It was only a matter of time before the organic movement reached the vineyards. Most winemakers are farmers. The wines they produce will be only as good as the grapes they grow. So they have a natural interest in growing the best-tasting fruit and maintaining the health of the land for years to come.
Conventional Versus Organic Farming
All grape growers face the same natural obstacles: weather, pests, disease, and weeds. Conventional techniques adopted over the last fifty years to meet nature's challenges have come from man's own inventions — insecticides, chemical fertilizers, fumigants, and herbicides.
Organic farming forsakes chemicals in favor of more “natural” techniques. From a practical viewpoint this means that organic farmers will:
Fertilize using composted animal manure or algae.
Combat weeds by mowing them periodically and allowing them to rot back into the ground, providing organic fertilizer.
Get rid of insects by growing other plants in the vineyard to attract “beneficial” bugs to act as predators.
Organic farming is as much philosophy as practice. The objective is balance in nature and the long-term health of the soil, the plants and, ultimately, the wine drinker. Grapes grown in this fashion can be government certified as organic grapes. The wine can then be advertised as wine from “organically grown grapes.” The irony is that many producers are using organic techniques because they make good sense — but not seeking certification because of the rigidity of government oversight.
Conventional Versus Organic Winemaking
The term organic — or, more precisely, the government certification of a wine as “organic” — doesn't stop at the harvest. Organic winemakers have to use only approved organic methods in cellar operations as well. The subject of organic has been muddied over the practice of adding sulfur dioxide (sulfites), which is the main ingredient wineries use to extend the shelf life of wine.
The health effects of sulfites are negligible except for a small percentage of people who have a sensitivity. It's difficult to make a wine that will keep for any length of time without adding some sulfites to those that are naturally produced by the yeasts during fermentation. But to be able to call a wine “organic,” the winemaker has to abide by strict, government-mandated sulfite rules.
How to Know You're Getting “Organic”
Organic claims on store shelves are just plain confusing. When you want an organic alternative to conventional wine, who and what should you believe? The answer is on the label — if you understand what the terms mean. There are four categories that organic wines can claim:
100 Percent Organic. The wine must be from 100 percent organically produced ingredients. There can be no added sulfites. It can have naturally occurring sulfites from fermentation, but they have to measure less than 100 parts per million.
Organic. The wine must be from 95 percent organic ingredients. The non-organic 5 percent has to be either an agricultural ingredient that's not organically available or another substance like added yeast. There can be no added sulfites, but naturally occurring sulfites can measure up to 100 parts per million.
Made with Organic Ingredients/Organic Grapes/Organically Grown Grapes. The wine must be from 70 percent organic ingredients. Sulfites have to measure below 100 parts per million.
Some Organic Ingredients. The wine has less than 70 percent organic ingredients. The label can't have any information about a certifying agency or any other reference to organic content.
Simply put, “organic” wines are made from certified organic grapes and contain no additives such as sulfites. Wineries that use organic grapes but add sulfites or other additives can only be labeled “made with organically grown grapes.” To give you a leg up on your next organic wine-buying expedition, here are some wineries that produce certified organic wines:
Frey Vineyards, California
Badger Mountain Vineyard, Washington
Bonterra Vineyards, California
Cooper Mountain Vineyards, Oregon
Organic Wine Works, California