Top Shelf: Organic wine — Great taste, confusing label
A trip to any supermarket will reveal just how much organic products have become a part of our lives. In fact, according to the Organic Trade Association, the leading organic industry group, the U.S. organic industry grew by 17 percent, with $14.6 billion in sales, in 2004.
It’s no wonder that organic wine also should be showing up on grocery store shelves and restaurant menus. The OTA says the organic wine market rose to $80 million in 2005 sales, up 28 percent from 2004, and it expects the market will grow by nearly 20 percent through 2008.
While labeling wine “organic” might connote something simpler, there are a number of definitions — and agencies lending those definitions — that can make selecting a “green” wine to go with your dinner a bit complicated.
What is organic wine?
For wine made from organically grown grapes, “the grapes must be grown and certified in accordance with the USDA’s guidelines for organic products,” says Richard Uncles, director of the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food’s Division of Regulatory Services. “This means no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers have been used for three years prior to harvest.”
The organic designation here is for the grapes, not necessarily for the winemaking process — an important distinction.
If the wine is labeled “organic,” Uncles says, not only are the grapes organic, but the winemaking process also has been certified organic, meaning the crushing, fermenting, bottling, and other procedures, like cleaning and insecticides used within the facility, must meet USDA standards.
Another term showing up on wine labels is “biodynamic.” Biodynamic farming adheres to an even stricter code that goes beyond not working against the soil, but working with it to create a sustaining ecosystem, and can include such practices as timing tilling and pruning with the phases of the moon.
While producers seeking biodynamic certification from Demeter, the largest agency to confer such certification, must also be free of synthetic agents for three years like organic producers, Demeter biodynamic standards are not under the oversight of the USDA.
Wine labels also may have the terms “sulfite-free,” “no sulfites added” or just “NSA.”
Sulfites are common additives in virtually all wines — red and white, including many organic wines. They work to reduce oxidation and inhibit the growth of bacteria. Sulfur is also used in the vineyard to reduce mildew. Minute amounts are also given off by yeast as part of fermentation.
Because of potentially severe health issues experienced by some people, the government has mandated labeling products that contain sulfites since 1988. But that doesn’t prohibit their use in wines made with organically grown grapes.
According to the USDA, wine labeled “organic,” “no sulfites added” or “NSA” does not have any added sulfites. Those wines marked “sulfite-free” may have added sulfites at some point, but the final product does not contain enough sulfites to be detected. The USDA allows up to 100 ppm total sulfite concentration for wines labeled “made with organically grown grapes.”
The rest of the world, however, does not have restrictions on the labeling of sulfites, so if your wine — organic or not — is from outside of the United States, assume it has sulfites.
A sampling of organic wines
• Orleans Hill “Cote Zero” ($7.99): This Rhone-like California red is bursting with fruit, reflected in the Grenache, Syrah and Viogner varietals, and is balanced by mild tannins and a long finish. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought this might be a Pinot Noir or a Pinot Noir blend. Certified organic by the USDA National Organic Program. Sulfite-free.
• Badger Mountain Merlot ($15.99): From Washington’s Columbia Valley, this Merlot had a big bouquet of fruit and luscious flavors of dark cherries and plums. Tannins were soft and the fruit flavors lingered on the palate. Certified Organic by the Washington State Department of Agriculture. No added sulfites.
• Arcano Colli Senesi Prodotto da agricoltura biologica (D.O.C.G.) by Cecchi 2004 ($11.99): One of my favorite non-organic Italian Chianti houses now makes a good organic Chianti, despite its long, unpronounceable name. This Chianti balances oak with red fruit flavors, even red grapefruit, and moderate tannins. The designation D.O.C.G., which stands for “Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita,” denotes the high-quality wines akin to France’s “grand cru.” Certified organic by the Consorzio dei Prodotti Biologici of Bologna of Italy, which stipulates vineyards must be chemical-free for at least three years prior to the first harvest and only organic substances of animal origin are used to fertilize the vines and protect them from plant disease. Contains sulfites.
• Bonterra Chardonnay ($12.99): From California’s northern appellation of Mendecino, Bonterra Chardonnay has mouth-watering citrus and green apple flavors and is aged in both French and American oak barrels to mellow the acid. With about a quarter of the wine is withheld from the malolactic fermentation, this Chardonnay is spared the sometimes-cloying mouth feel that is a hallmark of the process and tastes more in the style of Sauvignon Blanc. Made with organically grown grapes certified by California Certified Organic Farmers. Contains sulfites.
• Patianna 2004 Sauvignon Blanc ($17.99, Wild Oats): This Mendocino estate-grown Sauvignon Blanc was a winner. Big grapefruit flavors and the iconic herbaceous backbone were complimented by a surprisingly rich mouth feel. Interestingly, this vineyard is owned by Patti Fetzer of the California Fetzer wine family. Grapes and wine certified biodynamic by Demeter. Contains sulfites.
• Cooper Mountain 2005 Reserve Pinot Gris ($15.99): From the Willamette Valley of Oregon, this Pinot Gris was a surprise. Some Pinot Gris (and Pinot Grigio, same grape) can have delicate flavors bordering on bland; not this one. The winemakers said the stainless steel fermentation keeps to the forefront the lush fruit flavors ranging from hints of tangerine, grapefruit and mango to layers of apple, pear and sometimes peaches. Grapes and wine certified organic by Oregon Tilth, grapes certified biodynamic by Demeter. Contains sulfites.
Who says it’s organic?
• USDA National Organic Program (ams.usda.gov/nop): A process certifying operators meeting USDA organic standards, which include on-site inspections, land free of prohibited substances (e.g. certain synthetic fertilizers) for three years, farming methods which maintain or improve natural resources, and many others.
• Oregon Tilth (tilth.org): An Oregon nonprofit research and education membership organization dedicated to biologically sound and socially equitable agriculture. Oregon Tilth certification methods are accredited by the USDA as meeting national organic standards.
• Demeter Association Inc. (demeter-usa.org): An independent nonprofit organization conferring biodynamic certification, which generally exceeds USDA organic regulations. Demeter is not accredited by the USDA, however, its affiliate Stellar Certification Services, the agency that certifies organic (not biodynamic) standards for Demeter clients pursuing the biodynamic designation, is accredited by the USDA.