

A growing trend in the industry is to create wines that are biodynamic. There are currently no laws or regulations regarding biodynamic wines, but the term indicates some form of natural work in the winemaking process. Biodynamic may mean different things to different winemakers, but in general it means the following.

Hand harvesting wine grapes
  • When the grapes for the wines are grown, it is done in concert with the existing ecosystem.
  • Only natural processes are used in the vineyard - no chemical processes such as fertilizer, etc. are used. Instead, fertilization uses compost and similar materials.
  • Think of biodynamic farming as feng shui for grape growing: the various processes of viticulture are undertaken based on the classical elements of earth, air, fire, and water.
  • A biodynamic farming calendar based on the classical elements regulates all parts of the viticulture process including grape growing, pruning, watering, maintenance, and harvest.
  • The wine is not made with any common winemaking manipulations such as adding acids or yeast to adjust the wines.
  • Biodynamic wine is not Certified Organic unless it is labeled as such.

Organic Wineries

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 organic wineries in the United States.

Frey Vineyards

Frey Vineyards is a family owned winery in Mendocino County, California. They create award-winning wines in many types.

Tablas Creek

Tablas Creek creates both red and white estate grown, organic wines.

Montinore Estates

Montinore Estates makes wines that are both biodynamic and Certified Organic.

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 ecosystem benefits. Choosing organic products, whether wine or food, is good for your health as well as the earth.

The Truth About Organic Wine Classifications