What Makes Organic Wine Organic? banner image

What Makes Organic Wine Organic?

Consumers increasingly are taking avid interest in how and where their food is produced, and wine is definitely part of this trend. We have lots of questions. Are chemical pesticides or herbicides used in the vineyard? Is the environment harmed in any way? What exactly is in this bottle? Are any artificial additives employed in the winery? What about terms like “organic” and “sustainable?” What makes organic wines organic? The laws that govern these terms and how they relate to grape-growing and winemaking can be quite tricky. Let’s take a closer look.

Organic Wine at Biodynamic Vineyards

What is sustainable farming?

Wine Spectator gives a thorough definition of sustainable as it relates to the production of wine:

“Sustainability refers to a range of practices that are not only ecologically sound, but also economically viable and socially responsible. (Sustainable farmers may farm largely organically or biodynamically but have flexibility to choose what works best for their individual property; they may also focus on energy and water conservation, use of renewable resources and other issues.) Some third-party agencies offer sustainability certifications, and many regional industry associations are working on developing clearer standards.”

The sustainable label is useful; it tells the consumer which wines are made with ecological, economical, and social principles in mind. Its limitation is that it is locally defined and therefore varies regionally.

What is organic wine?

“Organic” is a system of farming and food processing, as well as a label. In the USA, use of the term is regulated by the National Organic Program (NOP) of the Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service, in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. These entities ensure uniform and reliable standards.

Organic farming and food processing integrates cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster the cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering are not allowed. Products from outside of the cycle are used minimally. There are also rules regarding the amount of sulfites in finished wine, as shown below. Keep in mind that these limits apply to all wine made available to consumers in the USA, whether produced here or imported.

Plants growing between organic vineyard rows

For the sake of comparison, let’s first take a look at conventionally produced wines. These are allowed to contain sulfite levels up to 350 mg/L. As for organic wines, the NOP allows for two categories:

  1. Wine made from organic grapes with the addition of sulfites during the winemaking process. Sulfites are allowed in small amounts (less than 100 mg/L (ppm)); this wine cannot be labeled as “organic” but can mention the use of organic grapes.

  2. Wine made from organic grapes with no added sulfites. This wine can be labeled as “organic.”

But is 100 mg/L a lot? Further, does “no added sulfites” mean that there are no sulfites at all in the finished wine? To give some perspective on these numbers, understand that natural yeasts, which are present on healthy grape skins, produce trace amounts of sulfites, usually around 15mg/L and often up to 20mg/L. Since 1988, in the USA, all wines containing more than 10mg/L must state “contains sulfites” on the label. That means that just about every wine produced and imported — whether organic, made with organic grapes, or conventionally produced — will say this. So obviously that labeling requirement by itself doesn’t help the consumer much.

Additionally, there are about 70 groups of products allowed as additions (and not required to be listed on labels) in the conventional wine making process in the USA, Europe Union (EU), Australia, and Japan. But these products are restricted from organic wines according to the National List.

Two issues further complicate the organic label. As we have seen, foreign producers wishing to sell their wines in the USA must comply with the standards here. However, the EU and other wine producing countries have different laws regarding allowable sulfite levels.

In the EU, allowable sulfite levels depend on the type of wine being made. In organic wine, sulfite levels must be at least 30-50 mg/L lower than their conventional equivalent. The EU allows only 150 mg/L of sulfites in finished conventional red wines, which means that red wine labeled as organic in the EU may contain as much as 100 mg/L of sulfites in the finished product. For conventional white wines in the EU, 200 mg/L is the sulfite limit, and 150 mg/L is the limit for organic whites. For conventional sweet wines, the legal limit in the EU is 450 mg/L; for organic versions that level depends on the sugar levels in the finished wine.

While the USA certainly requires a lower level of sulfites in its organic wines compared to the EU, remember that we also allow a much higher level of sulfites in our conventional table wines. The EU also does not have a distinct category for wines made only from organically grown grapes like we have here.

The second issue that complicates the understanding of organic wines is the non-labeling of some wines that are indeed organic, or nearly so. Some of these are neither certified nor labeled as such because many producers — whether in the USA or abroad — do not want to deal with the bureaucracy or fees associated with the certification process. So they skip it.

So what about biodynamic wines?

Biodynamic refers to a form of agriculture very similar to organic farming, and winery methods similar to those required for organic winemaking, but which include various concepts from the ideas of Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925). Steiner’s philosophy treats soil fertility, plant growth, plant products, livestock care, and livestock products as ecologically interrelated. Biodynamic agriculture uses compost and manure for fertilization, natural herb and mineral supplements for field sprays, and prohibits the use of anything artificial on the farm. It treats the entire vineyard as an interrelated part of a self-sufficient farm and considers the influence of weather, air pressure, seasons, and movements of the moon and planets on the rhythms of the farm. The term “biodynamic” refers to both the agricultural methods used to grow the vines, as well as winery processing.

Organic winemaking at a certified biodynamic winery

Biodynamic wines run into similar labeling and conceptual problems as organic wines. Demeter is the organization that certifies products labeled as biodynamic. While International Demeter ensures a comprehensive certification process and strict compliance, it is important to realize that there are different Demeter certification organizations in every country (and often several within each country).

Furthermore, biodynamic farming reaches farther back in history than the Demeter certification and Steiner. Historically, before any chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and mechanizations were available, farmers had to understand seasons and the natural interconnectedness of things in order to achieve successful crops. To this day many winegrowers, especially in Europe, still practice biodynamic philosophies on their farms and see no point in spending time and money for Demeter to brand and certify them as biodynamic.

Use of sheep in Biodynamic organic vineyard farming

Wine.com categorizes these types of wines — biodynamic, organic, and sustainably farmed — into an overall “Green” category. You can rest assured that anything that we’ve put a green leaf next to has been produced in an ecologically responsible manner with the environment and our health in mind.

If you have a specific allergy or concern, our Green wine category is a great place to start your wine search. After locating wines you are interested in, contact our recommendations team for more information or the producer to find out more on their production details.

Here are some examples of different “Green” wines we carry to help you get started.

Biodynamic producers

King Estate Signature Pinot noir
Grgich Hills Cabernet-Sauvignon
Zind-Humbrecht Calcaire Gewurztraminer
Kamen Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
Chateau Pontet-Canet Pauillac
Manincor “Mason” Pinot Nero

Producers who use biodynamic practices; produce some wines organically

Tikal Natural Organic Red Blend

Producers who use sustainable practices; produce some wines organically

Yalumba Organic Viognier

Organically grown grapes with minimal to zero winery intervention

Mauro Veglio Barolo Arborina
Frog’s Leap Zinfandel

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