As we do for much of the food we consume, many of us look for naturally produced wines to drink. Perhaps we feel that it is healthier to enjoy wines that were made with organically farmed grapes and produced by natural methods without added chemicals. After all, what we put into our bodies matters.
Additionally, some people are devoted to organic farming methods because they believe that they are good not only for humans, but also the environment. Protecting the soils in which we farm is a long-term vision aimed at safeguarding our future food and wine supplies.
Today, more and more chefs and sommeliers, as well as consumers, are looking for organic wines. The terrific news is that there is an ever-increasing selection of naturally produced wines from which to choose. Consumer demand has inspired many more wine producers to move from conventional grape farming practices to more sustainable ones.
And once grape growers begin to engage in sustainable farming, they very often appreciate the changes and continue to convert their vineyards to become fully organic.
There used to be a limited number of places in the world with higher concentrations of organic wine practices, including wine regions like the Loire Valley in France and Mendocino County in California. But today we see wine growers practicing organic viticulture all over the globe. Much like produce in the grocery store, “organic wines” has become a specific category on the shelves in beverage shops, and many wine drinkers are deliberately seeking out these bottlings. There does exist, however, some confusion in the market about how these wines are categorized or labeled.
The difference lies in wines that are labeled “Organic” vs. those that say “Made with Organic Grapes.” For a wine to be labeled “Organic” and bear the USDA organic seal, it must be made from organically farmed grapes and cannot have any added sulfites. (It may, however, have naturally occurring sulfites.) Bottles whose labels say “Made with
Organically Grown Grapes” or that read “Ingredients: Organic Grapes” must also be made from organically farmed grapes, but they can include added sulfites.
To clear up any confusion regarding sulfites, it is important to remember that they occur naturally in wines; they act as a preservative. A small percentage of people are sensitive to them, and, therefore, if a wine contains more than 10 parts per million, it must be labeled “Contains Sulfites.” This applies to all categories of wines. But you’ll also see labels stating “No Added Sulfites” or “Contains Naturally Occurring Sulfites” when there are no sulfites added.
More interesting perhaps is the concept of growing grapes organically. As for other agricultural crops, organic wine grape farming focuses on natural and non-interventionist practices. Chemical herbicides and pesticides are forbidden, the use of renewable resources is practiced, and the conservation and health of the soil remain priorities.
Many wine producers who farm organically employ natural methods for vineyard management, including planting beneficial cover crops and practicing chemical-free pest control. Techniques for controlling pests naturally include placing owl boxes in the vineyards and installing bat houses around the vineyards and winery. The owls eat the field rodents who feast on the young vines, and bats are hugely beneficial because of the vast number of insects they consume. To control weeds, some grape growers allow a herd of hungry sheep into the vineyard to graze on the many grasses and other unwanted plants that grow between the vines. Increasing numbers of organic producers employ natural water treatments on their property, enabling them to recycle water for use in their irrigation system. And, increasingly, you’ll find more and more solar panels at wineries. The power generated from the sun is used both in vineyard practices such as powering fans for frost control and in the winery to power different machines.
Indeed, endeavoring to farm wine grape vineyards organically is a laborious and time-consuming venture. Conventional farming is most often easier and faster, and can result in higher-yielding vineyards. But all of the organic wine grape growers whom I spoke with are 100 percent committed to organic farming.
Most of these dedicated producers practice organic farming because they know that it is better for the environment. They plainly believe in doing the right thing for the earth. Yet the majority of them also agree that the wines actually taste better, too. Producers who have experience with both a vineyard that was farmed conventionally (with chemical herbicides and pesticides) and one that was farmed organically often remark that the organic wine is more flavorful and balanced. Some have suggested that the conventionally farmed grapes can render wines with muted or unnatural flavors. One winemaker put it to me like this: “Think of a tomato. Which tastes better—the one that was conventionally farmed with added chemical fertilizers that manipulated its development, or the one that is 100% chemical-free and natural? Simply a tomato and nothing else; here you are tasting the purest expression of the fruit.”
We often hear that “great wines are made in the vineyard.” The case for organically farmed wines epitomizes this concept. Because if the fruit is as pure and natural as it can possibly be, the result will be wines that are the purest expressions of those grapes. If consumers continue to demand organic wines, more and more grape growers and producers will commit to organic farming. The result is positive on multiple levels: it is better for the environment, it is better for our health, and it may even be better for our souls. Why? Because if we deeply enjoy a wine, our palates tell our hearts.
Christie Dufault is a wine and beverage instructor at the CIA at Greystone in St. Helena, CA. She holds an Advanced Certified Wine Professional credential from the CIA, is a Certified Hospitality Educator, and was named Best Wine Director by San Francisco magazine while working at Quince restaurant.