You have special house guests arriving, so you scour the farmers market for organic fruits and veggies, you head straight for the organic cereals at your local grocer, and you insist that your organic eggs originate with happily pastured birds. Even your bathroom soap is derived from organic plant sources. Great!
But now you're looking for something to dazzle and delight. Can you do that with an organic wine? And what exactly is organic wine? There's only one ingredient in wine-grapes. So if the grapes are organic, the wine must be, right?
In truth, it's not that simple, and it all has to do with sulfites. Sulfites, or sulfur dioxide, are naturally occurring chemicals
with antimicrobial and antioxidant properties that allow them to function as a preservative. In winemaking, sulfites are traditionally added to allow wines to age without becoming tainted.
So the much-debated question is: Even if you have organic grapes, does adding sulfites make wine nonorganic? Different countries have answered this question in different ways, and therein lies the confusion.
The Great Sulfite Debate
In order for a wine to bear the "organic" imprint in the U.S., it must be free of added sulfites and contain no more than 20 ppm of naturally occurring sulfites.
In addition to organic wines, you can also find wines with the designation "made from organic grapes," which means the wine contains up to 100 ppm of sulfites; labels for these wines must say "contains sulfites."
In Canada, Europe, and most other winemaking countries, the "organic" designation may be used for wines made with certifiably organic grapes with added sulfites, but there are modest restrictions on the amount allowed. When these wines are imported here, however, their labels must adhere to U.S. regulations for organic wine.
The Taste Test
In terms of body, finish, and other tasting notes, organic wines have received mixed reviews. There is much discussion and dissension among winemakers and wine lovers as to the quality of organic versus traditional wines. You be the judge. Here are some examples of wineries producing top-rated organic wines and/or wines made with organic grapes:
- Korbel, California
- Chateau Maris, France
- Snoqualmie, Washington
- Frey Vineyards, California
- Robert Sinskey, California
- Copper Mountain Vineyards, Oregon
- Danny Seo Philosophy, California
Ultimately, buying organic wine ensures that the farming methods used to grow the grapes are in accordance with certified organic standards. It's the amount of sulfites that affects the labeling. Check the bottle for the USDA seal for strictly "organic," or any one of several certifying agencies for the "made with organic grapes" designation (see "Decoding the Label," below).
Decoding the Label
A few designations that you are most likely to see on natural wine labels:
- "Organic" These wines contain no added sulfites and have no more than 20 ppm of naturally occurring sulfites.
- "Made with Organic Grapes" The label must say "contains sulfites" and the wine may contain up to 100 ppm of sulfites.
- "SIP Certification" Going a step beyond organic certification, a Sustainability In Practice (SIP) Certification seal guarantees that growers implement a strict set of practices to enhance the environmental and social elements of their business.
- "Biodynamic" This term refers to a specific method of farming and philosophical approach to grape growing developed by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s. Wines that say "biodynamic" on the label must meet strict standards of the Demeter Association, an internationally recognized certification organization.
Best Organic Wine Resource
To learn more about organic wines, discover new wines and wineries, and get food-wine pairing suggestions, visit The Organic Wine Journal online at organicwinejournal.com.