What is “Organic” Wine?
There are a number of terms that may appear on a wine label that are used to describe wines made with other-than-conventional practices, but what do they really mean?
Not all of these terms are officially regulated (i.e. sustainable) and some may have different meanings in different countries, which makes it even more difficult to know what is going on in your wine. For terms that are regulated (ie. organic, biodynamic), some producers may follow these practices but choose not to go through the bureaucratic process of getting the official certification to put on their label.
Using the term “Organic” on a wine is regulated within the United States. Wines must meet a series of criteria defined by the USDA, including:
- No synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides are used in the vineyard for the past 3 years.
- Organic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides made from naturally occurring sources (including copper) are allowed.
- No additional sulfites can be added; only naturally occurring sulfites that are present on the grape skins are allowed. (Note: since sulfites are a preservative and antibiotic, the lack of additional sulfites greatly reduces the shelf life of the wine. Also, by European rules, organic wines produced in Europe are allowed to contain added sulfites.)
- Yeasts and any other additives must be organic or on a list approved by the USDA.
Made with Organic Grapes
Some labels may contain the phrase “Made with Organic Grapes." These wines do not meet the strict rules for being labeled “Organic." They must be produced without synthetic chemicals, but they are allowed to add sulfites up to 100ppm (parts per million) and can use non-organic yeasts.
The term “biodynamic” may appear on a wine if the winery has been certified by the international organization Demeter. The criteria for biodynamic wines are in most ways stricter than organic wines. In addition to forgoing synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, biodynamic producers must promote biological diversity on their property, which generally means they are growing other crops in addition to the grape vines and raising animals on the property. Whereas organic producers must be organic for at least 3 years before attaining the certification, biodynamic producers must be organic for at least seven years. They also follow a schedule of activities in the vineyard (planting, pruning, harvest, etc.) based on the phases of the moon.
Sustainable is not a term that is regulated by the federal government, but there are several industry groups that provide certifications, such as SIP Certified and Salmon Safe. Sustainable practices focus on trying to limit the damage being done to the environment, and if possible improving it. There’s no ban on the use of synthetic chemicals, but they are used sparingly. Sustainable practices may include:
- using solar panels to generate electricity,
- recycling and water reclamation processes to reduce waste,
- planting cover crops in between rows of vines to enrich the soil and reduce erosion,
- encouraging beneficial wildlife in the area as a natural deterrent to pests to reduce the need for chemical spays,
- following sound business practices and investing in the welfare of their workers.
Wine is made from grapes, how would it not automatically be vegan? After wines are fermented, there is still a significant amount of solid material floating around and the wines appear cloudy. To achieve that crystal-clear appearance that consumers want, winemakers will filter and fine the wine. Fining agents include animal-based products like egg yolks, gelatin, and fish bladders. When these products are dropped into a vat of wine and fall to the bottom they collect small particles of solid material suspended in the wine, thereby making the wine clearer. The fining agent and attached materials are removed before the wine is bottled. Vegan wines are either not fined, so they may appear cloudy, or they are fined using a non-animal product such as bentonite clay or charcoal.
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