Even though organic food seems to be trending and very popular these days, it makes up only 5% of total vineyard space worldwide. Spain, France and Italy represent 73% of all organic vineyards in the world.
What Determines if a Wine is Organic?
Simply stated, organic wines are produced with organically grown grapes. In order to have organically grown grapes, a vineyard manager must implement an entirely different set of practices to maintain their vines. They generally must exclude the use of artificial chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides.
Organic wine grapes are said to be much healthier and therefore produce heartier skins and higher concentrations of anthocyanins and antioxidants, including polyphenols and cardio-friendly resveratrol. Also, organic wines are free of residual traces of vineyard additives such as chemical laced pesticides and herbicides.
Certified organic wines also have less sugar on average and don’t contain potentially harmful cellar additives such as flavoring agents or caramel coloring. These additives, plus higher sugar levels are what can cause wine-related headaches.
It is important to keep in mind that being organic doesn’t mean that the wine doesn’t have additives. There is a list of ingredients, such as yeast, egg whites, and animal enzymes that are permitted in organic wines. Being organic doesn’t necessarily mean a wine is vegan.
The Organic Wine Dilemma
The challenge with organic wine is that the definition of organic can vary from one country to another. The dilemma with organic wines is the importance of sulphur-dioxide (SO2), often referred to as sulfites, in the winemaking process. Sulfites are used as a preservative. Without them wine has a very short shelf life.
In both Australia and the United States, by definition organic wine cannot include sulfites. However, in Europe and Canada, sulfites are permitted on organic wine. This puts Australia and the US at a disadvantage not just because of the wines reduced shelf life but it can also substantially change the flavour of the wine. Such wineries find themselves in a quandary because the effort made in growing organic grapes is nullified by the use of sulfites in the bottling process.
This raises the next question; are sulfites bad?
Sulfites have no effect on the majority of wine drinkers. They are generally not the cause of red wine headaches. However, there are some exceptions. 5% to 10% of asthma sufferers are sensitive to sulfites.
Sulfites in wine are surprisingly lower than in a lot of processed foods. Wine ranges from about 5 mg per litre (5 parts per million) to about 200 mg per litre. The maximum legal limit is 350 mg per litre. In comparison, a decent dry red wine typically contains about 50 mg per litre of sulfites.
Wines with lower acidity need more sulfites than higher acidity wines. Also red wines tend to need less sulfites than white wines. A typical dry white wine will often contain around 100 mg per litre of sulfites whereas a typical dry red wine will have 50 to 75 mg per litre.
Wines with higher sugar content tend to need more sulfites to prevent secondary fermentation of the remaining sugar.
Sulfites help preserve wine and slow chemical reactions which cause wine to spoil. The process of using sulfites in wine has been around as far back as ancient Rome.
Very sensitive tasters have been noted to smell sulfur compounds in wine, although sulfur compounds are somewhat unrelated to sulfites. Sulfur compounds in wine range in flavour from citrus-like smells to cooked egg-like smells. The warmer the temperature of the wine, the more molecular sulfur it releases. This is why some wines may have a cooked-egg aroma when they are opened. This can be resolved by decanting the wine and chilling for about 15 to 30 minutes.
For individuals who have sensitivity to sulfites in foods such as french fries, cured meats, cheese, and canned soup, they should probably opt for sulfite-free wines. Fortunately, several natural wines do not use sulfites in their processing. These wines can taste a lot different than normal wine but some are very good. It is good to note as well that organic wines are similarly priced to non-organic wines.