The Truth About Organic Wines
There’s a lot of confusion about what an organic wine is, so in this article i am going to attempt to clear a few things up for you…
The vineyard and the winery
In the USA, there is a distinction between ‘organic wine’ and ‘wine made from organic grapes’. The question is whether or not chemicals are used either in the vineyard and/or in the winery. If no chemicals are used throughout, it’s organic wine. If chemicals are only used in the winemaking process (but not the vineyard), it’s wine made from organic grapes.
In Australia, there’s no such distinction. If the grapes are organic, then the final product is organic wine. Unfortunately, most consumers think of organic wine under the US standard, rather than the Australian standard.
Look at the back label of almost any wine and you’ll see something like ‘sulphites added’, ‘minimal sulfur added’ or ‘preservative 220 added’. Despite alcohol being a natural preservative, sulfur is still added to help prevent oxidation and bacterial issues. Without it, the wine doesn’t last very long on the shelf and some organic wines even have use-by dates on them.
The concentration of sulfur allowed in organic wine is usually around 120 parts per million (ppm). By comparison, preserved fruit has upwards of 2,000ppm. There is also a difference between free and bound sulfur, with free sulfur being the variety that can cause health issues for some.
Whatever the case, most people blame sulfur for their headaches or reactions to wine. Many of these consumers also claim that they don’t react to organic wine. If that’s the case, it ain’t the sulfur that’s hurting you!
Some people think of organic wine as ‘healthy wine’ that only serves a certain market. Others think of it as ‘hippy wine’ and that they’ll be seen as treehuggers if they drink it. This may be true for some labels.
In reality, some of the best winemakers use organic (or biodynamic) winemaking practices simply because they care about the purity of the fruit and believe that pure fruit and minimal winemaking intervention makes better wine. Many of these makers don’t feature anything about organic or biodynamic stuff on the label because they don’t need to. They’re not courting the organic crowd, they’re just doing what they think is best for the wine.
Similarly, many organic wine proponents will tell you that organic wine is better. I think there’s a fair amount of self-selection here. If a producer is willing to go to all the trouble of looking after grapes without taking the easy step of using chemicals in the vineyard, then of course they’re going to make a better wine – simply because they care. Thus, (at least some) organic wines will be better not because of the organic process, but because of the attention to detail by the producer.
Wineries that make organic wines include Cullen (including the ‘Diana Madeline’ Cab Merlot, which is seen as on-par with Grange in terms of quality), Curly Flat, Elderton, Battle of Bosworth, Kalleske, Jasper Hill, M. Chapoutier (French), Carlei, Babich, Seresin and many others. Most of them don’t even mention that they’re ‘organic’ on the label.
If you’re reacting to wine, try experimenting with organic wines, but they won’t necessarily help. There are other options out there for you such as ‘natural wines’, which aren’t just anti-chemical, but also against other processes like micro-oxygenation, reverse osmosis and others. Or try things the wave of lower alcohol wines out there.
Finally, there are specific ‘No Preservative Added’ labels, but I’ve found in my experience that they don’t have much longevity on the shelf, as the lack of sulfur in them means they spoil within a year or so of vintage.