Demystifying Organic, Biodynamic & Natural Wines
There is no global certifying body for organic wine, but regardless of where they are from, they must be made from organically grown grapes.
In a nutshell, this means that for grapes to be considered organically farmed, the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilisers are not permitted.
Rather confusingly, even within the same country there are often a variety of certifying bodies.
This has come about because, over the years, each country has developed their own set of rules for organic farming. These rules will take into consideration factors such as the geographical location, the climate, the existing legal regulations as well as the farming tradition and philosophy of the local grape growing farmers.
In Europe, The International Organisation of Vine & Wine (OIV) are an intergovernmental science and technical agency which all grape growers and wine makers reference for technical rules and regulations. In EU Resolution 460/2012, the OIV state that organic viticulture must look to maintain and protect ecosystems, soil fertility, natural resources, increase biodiversity and promote ecological cycles. Organic growers must also eliminate or minimise the use of chemical interventions in favour of using organic products and the use of genetically modified products is forbidden.
Other countries, for example Chile, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have similar over-arching rules if you are growing grapes organically and want to be certified. In the US, under The Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations, a wine can only be certified organic if the grapes and their conversion to alcohol is organic. So, for example, if yeasts are added these must also be organic.
Whilst the USDA note that wine naturally produces some sulfites, these can’t be added to this category of organic wine. There is a further category for organic wine in the US which is closer to the EU regulations. This category is for wines ‘made with organic grapes’ and in this category, the grapes must also be certified organic. Yeasts and other agricultural ingredients aren’t required to be organic and sulfites may be added to these wines up to a maximum of 100 parts per million.
Of all the products that can be used to assist the grape grower and winemaker, the most discussed in wine circles is sulfites. That said, sulfites are probably the most misunderstood item you will see on a wine label and a quick Google search will turn up plenty of material that demonises their use in wine making.
There are however some important points to note on this topic. Not least of these, is the fact that sulfites, in small quantities, are present in all wines because during a wines fermentation process they are produced naturally. So, no wine is sulfite free even if the wine maker has not added them.
In the EU all wines which exceed sulfite levels of 10mg/litre must declare this on the label whether they are organic, biodynamic, natural or “no sulfite added” wines. Also, widely used in the food and beverage industry, as a preservative for dried fruits, soft drinks, pre-washed salads and processed meats, sulphites can be identified on labels as the E220 to E228 numbers. Permitted quantities in food are often much higher than that used for wine preservation.
On wine, sulfite warning labels are a legal requirement and whilst allergies or sensitivity is reported in a small percentage of the population, the percentages may rise in asthma sufferers. Worth noting also, according to the current science, it is now believed that alcohol rather than sulfites are likely to be the cause of headaches. I would continue to advocate, that drinking good quality wine rather than quantity is infinitely more satisfying, it is best enjoyed consumed moderately, over a period of time with a meal with water.
In defence of sulfites in winemaking, they can trace their use back to ancient Rome where their preservative properties were employed to extend the storage of wine without spoilage. In those days we can say for certain that vine-growing and winemaking was certainly organic as synthetic herbicides and pesticides did not exist.
Bottom line is that the use of sulfites, whilst allowing for some gentle evolution with age, preserves the wine as closely as possible to how the winemaker wanted us to experience it. With so much to ponder, it is always useful to take things back to basics and in truth if you ask any quality grape-grower/winemaker today organic or not they will tell you that their objective is to respect their vineyards and to use as little sulfite as possible during winemaking.
But each year is different, so in the years where the weather has been kind, the grapes are healthy and without disease, sulfite reduction is most certainly an option. It is trickier in cooler climates or in wet humid years, so it follows that in general it is easier to grow grapes organically in warmer, less humid areas such as Sicily or the Languedoc and trickier in cooler wetter regions such as Bordeaux. But what does it all mean when deciding what to buy?
A simple definition might be helpful; Certified Organic wine are made from organically grown grapes, there are numerous certification bodies. Biodynamic wines are globally certified by Demeter and are grown from organically grown grapes. In addition, there is a focus on soil health, biodiversity and the use of homeopathic plant teas to support vine health.
Natural wine has no legal definition nor any certifying body but typically the grapes would be organically grown and most natural wine makers do not add sulfites. This means that the wine will often evolve much more quickly in the bottle and there is a possibility of spoilage so taste the wine before you buy and drink as soon as you can.
There are many producers who farm organically but who choose not to certify. This may be because of the associated costs of certification or ironically, many feel the organic rules regarding sulfite use are too liberal. Also, some growers want the option to spray the vineyards in weather challenged years to save their crop of precious grapes.
In the end we owe it to ourselves, and our planet to seek out quality focused grape growers and wine makers who are trying to make the very best wine they can, as naturally as possible, whilst showing maximum environmental respect, in that given year.
This article was originally published in Wine Issue 7 October 2018 (O'Briens Wine) & Taste.ie Jan 2019.