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Published on December 17th, 2007 | by Stephanie Evans

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Organic Wines from Sustainable Vineyards

In each aspect of our lives, we want to make choices that both maximize our health and minimize our impact on the environment.  However, it’s tricky determining whether we should incorporate something into our lives when one source we read is telling us one thing, and another provides evidence to the contrary. 

When it comes to the topic of wines—particularly organic wines—separating myth from fact is a particularly daunting task.

Wine Label

Defining Organic Wine

Much of the information available on organic wine is contradictory, especially when conversation turns to the topic of sulfites in organic winemaking.  The USDA’s definition sounds deceivingly simple: an organic wine is made from organically grown grapes to which no sulfur dioxide has been added.  However,since Greco-Roman times, sulfur dioxide has been used as an additive in the winemaking process for its anti-bacterial and anti-oxidant properties.  While sulfites are naturally present at low levels during the winemaking process—as a by-product of the fermenting yeasts present on all grape skins—the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) guidelines state that even a wine made with 99.99% organic ingredients cannot be labeled "organic" unless no sulfur dioxide has been added to it.

As sulfites are naturally occurring, a "no sulfite" or "sulfite-free" wine simply cannot exist.  For this reason, even a wine made organically is only a low-sulfite wine and not sulfite-free.

Sulfites

A percentage of the population experiences sensitivity to sulfites, particularly asthmatics and people with severe allergies.  For those with allergies or sensitivity, having access to a low-sulfite wine means that they can still enjoy the pleasures of wine without concerning themselves with the physical drawbacks.  But a wine made without the preservative of added sulfites, is chemicallya more fragile substance, unstable in nature and more subject to spoilage.  Thus, when "organic" wines (made without the addition of sulfites) were first introduced to consumers in the 1980’s, the resulting impression was poor.  The inferior quality of these initial organic wines was a direct result of the absence of the stabilizing and preserving agent in sulfites, but this disappointing introduction set the tone for the general public misconception still haunting the wine industry to this day: that organic wine is bad wine. 

Today’s organic vintners have a wide array of technologies available to them, allowing them to restrict the amount of sulfur dioxide in wines to a negligible amount, while still preventing oxidation, controlling bacterial growth, and stabilizingthe wine.  These advancements have vastly improved and enhanced the quality of low-sulfite wines since their initial debut.  With the legal maximum sulfite level for U.S.  wines being 350 parts per million (ppm), even conventional wines made today contain far less, averaging about 125 ppm.   A certified organic wine can contain a maximum 10o ppm of naturally occurring sulfites.

The misconceptions surrounding the sulfite debate have levied some consequences for the reputation of organic wines, and seem to have eclipsed the benefits and advantages that organic wine offers.  For example, conventional winemakers would probably not be keen on sharing the fact that grapes are among the most heavily sprayed of all agricultural crops.  Typically, as many as 18 different chemicals are used on non-organically grown grape crops during their growing cycle.  These chemicals are absorbed through the skins of the fruit and seep into the soil around the vine’s root system, and inevitably these chemical residues make it into your wine.  Chemicals also contribute to soil depletion and erosion, water pollution, and loss of bio-diversity in surrounding areas.  By choosing wines made with organically grown grapes, you support the winegrower who is dedicated to working hard to make a higher quality product.   The goals of an organic winemaker are aimed at nurturing the health of the vineyard rather than depleting it.

…conventional winemakers would probably not be keen on sharing the fact that grapes are among the most heavily sprayed of all agricultural crops. 

Organic Grapes in a Biodynamic Vineyard

Uber-Organic

As more consumers are becoming aware of the benefits of adopting an organic lifestyle, more winemakers are converting to organic methods of farming.  Many are also embracing the organic movement’s sister science of biodynamics.  Sometimes described as "uber-organic," the biodynamic method eschews the use of any pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or genetically modified organisms.  With this method, vintners are also treating the farm or vineyard as a closed and self-sustaining system, as the emphasis of biodynamics is on wholeness and the complex interconnection between all things at all levels.   These principles and techniques are based on eight agricultural lectures written by the Austrian philosopher and educator Rudolf Steiner in 1924.

Steiner’s lectures were written in response to a group of farmers concerned for the increase in mechanized and agrochemical methods which were already changing the face of agriculture as they knew it.  Even then, people were realizing that though industrialization in farming might maximize yields and bring big profits, it would inevitably prove itself  impractical in the long run by proving to be detrimental to the sustainability of our ecosystems and providing a less natural way to nourish our bodies.

Over the last 80 years, Steiner’s principles have developed into a recognized and respected alternative to conventional farming methods, which are now being embraced by some of the most successful and high profile vintners in the world.  By following Steiner’sprinciples, winemakers are able to actually see the proof that biodynamics is a viable way to improve the health and future of their vineyards.  In addition,utilizing the principles of biodynamics has aided vintners in making wines thathave a stronger expression of terroir, a French term denoting the special characteristics that a wine possesses, based on the geographical region where its grapes are grown.  The notion of terroir is important to the concept of living a greener life, because the wine itself  promotes the cultivation of community and the consumption of sustainable, locally grown agriculture.  If the label "green wine" can triumph over the stigma that organic wine has been lugging around all of these years, it will be to the benefit of the organic industry as well as the health of all of us who enjoy wine.   À votre santé! 

Article Contributors: Julie Reid and Jim Fetzer  





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