Introduction to Organic Wine

Organic wine has been growing in popularity as more people focus on eating organic foods and keeping green. Knowing a little about your organic wine before you try your first sip can help you appreciate this type of wine.

Organic Viticulture and Winemaking
Traditional vineyards use pesticides to control insects and herbicides to control weeds. In addition, traditional vineyards use inorganic fertilizers to boost the growth of their wines. Organic vineyards take a different tack, using elements of the natural environment to help their vines grow and thrive. This keeps the soil and grapes themselves free of poisons and other unnatural additives.

Rather than strip the vineyard of any plants other than grape vines, organic vineyards allow plant diversity. Plant diversity helps keep the soil healthy. In addition, plant diversity encourages beneficial insects, such as spiders and mites, to live in the vineyard by providing these bugs with food and shelter. These natural predators will attack problematic insects without the use of pesticides.

Instead of using herbicides, organic vineyards will let weeds grow to a certain point. Then the weeds will be mowed down so that they can degrade and provide the vines with natural fertilizer. Other natural fertilizers are used in the vineyards, such as composted animal manure.

The process of making organic wine also differs from conventional winemaking. Those who make organic wine minimize processing. In addition, many choose to use wild yeast if they can and avoid using bioengineered yeast. Organic winemakers do not use additives, such as sulfites.

Sulfites and Wine
Sulfites are added to wines to preserve them in conventional winemaking. Sulfites keep wine from losing its flavors and turning to vinegar too quickly. What many people do not know is that sulfites are also created naturally in the wine making process when yeast ferments. Therefore, you will almost never find any kind of wine, including organic wine, to be completely free of sulfites. Interestingly, organic red wines may last longer than organic white wines, as the tannins in red wines are another natural preservative.

Types of Organic Wine

  • Certified Organic. Organic wines made using grapes that have been organically grown. Sulfites are not added. Many organic wines are not filtered or refined. Filtering and refining wines leads to a clearer wine without natural solids left in the drink. The United States Department of Agriculture is the governmental branch that awards both the "Certified Organic" and the "Made with Organic Grapes" designations.
  • Made with Organic Grapes.Wines designated as "Made with Organic Grapes" or "Made with Organically Grown Grapes" indicates that these wines were made using certified organic grapes but that the wines may contain added sulfites, up to 100 parts sulfites to million. In addition, the wine may have been refined or filtered.
  • Biodynamic. Austrian Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) developed the basis for biodynamics. In a sense, a biodynamic wine is an organic wine taken another two or three steps. In addition to standard organic practices, those who make biodynamic wines take into consideration the positions of the sun and the moon throughout the year. The winemaking process also involves certain level of spirituality and astronomy. The organization that certifies biodynamic wines in the United States is Demeter USA.

Is This Wine Organic?
Many vineyards practice organic growing practices but choose not to go through the certification process to get the "Made with Organic Grapes" certification. Why? There is a tremendous amount of time and paperwork involved in getting certified, and some winemakers do not see any corresponding benefits. In addition, some winemakers think that consumers associate "organic" with "poor tasting."

Organic Wine from other Countries
The United States may have one of the most restrictive definitions of organic wine in the world. The problem boils down to sulfites. Many other countries allow their organic wines to contain up to 100 ppm of sulfites, unlike a certified organic wine in the United States. Therefore, wines that are considered organic in their home countries would be designated as "Made with Organic Grapes" in the United States.

How does organic wine taste? As with any subject that is open to opinion, there are those who will tell you that organic wine tastes wonderful, while others will tell you that conventional wine is much preferable in taste to organic wine.

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