The O Word: Organic Wines
With Earth Day just a few days away, I thought it was the perfect timeto talk about organic wine. The “o” word is thrown around so much thesedays that it’s hard to see through the hype and discover just what's behind thelabel. Here's a primer to get you started: Each country sets itsown criteria for organic standards, but in the U.S. organic wine is defined as wine made fromorganically 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 sulfitesoccur naturally, no additional sulfites may be added). If the wine has sulfitesbut is otherwise organic, it is labeled “wine made from organic grapes,” andthose that don’t contain sulfites will have a shorter shelf life. In addition,some winemakers choose not to use cultured yeasts during winemaking, althoughthis isn’t a requirement. France,Italy, and many other Old World wine-producing countries have long histories oforganic viticulture and many wines are organic, but they’re often not labeledas such. And Chilehas been making more organic wine in the past few years, and keeping prices lowcompared to other organic wines.
Californiastarted producing organic wines in the1980’s, but in the last 20 years, almost 8,000 acres have been certifiedorganic, from 117 producers; MendocinoCounty was the birthplace of theorganic 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 GrgichCellars are some of the most well-known organic wine producers from California whose wine iswidely available. Oregonis also producing plenty of organic and biodynamic wine as well; some toporganic producers from Oregoninclude Amity Vineyards, Sokol Blosser,Willamette Valley Vineyards, and King Estate.
Keep in mind, though, that many wines aren’t labeled organic. There aremyriad reasons for this; some don’t want to use it as a marketing tool or theydon’t want to go through the rather intensive certification process. Inaddition, some of the first organic wines weren’t particularly palatable due toinferior vineyard management and winemaking so the reputation of organic wineas hippy swill still lingers in some people’s minds. Some say there is a tastedifference but it is debatable. Organic wines usually cost more because of theincreased labor costs.
Organic wine is often confused with biodynamic wine, but in fact,biodynamic principles are thought to have paved the way for organic farmingtechniques. Biodynamic, BD for short, from the French word “biodynamie,”winemaking uses the teachings of Austrian anthroposophist Rudolph Steiner whodeveloped the principles in the 1920’s. Steiner believed in looking at thingslike pest control and animal management as parts of the entire farm and treatingthe farm as a whole entity rather than addressing specific problemsindividually. The teachings incorporate homeopathic treatments to treat vineproblems such as mildew, as well as astronomical and astrologicalconsiderations, in order to “balance” the vineyard and produce better grapes;the idea being that in the long run, working with nature is more beneficialthan working against it. What may seem like voo-doo has been adopted by some ofthe best wineries in the world.
California'sFrey Vineyards was the first winery in the U.S.to produce biodynamic wines, and Bonterra Vineyards has the most BD vineyardsplanted 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 manywine shops have sections dedicated to organic and BD wine, so talk to yourfriendly wine shop clerk. What better way to toast Earth Day?