What is Organic Wine? Organic Wine and Organic Grapes

Organic wine gained popularity in the 1970s, driven by environmental concerns. The US and EU have different rules for organic certification. In the US, organic wine can't have added sulfites. The EU allows some sulfites but restricts other practices. Organic grape farming focuses on soil health and natural pest control. It uses cover crops and beneficial insects and avoids synthetic chemicals. Organic winemaking limits additives and often uses indigenous yeasts.

Challenges include debates over sulfite use, copper as a fungicide, and certification costs. The industry faces climate change adaptation and varying consumer perceptions. Future growth may involve new technologies and expanding markets. Overall, organic wine represents a shift towards sustainable winemaking, blending traditional methods with modern ecological understanding. Let's dive into the history of organic wine and organic farming. 

A Brief History of Organic Wine

The concept of organic farming dates back to the early 20th century, but its application to viticulture and winemaking gained momentum in the 1970s. Pioneers in organic viticulture were often motivated by environmental concerns and a desire to produce wines that truly reflected their terroir. In the United States, organic farming principles were first applied to vineyards in California during the 1960s and 1970s. Pioneers like Paul Dolan at Fetzer Vineyards and John Williams at Frey Vineyards were among the first to implement organic practices on a large scale.

In Europe, the organic wine movement began in earnest in the 1980s, with countries like France, Italy, and Germany leading the way. The Alsace region in France was particularly influential, with winemakers like Pierre Frick and Jean-Pierre Frick adopting organic and biodynamic practices. Organic farming is an ever popular approach to farming, which prohibits the use of chemicals and additives in the fields. Simple, right? Unfortunately, when we talk about wine, everything is more complicated.

If it is rather clear what organic farming means, what’s considered organic wine varies depending on a wine country of origin. There are in fact two definitions of organic wine, one in the United States, another in Europe, within the European Union that is. To understand why this is, we have to look at the two essential phases of winemaking, growing the grapes in the vineyards, and transforming the grapes into wine in the cellar.

Vineyards v. Cellar

To make great wine you need first and foremost excellent quality grapes, and the vineyard is where it all happens. Farmers growing grapes organically must adhere to a series of prescriptions, which regulate what substances can be used in the vineyard – this is true both in Europe and the USA.

But the main difference is that in the United States, for a wine to be called organic, in addition to being made from organically grown grapes, winemakers must not add any sulfites upon bottling it. In the European Union, there are less stringent regulations as to how organically grown grapes should be vinified, that is transformed into wine.

The United States Department of Agriculture, USDA, the agency presiding organic certifications in the USA, is also concerned with particular aspects of winemaking which happens in the cellar.

Organic winemaking extends the principles of organic farming into the cellar. Key aspects include:

  1. Yeast: Many organic winemakers prefer indigenous yeasts for fermentation, although certified organic commercial yeasts are permitted.
  2. Additives: Only a limited number of additives are allowed, and they must be derived from organic sources when available.
  3. Sulfites: While the U.S. and EU have different regulations, both significantly restrict sulfite use compared to conventional winemaking.
  4. Fining and filtration: Many organic winemakers prefer minimal intervention, often using bentonite clay or plant-based fining agents when necessary.
  5. Oak treatment: If used, oak must be from sustainably managed forests and cannot be treated with prohibited substances.

USA Definition of Organic Wine

This passage from USDA website is key:

"Before wine can be sold as organic, both the growing of the grapes and their conversion to wine must be certified. This includes making sure grapes are grown without synthetic fertilizers and in a manner that protects the environment and preserves the soil.

Other agricultural ingredients that go into the wine, such as yeast, also have to be certified organic. Any non-agricultural ingredients must be specifically allowed on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances and can’t exceed 5% of the total product.

And, while wine naturally produces some sulfur dioxide (sulfites), they can’t be added to organic wine."

Only wine made according to the principles established by the USDA, including the strict requirement “no added sulfur dioxide”, can be sold as organic wine. If a wine only meets the requirement “made with organic grapes”, it cannot be sold as organic wine.

Key points of the U.S. organic wine regulations include:

  1. Organic grapes: Grapes must be grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides.
  2. Sulfite restrictions: "Organic wine" must be made without added sulfites. Wines made from organic grapes that contain added sulfites can be labeled "made with organic grapes" but cannot use the USDA organic seal.
  3. Certification: Vineyards and wineries must be certified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent.
  4. Labeling categories:

European Union Definition of Organic Wine

In the European Union, organic wine must be made from organic grapes as well as according to the following winemaking practices – from the European Commission website:

  • maximum sulfite content set at 100 mg per liter for red wine (150 mg/l for conventional).
  • maximum sulfite content set at 150mg/l for white/rosé (200 mg/l for conventional).

there can be a 30mg/l differential where the residual sugar content is more than 2g per liter.

Within the European Union, for a wine to be labeled and sold as organic, the quantity of sulfur dioxide must be inferior to the one found in conventional wines, but adding it is not forbidden.

Key aspects of EU organic wine regulations include:

  1. Organic grapes: As in the U.S., grapes must be grown without synthetic chemicals.
  2. Sulfite restrictions: Sulfite limits are set at 100 mg/L for red wine and 150 mg/L for white and rosé wines, with slightly higher limits for wines with residual sugar content.
  3. Prohibited practices: Certain physical processes like partial dealcoholization, electrodialysis, and thermal treatments over 70°C are prohibited.
  4. Allowed additives: A restricted list of additives and processing aids is permitted, including yeast, egg white proteins, and pea proteins.
  5. Labeling: Wines meeting these standards can be labeled "Organic Wine" and display the EU organic logo.

Organic In-Conversion and Practicing Organic

Certified organic wine is widely available in the United States, along with a plethora of organic food products. To complete the picture we would like to mention two sub-categories often overlooked - and slightly more difficult to identify.

  • Organic in-conversion: wine producers who are in the process of becoming certified organic.
  • Practicing organic: wine producers who are not certified organic but nevertheless practice organic farming.

Organic grape farming relies on a holistic approach to vineyard management that prioritizes soil health, biodiversity, and natural pest control methods.

Key practices include:

  1. Soil management: Cover crops, compost, and green manures are used to maintain soil fertility and structure.
  2. Pest and disease control: Beneficial insects, pheromone confusion, and plant-based preparations (like neem oil) are used instead of synthetic pesticides.
  3. Weed control: Mechanical cultivation, mulching, and cover crops are used instead of herbicides.
  4. Water management: Efficient irrigation systems and drought-resistant rootstocks are employed to conserve water.
  5. Biodiversity: Encouraging diverse ecosystems within and around vineyards to promote natural balance.