Thanks again to Sean for this post on organic wine!
“Do you have any organic wines?” It’s a question I receive often working in a wine store. But what’s the back-story to the question. What do people want when they buy an organic wine? It seems the most common answer is that people want to feel better when they drink wine and believe that organic wines will be better for them. A smaller set of people are concerned about the environment and believe that organic wines are more environmentally friendly. Let’s look at these concerns:
Are organic wines better for me? Are sulfites bad for me?
First let’s talk about sulfites. The fact that wines are required to disclaim that they contain sulfites has led many people to believe that sulfites are bad for them. It makes sense; if sulfites aren’t bad for us why do we need to be warned of them. The warning is for the small percentage of people (less than 1%) that are allergic to sulfites. It is more like warning that a food contains nuts, or was processed in a plant where nuts are processed. That’s very important information for someone who is allergic to nuts, but for most people it’s not a concern.
Do sulfites cause headaches? No. Common reactions to sulfites are skin irritations and shortness of breath. For some reason many asthmatics are allergic to sulfites.
Sulfites are a naturally occurring, non-toxic compound. They develop during the fermentation of wine. It is also used as a preservative to stabilize wine. It kills bacteria and keeps wines from oxidizing.
So, if you’re getting a headache drinking wine it’s not from the sulfites.
What about organic wines? If vineyards are treated with commercial fertilizers some of those chemicals will make their way into the grape. However, most of those chemicals are burnt off during fermentation. There is no indication that drinking non-organically farmed wines carries any short or long-term health risk.
That said, intuitively it makes sense that less is more in this case. I would feel better knowing that a wine I was drinking hadn’t been dosed with chemicals.
Are organic wines better for the environment?
The answer here is an unequivocal yes. Pesticides and fertilizers don’t only affect the grapes. They get into the ground and the water table. They kill the soil and poison the water for local species, including humans that live near these farms. Organic farms produce healthier, more organically and nutrient rich soils. This leads to healthier and more nutrient rich fruit. It also maintains a cleaner, safer ecosystem. Generally, winemakers who have switched to organic vineyards believe they are producing better wines.
One last problem, how do we know if a wine is organic? In the EU there is no specification for organic wines. In the US and Australia organic wines must be organically farmed and fermented (no added sulfites). Outside the EU there is a certification for wines “made from organically farmed grapes”. There is still a problem here that many smaller vintners that may farm organically don’t have the financial means to get certified. The end result is that a wine label tells us very little about how a wine was produced. It’s up to the consumer (including wine professionals) to learn how each winery produces its’ wines.
Some Follow-up Questions:
1. Is there a difference in taste between organic and conventional wine?
No, there is not a discernible difference in taste between organic or "non-organic" wine. I want to make the point that many winemakers found they were making better wine when the switched to organic/biodynamic farming, or that given a particular terroir organic/biodynamic farming produces better wine. But a lesser vineyard organically farmed will not produce better wine than a grand cru vineyard that isn't.
2. Can you make any recommendations of good producers that use organic or biodynamic methods?
There are a lot of great producers that farm organically/biodynamically. Here is a short list.
- It seems like Burgundy is predominated by biodynamic wineries, including the most highly regarded: Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, Leroy and Domaine Dujac.
- Bordeaux: Pontet Canet.
- Rhone: Chapoutier and Domaine de la Mordoree.
- Alsace: Zind-Humbrecht.
- Spain: Alvaro Palacios and Descendientes de Palacios.
- Germany: Heyl zu Herrnsheim.
- Italy: La Spinetta (Piedmont), Hofstadter (Alto Adige).
- Slovenia: Movia.
- California: Joseph Phelps (Napa).
- Australia: Henscke.