Recently there have been a number of articles that address the growing interest in organic wines. But to the average wine consumer, there are still questions as to be meaning of the word organic? Herein is the real problem in the short term: there really isn’t much exact information getting to the average wine consumer on what organic wine means and what are the options.
I recently conducted a casual test. I went to a large wine retailer, in a non- confrontational way, and simple ask them to define organic wine in simple terms. The most common answer was that organic meant the wine was more natural. But, they really could not define what made the wine natural. This is a real problem for wine producers and ultimately the consumer. Most people think the organic label applies only to a natural way to grow grapes. In reality the organic concept applies to winery production as well as grape production. Without a real understanding of what organic means, the industry is able to put labels on wines with various self determined meanings and self monitoring.
To get a real bottle of certified organic wine, consumers need to become familiar with what “organic” means and the process it takes to become certified organic. Further, a 100% organic wine must come from organically grown grapes and the juice must be processed according to stipulated standards. In the U.S. there are two certifying organizations that authored real organic regulations: Demeter-USA (1985) and USDA-National Organic Program (2002). These are uniform documented certification programs.
But, certified organic is not immune to clever games of semantics. Winery marketing departments will use such words as: Sustainable Practices, From Organic Grapes, or Natural. These definitions do not carry any legal authority and are pretty much self defined by any number of trade organizations.
Demeter-USA’s patented certification approach recognizes a farm (vineyard for our discussion) as a self contained living organism, known around the world as Biodynamic Certified. This certification dictates a stringent practice of grape production that basically says no synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers may be brought into the farm environment. Only unaltered natural products produced from within the farm may be used to produce grapes. Biodynamic certification even dictates how much of the farm/vineyard must be set aside for natural habitat.
Demeter-USA also stipulates a minimal manipulation of the wine, prohibiting non-natural yeasts, heavy use of sulfites, water, even malolactic fermentation. But they do allow the use of natural egg whites and bentonite to adjust wine minimally.
Bottom-line, Demeter-USA is the highest certification of organic wine attainable and Biodynamic certification can only come through Demeter-USA.
USDA-National Organic Program came about in 2002 to set a minimum standard for a product to be labeled “organic”. Several organizations can certify wines as organic, as defined by USDA regulations. Some states such as Oregon do their own USDA organic certification as do other entities.
Generally speaking, USDA Organic is not as strict a certification as Biodynamic certification. There are USDA restrictions on synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers; however there are no standards relative to the whole farm approach to managing the farm as an organism. In a winery, the USDA does allow more intervention with yeasts, sulfites, and acids in the wine making process. (Check the regulations for specific approved additives.)
Note: Wine may also be labeled as “From Organic Grown Grapes” and still not be an “organic” wine.
In summary, the differences between Biodynamic and Organic are:
· Biodynamic–the vineyard is to be viewed in the context of soil, all plants, and animal interaction in a defined area.
· Biodynamic–no dependence on imported or synthetic materials for fertilizing, weed control, and pest control.
USDA Organic-no synthetic materials in the vineyard but natural products can be brought into the vineyard.
· Biodynamic–focus is on sustainability of the farm/vineyard and minimized waste of water and natural resources. In reality, biodynamic wines have the smallest carbon footprint of any agricultural method.
· Biodynamic– wines must be produced with Biodynamic approved natural ingredients and protected from manipulation in the process of fermentation and putting into the bottle. These conditions are outlined in a Biodynamic Processing Standards document.
USDA Organic-allows the winery to manipulate the wine but only if they use approved materials.
· Biodynamic–the vineyard must be a self-contained eco-system.
· Organic is a less regulated wine than Biodynamic yet is still a powerful approach to healthier wines.
Other verbiage that might be misleading consumers looking for organic wine: Sustainable, Natural or just the words “From organic grapes”. Sustainable seems to be most indicative of vineyards or wineries who strive to conserve water, conserve energy and minimize their waste. In California there are grower associations who certify their members under – “SIP Certified” and “Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing”. This has nothing to do with use of pesticides, etc.
The eco-certifications (Biodynamic and Organic) seem to be growing. “There is growing interest in Biodynamic and Organic certification amongst wineries,” says Elizabeth Candelario, Marketing Director-Demeter-USA. Demeter Biodynamic® is currently in 50 countries. Today there are 72 wineries in the US that have a Demeter-USA Biodynamic and/or Stellar organic certification. (As noted earlier there are other “Organic” certification programs.) September 2016 The King Estate Winery announced they will produce their wines under the Biodynamic certification. In Sonoma, Benzinger Wines is one of the oldest wineries in the U.S. producing eco-certified wines under the Biodynamic banner.
Organic grapes/wines are about 10% more expensive to produce but the marketplace is saying they want that option. 55% of wine consumers in California say organic wines are a better quality.
The American Association of Wine Economics published the results of a July 2015 study titled-“Does Organic Wine Taste Better? An Analysis of Experts’ Ratings”, was conducted by Magali A. Delmas, Olivier Gergaud and Jinghui Lim. In this very detailed academic study they say, “The growing demand for environmentally sustainable products has created a boom in the field of green products. For instance, sales of organic foods in the U.S. increased from $13.3 billion in 2005 to an estimated $34.8 billion in 2014.” It appears the wine industry has participated in this growth as well. From 1998 to 2009, the study reportsthe, eco-certified wine operations grew from 10 to 57 in CAlifornia. Today it is more than 74.
Further, California, which produces about 85-90% of U.S. wines at about 276 million cases annually (Wine Institute.org) does drive the market. With that volume of production, consumers do have a say in wines California wineries and vineyard owners produce. According to an article in the August issue of “Beverage World” by Andrew Kaplan, the “organic” wine market in the U.S. is $242 million, thanks to Costco and grocery stores. “Natural is no longer what is used to be. Organic is the new badge of health,” said Kaplan.
Winemakers are beginning to feel that organic growing and production practices allow for a more rounded taste to their wines that add a new dimension to their craft-terroir. Interestingly, more wineries are starting to push their terroir identity; their place. Wine’s place is also one of the statements from King Estate in Eugene, Oregon. “… biodynamic principles will only further enhance the expression of Oregon Terroir. The more that you can limit any input you can bring into the system from outside, the greater the ability… of the grapes to truly express that site,” say Ray Nuclo in his comments to Peter Mitham.
Whatever the moniker you look for in choosing wines, if you want “organic” make sure the label says “Organic Certified” or “Biodynamic Certified” on the label.