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The O Word: Organic Wines

With Earth Day just a few days away, I thought it was the perfect time to talk about organic wine. The “o” word is thrown around so much these days that it’s hard to see through the hype and discover just what's behind the label. Here's a primer to get you started: Each country sets its own criteria for organic standards, but in the U.S. organic wine is defined as wine made from organically grown grapes, which means that no pesticides, fertilizers, fungicides, and herbicides have been used.

 

In the U.S., sulfites are prohibited in organic wines (although small amounts of sulfites occur naturally, no additional sulfites may be added). If the wine has sulfites but is otherwise organic, it is labeled “wine made from organic grapes,” and those that don’t contain sulfites will have a shorter shelf life. In addition, some winemakers choose not to use cultured yeasts during winemaking, although this isn’t a requirement. France, Italy, and many other Old World wine-producing countries have long histories of organic viticulture and many wines are organic, but they’re often not labeled as such. And Chile has been making more organic wine in the past few years, and keeping prices low compared to other organic wines.

 

California started producing organic wines in the 1980’s, but in the last 20 years, almost 8,000 acres have been certified organic, from 117 producers; Mendocino County was the birthplace of the organic wine movement in the U.S. and currently has the most organic vineyards of any other region in California. Bonterra, Frey Vineyards, Frog’s Leap, Robert Sinskey, Hall Wines, and Grgich Cellars are some of the most well-known organic wine producers from California whose wine is widely available. Oregon is also producing plenty of organic and biodynamic wine as well; some top organic producers from Oregon include Amity Vineyards, Sokol Blosser, Willamette Valley Vineyards, and King Estate.

Keep in mind, though, that many wines aren’t labeled organic. There are myriad reasons for this; some don’t want to use it as a marketing tool or they don’t want to go through the rather intensive certification process. In addition, some of the first organic wines weren’t particularly palatable due to inferior vineyard management and winemaking so the reputation of organic wine as hippy swill still lingers in some people’s minds. Some say there is a taste difference but it is debatable. Organic wines usually cost more because of the increased labor costs.

 

Organic wine is often confused with biodynamic wine, but in fact, biodynamic principles are thought to have paved the way for organic farming techniques. Biodynamic, BD for short, from the French word “biodynamie,” winemaking uses the teachings of Austrian anthroposophist Rudolph Steiner who developed the principles in the 1920’s. Steiner believed in looking at things like pest control and animal management as parts of the entire farm and treating the farm as a whole entity rather than addressing specific problems individually. The teachings incorporate homeopathic treatments to treat vine problems such as mildew, as well as astronomical and astrological considerations, in order to “balance” the vineyard and produce better grapes; the idea being that in the long run, working with nature is more beneficial than working against it. What may seem like voo-doo has been adopted by some of the best wineries in the world.

California's Frey Vineyards was the first winery in the U.S. to produce biodynamic wines, and Bonterra Vineyards has the most BD vineyards planted with 250 acres in Mendocino County. There are several online sites that specialize in organic wine, including www.organicvintners.com and www.theorganicwinecompany.com, and many wine shops have sections dedicated to organic and BD wine, so talk to your friendly wine shop clerk. What better way to toast Earth Day?