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Organics in Wine

By: Dan Pilkey

Should we buy wine based on certifications? Are the wines which carry these binding principles better than wines without them? Let’s see if we can’t help with some clarification on this topic and even draw a comparison to other wine certifications.

How did we get here?…Conventional Farming

Dubbed as such when chemicals are used to maintain plants. At a time (circa WWII), chemical farming was a savior to those who needed (and wanted) consistency and vigor in order to produce larger crops and maximize profits. But ultimately the cost of doing so becomes apparent: ***“This method usually alters the natural environment, deteriorates soil quality, and eliminates biodiversity.” ( ***It’s at this point that farmers recognized the unsustainability of conventional farming and began to switch to other forms. In viticultural, it was widely noted that vineyards became unhealthy, and thus – the wines that were made tasted similar.

The 2 types of USDA Organic

As many began to move towards a different, and technically unconventional farming approach, the USDA opens two ways in which viticultural can qualify for “organics.” The more stringent is the USDA Organic label and the slightly more vineyard-specific is “made with organic grapes.” Here’s how they define each:

USDA Organic

USDA Organic
  • Grapes, yeast, and other organic ingredients must all be certified organic, with the exception of substances on the USDA National List of Allowed Substances.

  • No added sulfites are allowed. (less than 10 ppm total)

  • Non-agricultural ingredients cannot exceed 5 percent of the wine. Salt and water are exceptions; these may be added in any volume.

  • Only non-agricultural ingredients that appear on the USDA National List are permitted.

  • Labels must include the name of a specific organic certifying agent. Certifying agents are USDA-accredited organizations.

Made With Organic Grapes

Made with organic grapes
  • All of the grapes used in the wine must be certified organic.

  • Makers may add sulfites up to 100 parts per million. The exception to this rule is wines made with fruits other than grapes.

  • Yeast and other agricultural ingredients are not necessarily required to be organic, although certain production methods are banned. These include genetic engineering and the use of ionizing radiation.

  • Non-agricultural ingredients must appear on the USDA National List.

  • Again, makers must print the certifying agent’s designation on the label.

  • These wines may not use the official USDA Organic label; instead they can advertise that they are made with organic grapes.

Sulfur Dioxide

Overall, you can tell that the most restrictive USDA certification does not allow sulfur dioxide during the winemaking process. Oddly enough, you can add things like yeast, egg whites, animal enzymes which now takes a wine out of being “vegan/vegetarian” and presents a new decision tree. The Food and Drug Administration has determined that products that contain less than 10 ppm of sulfites (aka sulfur dioxide) do not have to include this declaration on the label or they can label the product with the statement "contains less than 10 ppm sulfites." This where the “natural wine” or “soif” movement begins, however we’ll save that for another day. Ironically, most consumers don’t understand why the wine industry uses sulfur and many still think that they’re “allergic” to it. Rubbish! Sulfites - the salts of sulfurous acid or sulfur dioxide (SO2) - are just a common food preservative that prevents the wine from oxidizing after fermentation (it turns brown and the fruit aromas go stale) or spoiling from bacteria once bottled. See below if you don’t believe me…

What’s more important to remember, however, is that even wines labelled as having “no sulfites added,” still have a small amount since sulfites are a natural byproduct of fermentation. Despite some sticklers who believe that organic wine should contain absolutely no sulfites, the more moderate and common opinion is that their use should not exceed between 10 and 100 parts per million (ppm)—just enough to stabilize the wine and to keep barrels and bottles free of microbes. I can tell you with 100% assurance that SO2 works, and I personally would prefer wines that use it, rather than being dogmatic and allowing the grapes or wine to oxidize or exposed to any other bacterial issues. Today, modern techniques and winery hygiene mean that fewer sulfites are required even though the USA has some of the highest allowable SO2 levels – and the wines have benefited from this and so does the consumer. Here’s the latest in SO2 levels in daily products – clearly your wine isn’t the culprit of your medical issues …see below.

Legal Allowances

  • USA 350 mg/L

  • AUS 250 mg/L

  • NZ 250 mg/L

  • EU white/rosé, 200 mg/L

  • EU red 150 mg/L

For the majority of the wines on our platform you’ll find producers who absolutely admit to sourcing grapes or growing their own grapes congruent to USDA “made with organic grapes.” Without question they agree that farming without highly caustic chemical products is the goal. Working the vineyard (and brand) from a holistic approach is sensible and sustainable. Patrick Callagy from Intent only works with organic and/or biodynamic vineyards and has repeatedly expressed the difference in vineyard vitality AND overall health of the fruit from vineyards like these. He’s compared them to others that have been farmed conventionally and it’s rather obvious.

But where the rubber meets the road is the question of “does the wine taste better?”   After talking to Bryan Kane at Howell Mountain Vineyards and Chris Leonard (self-titled winery) it’s clear that the old commercial ‘great cheese comes from happy cows’ was spot-on. Great wine comes from happy grapes and the best way to achieve that is to utilizing some form of these certifications where the ethos of the certification has a hand in organics, sustainability, biodynamics, or regenerative farming…or even pieces from all of them! Because each style works slightly differently, producers have a whole suite of options that all have proven successful in making better wines. More importantly, viticulturalists will each need to weigh what works best given their vineyard locations and threats, predators, or soil/climate issues that are most common. When applied, the best wines are made – period.

So the proof is in the pudding. Indeed! The final wine tastes better. Your homework is to look for these types of certifications on wine bottles or winery brand sheets but I will also challenge you just a bit more. In many businesses, spending on “certifications” could be viewed as an unnecessary expense. Some wineries won’t argue the benefits of the viticultural practice, only argue why they need to pay for a logo on their bottle. So the next time you pick up a bottle and don’t see anything front and center…don’t freak out – do some research and ask questions. Don’t be dogmatic with just one certification but rather, be open to the many ways in which vintners work with vineyards, and are in concert with our planet.

Happy Scoperta’ing!


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