The truth be known, grapes have been cultivated for thousands of years and wine has been consumed in many cultures over that time frame.
Advances in agriculture have improved production, consistency, and yield. However the grape is highly susceptible to disease, pestilence, mold and fungus. As a result, the use of inorganic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides are very common in grape production especially those mass producing table grapes for everyday consumption.
Even though the characteristics of grape production are similar for grape varietals used to produce wine, the entire vinicultural process tends to be more exacting and focused on quality production. This results in “managed production” versus mass production. This is especially true for the smaller boutique vineyards and wineries.
So let’s talk about organic wine. The term “organic wine” creates a great deal of confusion for the average wine drinker. What does organic wine mean exactly? 100% organic? Made from organic grapes? An all natural/organic process? Can wine be truly organic?
The simplest definition of organic wine might be: wine made from grapes which have been cultivated without the use of any inorganic compounds such as fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides. However few things in life are really that simple. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) through its National Organic Program(NOP) is responsible for all labeling standards for any agricultural product being sold as organically grown. Since many of the ingredients used in vinicultural process are not yet certified through the USDA, the definition of organic wines remains clouded and not truly defined.
Generally speaking there are 4 categories for organic wines:
- 100% Organic: Made from organically grown grapes with no non-organic additives used in the wine making process
- Organic: Made from organically grown grapes; 95% organic 5% not available organically (naturally occurring sulfite)
- Made from Organic Grapes: Allows for the addition of non-organic ingredients like sulfite
- Some Organic Ingredients: Contains both organic and non-organic ingredients
Adding to the murkiness of the organic definition, the use of added sulfites in the wine making process. Sulfites are naturally occurring sulphuric compounds associated with the grape and are part of the wine making process. Sulfites act as a preservative by killing microbes and extending the life of the wine. The aging of a wine creates complexity, structure, and layered tastes. Without the addition of sulfites, most wines would need to be consumed at an early age and the pleasures of an aged wine lost.
Editor’s note: (The topic of added sulfites in the wine making process warrants further discussion, perhaps in another article.)
So where does this leave the average wine drinker today in their understanding of organic wine? Understandably confused! Until there is greater work done by the USDA and the NOP, the definition of organic wine will remain murky.
Our suggestions are simple. Wine is meant to be enjoyed either by itself or accompanied with food. Given the local food movement and the desire for more organic food by consumers, it is only natural for the selection of organic wines to grow over time. Just be aware, the variability of the organic wine definition is great.
Raise a glass an enjoy!
Some resources on Organic wines: