What is organic wine?
The answer to this question depends upon where you are.
In the US, organic wine is defined by the USDA as wine made from organically grown grapes, without the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides, or fungicides, and is made without the addition of sulfites.
There is a heated debate going on in the wine industry on whether the use of sulfites in wine making should qualify as organic. Sulfites, also known as sulfur dioxide, occur naturally during the wine making process. However, sulfites are also added throughout wine production, acting as a non-toxic fungicide as well as a preservative that keeps wine shelf stable by preventing oxidation and microbial growth. Currently, the use of sulfites does not qualify for organic certification in the US because it is viewed as a chemical additive, the use of which is banned by organic regulations.
On the subject of sulfites, the EU and the US differ in opinion. Only recently did the EU canonize its definition of organic wine, moving away from the only previously existing label, “made from organic grapes”. As of 2012, the EU’s organic certification for wine covers not just the process of growing wine grapes, but regulates the production of wine as well—in which sulfites are allowed. In fact, the US is a very rare case of sulfite prohibition in organic wine, as both Canada and Australia share Europe’s decision to allow the additive. It should be noted, however, that these countries allow sulfites only in significantly smaller amounts than that used in conventional wine production.
Therefore, wine imported into the US from countries who allow sulfites in organic wine can only attain the label “made with organic grapes”. This label, however, can be a confusing one.
Made with organic grapes
The "made with organic grapes" label first and foremost means that a wine contains at least 70% organic grapes. However, wine producers who use 100% organic grapes will also share this label, simply because they have added sulfites to their wine. For this reason it is hard for the wine buyer to know exactly what they are buying when they see this label. And many vintners who do use organic grapes, such as Frog's Leap in Napa, California, don't mention it on their labels at all.
How organic is it?
Other USDA labels can be misleading as well. When picking up a bottle of wine labeled 'organic' from the store, one might assume that the product is completely organic. However the organic label means that the product contains 95% or more organic grapes, while a completely organic wine will be labeled '100% organic'.
Natural wine can mean anything, as no legal definition currently exists. The core ethics behind making natural wine that are generally agreed upon are that natural wine should be cultivated through organic methods and involve the least manipulation of ingredients as possible. This excludes the conventional practices of filtering, fining, or adding sulfites.
Fining is the process of clarifying the wine of any detritus. In conventional wine production, fining is done by adding a chemical substance that collects solids and proteins at the top of the wine so that they can be scraped off and discarded. A common, natural alternative to using a chemical fining agent is the use of egg whites.
Filtration removes any bacteria or particles that are left in the wine. Those who advocate for natural wine making methods prefer to leave their wine unfiltered, equating filtration to sterilizing the flavor of the wine which comes from the natural fermentation and living bacterial growth.
A fine example of natural wine is Donkey and Goat, which produces natural wine from its vineyards throughout Central and Northern California. Donkey and Goat wine is hand harvested, crushed by foot, and does not depend on any additives to enhance their wine’s flavor or alcohol content. Fermentation is allowed to happen naturally, and in wooden vats instead of the conventionally used plastic ones.
The decision to age their wine in wood barrels was made after the owners, Tracey and Jared Brandt, researched chemicals in plastic like Bisphenol A (BPA), a substance classified as toxic in some countries like Canada, which can contaminate liquids and foods that it comes into contact with.
Biodynamic agriculture reaches a level of sustainability that far surpasses the efforts made by organic cultivation. Based on the work of Rudolf Steiner, biodynamic farming abjures the practice of monoculture that conventional farming employs. Creating a monoculture strips the local ecosystem of all its natural plants and wildlife and replaces it with a single crop.
In nature, an ecosystem houses a range of plants, animals, and insects—all of which have a function that supports each other. Whether it be through birds and insects preying on pests, natural weeding and manure fertilization through grazing animals, or the diversity of plant life that attracts and supports these animals and insects in the first place—nature has a method of growing food. When this is stripped and replaced with a monoculture the farmer needs to supplement these elements to grow his crop, which is conventionally done with pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and massive amounts of water—a system that requires excessive amounts of labor and expense.
According to Frey Vineyards, a California winery which produces organic, biodynamic, and vegan wines, "The Biodynamic agricultural model overcomes the problem of input substitution organic farming, which simply replaces a chemical input (fertilizer or herbicide) with a naturally derived product. We support organic farming on all levels, but it is important to consider which inputs are being brought onto the farm, where they are sourced and what the long-term implications of their extraction and distribution are."
The benefits of a biodynamic system goes beyond enhancing the environment. For example, in addition to aiding soil fertility and weed control, the farm animals on Frey's biodynamic farm also offer a fresh source of cow and goat milk, from which Frey has made soft and hard cheeses, kefir and tara.
Demeter International, a renowned international organic and biodynamic certifying agency, requires its biodynamic certified farms to set aside at least 10% of their land acreage towards biodiversity, stressing independence from imported materials, and in its stead offering a self-sustaining method of farming.
Consider carefully materials that are imported onto the modern day organic farm. Where do they come from? Often they can be tracked back to a natural resource provided by the earth.
Examples include petroleum to move materials around, ancient mineral deposits, by‐products of unsustainable agriculture‐related industry, and the life of the seas and waterways.
An important social value of Biodynamic farming is that it does not depend on the mining of the earth’s natural resource base but instead emphasizes contributing to it.
There are two labels that Demeter International offers for biodynamic wine, Biodynamic® Wine, the most rigorous category allowing the least manipulation, and Made With Biodynamic® Grapes. Both categories permit the use of sulfites, approved yeast nutrients, bentonite for protein stabilization, and biodynamic or organic egg whites for tannin fining.
Unfortunately the USDA does not offer a label distinguishing biodynamic wine from organic. Although Demeter International requires all of its certified biodynamic farms to meet the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) regulations, due to the sulfite allowance in biodynamic wine, biodynamic wine farmers who choose to add sulfites cannot attain the USDA organic seal.