Most people are familiar with organic foods, but organic wine is more of a novelty, and can be a bit more confusing. The terminology alone can leave you scratching your head. What’s the difference between “organic wine” and “wine made with organically grown grapes”? Then there is “sustainable”, “biodynamic” and, the big buzzword, “sulfite-free.” So how do you make sense of it all?
To begin, it is critical to remember that wine is a two-part process of vineyard and winery. The first part involves growing the grapes, and the second includes all the steps from crushing, fermentation, aging and bottling that transforms grapes into a finished wine. Most of the terms above apply to how the grapes are grown.
Organic vs. Organically-Grown
There are two common labels for organic wines: ‘organic’ and ‘made with organically grown grapes.’ So what’s the difference? A wine that is labeled ‘organically-grown’ means that no pesticides or synthetics were used in the vineyard. However, additives can be used during winemaking, including sulfites. For a wine to be ‘certified organic,’ it has to be made solely with organic grapes and it cannot have any added sulfites or non-organic elements added during the winemaking process. Sulfites occur naturally in grapes during fermenation, so no wine is completely sulfite-free, but those without added sulfites will often have sulfite levels so low they are undetectable.
Biodynamic and Sustainable
Biodynamic and sustainable wines, while not regulated by the USDA, promote the healthiness of the vineyard and the finished wine. Biodynamic wines are the result of a complex process that incorporates astrological influences and lunar cycles. In essence, this practice protects and encourages the delicate ecosystem to create pure wines, expressive of the vineyard and vintage. There are no synthetic chemicals allowed in growing the grapes or manipulations allowed during winemaking, such as the addition of yeast, sugar, acid, etc. (sulfites, however, are still allowed).
‘Sustainable wine’ simply refers to the ecologically responsible manner in which the grapes are grown. There are no restrictions or rules to sustainable farming, but rather, it reflects a commitment to the land to create a healthy environment and vibrant ecosystem. Often these wines involve some organic or biodynamic practices but are not so strictly followed as to gain certification.
Sulfite-free: Worth the Headache?
Sulfites are commonly blamed for the dreaded wine headache, in spite of the fact that there is no scientific evidence supporting a correlation between headaches and sulfites. Sulfites are a natural by-product of fermenting grapes and have been present in wine since the Greco-Roman period. Sulfites act as a preservative and stabilizer and keep wines fresh. Because they occur naturally in such low amounts, winemakers will often add synthetic sulfites prior to bottling to retain flavor, control bacteria and extend shelf life. The amount of sulfites in regular wine is pretty minimal compared to other food products, such as dried fruits. In order to be certified as organic, food products cannot contain added sulfites. Whether this is important to you or not, it is worth noting that only 1% of the population is believed to be affected by sulfites at all.
Why Should I Care?
The food and wine you put into your body affects not only your health, but also the health of our ecosystem. Using toxic chemicals in vineyards pollutes local watersheds, contributes to soil depletion and limits biodiversity. Depending on where they are grown, conventionally grown grapes are among the most heavily sprayed of crops. On the flip side, organically grown grapes promote the natural ecosystem and work in tandem with nature. The grapes are healthier, with higher levels of nutritional yeast for cleaner fermentation and less need for added sulfites. One UC Davis study showed that organic fruits and vegetables showed 58 percent higher natural antioxidants than non-organic produce.
More than ever, it is easy to find great organic, sustainable and biodynamic wines. By purchasing these wines, you support conscientious vintners and encourage other wineries to follow suit. To find wines that fit your style, ask your local wine merchant or search online for a greater selection.