Wine “Myth-Conceptions”, Part 2: The Meaning of Organic

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Harvest time at Ponzi Family Vineyards in Willamette Valley, Oregon, my favorite American organic wine grower.

Perhaps the most exciting revolution to occur in wine since being embraced by the American consumer is the post-modern advent of natural, sustainable, chemical-free vineyard farming. During the 20th century, traditional vineyard practices gave way to conventional grape-growing with the intention of increasing wine production to meet new market demands. Over time, the style of commercially-produced wine began to feel homogenized, losing its connection with ancient regional characteristics. This inspired many small-time growers and vineyard owners to do a “180” and return to tradition by embracing the many options for organic vineyard farming. The benefits are three-fold for the end user:

-No poison in the vineyard means no poison in the wine.

-Organic farmers are inclined to carry over their responsible, minimal-interventionist mindset from the vineyard into the winery and beyond.

-More compelling, region-specific aromas and flavors prevail in the wine.

Predictably, following suit in this revolutionary wine sector is the confusing marketing. CIMG1006Whereas with food producers, a lack of awareness among the consumer is exploited, with organic wine, the consumer is expected to be educated. But do you really know the difference between “made from organic grapes” and “vegan-friendly”? How about “sustainably-farmed” vs “certified biodynamic”?

The truth is, after well over a decade in the wine retail trade, many organic-related terms still confuse me. This is compounded by the various international regulations and certification boards, each with their own set of standards. Before you leap head-on into sorting this out for yourself, let me at least bring you up to speed on what I know regarding the organic wine paradigm. With the 3 aforementioned benefits being our desired results, allow me to debunk a couple of my favorite organic wine myths. To learn even more details and taste for yourself, join us at Anchin on September 18th for our organic wine dinner party.

Myth: Organic Equals No Sulfites.

sulfur-dioxide-250x250No wine can truly be without sulfites, as they are a natural byproduct of alcoholic fermentation. Still, it’s an industry-wide practice to add sulfur dioxide to wine before bottling in order to preserve its freshness over a period of years. Very few producers have successfully avoided its use, yet a controversy still remains. In Europe, the wine itself cannot be labeled as organic if sulfites are added, and in the U.S., such wines cannot be certified as organic. However, if the wines in question are grown on certified organic vineyards, the labels can include such phrasing as “Wine made from organic grapes”. It is up to the consumer to interpret for themselves just how “organic” they would like their wine to be. The bottom line: “low-sulfites” and “no sulfites added” are safe bets if you are highly reactive to the compound, but unless the wine reeks of rotten egg smell, consumption of sulfites in wine is not as harmful as the alcohol itself.

Myth: It is the Wine that is Organic.

Austria Germany trip and 50th Anniv 015

Peter Jakob Kuhn’s daughter Sandra showed me one of her biodynamic vineyards in Germany’s Rheingau in 2007. Her philosophy is “the more flowers and birds that live in the vineyard, the better it functions.”

As you may have learned from the sulfite rant, it is not necessarily the wine itself that should be considered organic. The “organic-ness” of a wine tends to refer to the vineyard(s) where the grapes are grown or sourced from. When growers take special measures to avoid use of synthetic (chemical) fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides and herbicides in and around their vineyards, it can be said they are practicing organic viticulture. Some growers like to take this approach to greater levels by preserving or “sustaining” their land through hand-harvesting, composting, and promoting the vineyard’s ecosystem. Stricter yet is biodynamic farming, which incorporates sustainable practices while tuning into the deeper rhythms of nature with the intent of achieving more vineyard character in the finished wine. Whether or not that vineyard nuance truly shines through in your glass is a subjective matter. The fact remains: organic wine at any level will leave your body with less harmful compounds than conventionally-grown wine.

The Summation

Wines made by responsible, organic growers should always be first on your list for consumption. At the inception of the modern organic wine movement, before the kinks were worked out, there were many unstable, inferior examples in the market. Today, there are too many outstanding organic wines in every price range for the sector to be ignored. To begin your journey, link to the gigantic list of organic wines available from our strategic partner Suburban Wines.

Oh, and about wines being vegan-friendly: a minority are, since egg whites and fish livers are widely used as fining agents!

Link here to read Wine Myth-Conceptions Part 1.

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