By: Jill Veader
With more and more consumers becoming interested in organic food and the way their food is farmed, it is no surprise that the term “organic wine” is coming up more often in the media. But what exactly does it mean for a wine to be “organic”? How is it different from conventional wine or a low intervention wine?
What is Organic Wine?
Generally, organic farms eliminates the use of pesticides, fungicides, and chemical herbicides in the vineyard. However, pinning down exactly which wines are truly “organic” and which are not can prove a difficult task. Laws determining certified organic practices vary from country to country, and even state to state, creating a lot of different definitions.
The regulations around organic wine differ depending on where the certification is coming from. There is also an important distinction that must be made between labels that read “Certified Organic” and “Made with Organic Grapes.” According to the USDA, for a wine to labeled as “Certified Organic,” in the US, it must meet the following requirements:
- It must utilize only certified organic ingredients, including yeasts
- It must not include any added sulfites (not to be confused with those that are naturally occuring)
- It must be produced without synthetic fertilizers
On the other hand, for a wine to be labeled with “Made with Organic Grapes,” it must be made with grapes that are 100% certified organic. However, the yeasts and other ingredients are not required to be organic. Additionally, some sulfites (up to 100 parts per million) may be added to aid the wine’s shelf life and protect against microbes.
Wines from Europe follow slightly different practices for labeling their wines as “organic.” While the grapes must be grown organically, the EU allows for the addition of sulfites to organic wine. The amount is left up to individual producers.
The labeling system for organic wines is made even more complex by the fact that many wines are indeed made organically but not labelled that way. Winemakers often want to avoid the fees that are associated with the organic certification for their winery, leading them to forgo the tiny green leaf on their wine labels.
How is Organic Wine Different from Natural Wine?
Just because a wine is labeled as organic does not necessarily mean it’s a “natural” wine. While there is no legal definition of natural wine in the US, it is generally regarded as wine that was produced with minimal intervention. That means no additives and no interventions such as filtering are used.
Natural winemaking should use sustainably, biodynamically, or organically grown grapes (certified or not). It should also go a step further and use native yeasts (vs selected yeasts) in fermentation to be considered natural. Organic winemaking is focused on the production of the grapes but does not have to meet these native yeast requirements.
It is safe to understand organic vs natural wine as similar to squares and rectangles: not all organic wines are natural, but all natural wines are going to be organic.
How is Organic Wine Different from Conventional Wine?
Just because a wine is not labeled as organic, does not necessarily mean that it wasn't produced sustainably or with organic fruit. The best way to find out whether a wine is truly organic or not is to research the winery itself. Then you can find out whether they are farming on land that utilizes pesticides and other chemicals. Some sites (like MYSA's) do that work for you so that you can sort and understand what kind of production went into each wine.
On the other hand, there is plenty of wine out there that is mass-produced with little regard for sustainable farming practices or the use of chemicals in their vineyards. The more wine a vintner produces, the less control he or she is able to exercise over the plants themselves.
It is a good rule of thumb that mass-produced, major-label wines are probably not made organically. Smaller wineries in specific regions are the most likely to use organic and sustainable practices in their winemaking. They can typically exercise more control over their vines and winemaking processes.
What About Other Certifications?
Searching for USDA labels isn't the only way to ensure you’re drinking wine that’s better for you and the environment. Many states have their own certification programs, such as California’s Sip Certified label which restricts the use of harmful chemicals in the vineyard. There is also the Demeter Certification, which regulates detailed parameters on biodynamic farming, disease and pest control, and water conservation.
The term organic wine is focused on the grapes and how they were farmed. It varies by certification, but broadly they should exclude any use of chemicals, herbicides, pesticides of fungicides. It is commonly confused with natural wine and biodynamic wine, which both take this definition a step further. While you might see a wine that has an organic certification on the label, that is not the only way to know if a wine is organic (as a lot of producers don't pursue a formal certification).
Having organic production doesn't make a wine taste better or specifically better for your body. But, in the same vein as organic production with food, the less use of non-organic substances is generally a win for the planet and your body.