For several months, one organic wine – Releaf, a South African wine – sat alone on a shelf in my local supermarket. Then practically overnight, an entire section was relabeled “Organic Wines” and stocked with an array of options.
While my wine knowledge is limited to the fact that I like it, I am constantly seeking out organic food options. We all read labels instead of marketing claims on food products, but what about in our liquor stores?
I always picked up Releaf because it was the only bottle labeled organic. Now, dozens of labels claim a range of buzzwords: organic, natural, biodynamic and sulfite-free. But when it comes to organic wine, what does it all really mean?
Turns out, organic wine is a contentious topic. The USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) created the certification standards. While the NOP has developed a set of standards, not all winemakers agree that those standards are in the best interest of the wine and many are choosing to not certify despite their organic practices.
Organic wines are made from certified organically-grown grapes. No pesticides, fungicides, herbicides or fertilizers are used. The next part of the definition is a sticking point among winemakers. Sulfites are added to wine to serve as a preservative and stabilizer; however, adding sulfites to wine is adding a chemical. Some winemakers feel that adding sulfites balances the wine and shouldn’t affect its organic status. The sulfite issue is further complicated because the term sulfite-free doesn’t necessarily mean organic. Sulfite-free wine can be made from regular grapes, confusing the matter even more.
And then there’s the issue of production methods, which range from biodynamic (using only the vineyard’s natural resources) to sustainable (striving for organic practices with some use of sprays). What all this boils down to are a few different classifications:
These wines are made from organically-grown grapes and are either sulfite free or don’t have any added sulfites (beyond what occurs naturally).
At least 95% of the grapes in these wines must be organically grown, and organic means there can be a small amount of added sulfites.
Made with Organic Grapes
These wines are made with organically-grown grapes but have added sulfites.
It turns out my bottle of Releaf falls under the “Made with Organic Grapes” category. Yet, while the wine is produced with healthier agricultural practices, as I sip my Releaf, I have to wonder: Is it fair to call a wine organic or even sustainable when it’s flown from South Africa to the U.S. then trucked to my little supermarket in southern Indiana?
A few North American organic wine producers:
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