Organic wine comes of age

Story and photography by Doug Paulding


Fifteen to 20 years ago, the organic wine industry was in its infancy, driven by crunchy-granola eating farmers who expanded their estates to include organic grapes and wine production as families increasingly embraced the concept of back-to-nature livestock, fruits and vegetables that had little or no chemical intervention. Organic wines were made by farmers with little or no wine-making experience and the wines were short-lived and horrible, with little structure and no age-ability. Essentially, they were alcoholic Kool-Aid. But the farmers found a market and real winemakers took notice.

When trained winemakers began going green, a serious revolution in the industry began – one that turned away from chemical pest control and picture-perfect vineyards that in counterintuitive fashion had caused grape size and color, vineyard yields and the resultant wine to suffer. To go organic comfortably, though, you need the right weather and topography. The dry, almost desert-like areas found in Chile and Spain, along with the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France, are conducive to organic wine. The Languedoc-Roussillon area also has its impressive tramontane winds that predictably roll in from different directions, making it difficult to walk against but drying out the vineyards quickly and thus eliminating the need for fungicides. Areas with more rain, such as Bordeaux and the Pacific Northwest, have a more difficult time controlling vineyard fungi.

Whether they are certified organic or not, most vineyards use integrated pest control techniques in lieu of chemical controls.  Insects and birds that eat leaf- or grape-damaging insects are introduced into the vineyard. Pheromone traps are judiciously placed to disrupt insect reproductive cycles. Flowers that attract damaging insects are placed away from the vines, focusing the pests in one area, which makes gathering or eliminating them easier. And soil depleting weeds and grasses competing with the vines for minerals, nutrients and water are controlled with grazing animals, such as sheep and cows, rather than with mowers.

Certified organic can mean different things to different regions as local governments are responsible for definitions and enforcement. It takes three years of no chemical interference to become organic within the European Union and the vineyards and winery needs an annual inspection by the EU organic commission. Growing grapes organically requires a thorough understanding of insect and fungal life cycles and when to anticipate the need for nonchemical intervention.  These rules are essentially the same in the U.S.  But the EU has hundreds, if not thousands, of organic-wine producers making wines all across the pricing spectrum. Most wine producers in the U.S. are not making premium wines organically.  And the reason is simple – sulfites.

In Europe, certified wine production can employ the use of sulfur dioxide as a stabilizer and as a preservative. The EU allows for the addition of sulfites up to 100 parts per million for red wines and up to 150 ppm for whites and rosés. The U.S. organic industry is overseen by the Department of Agriculture, which believes that wine, like all other beverages and foods, should not be able to call itself organic if it has sulfites. The problem is that most foods are supposed to be consumed fresh.  Well – made and high quality wines are meant to improve with age. Without minimal amounts of added sulfites, the wines will not age to their optimal tasting profile and are likely to have a much shorter life span. I was in Montpellier, France at Millésime Bio, the massive World Organic Wine Fair, in January and interviewed many producers regarding the use of sulfites. Virtually all of the better producers told me they would not make wine without adding the necessary sulfites for preservation and durability.

If you are determined to go organic with your wine selections, there are now many good choices.  Look for the green EU organic wine certification logo on the bottle. I tasted some very high quality wines from prominent producers all over Europe who have moved to organic production. These wines can be consumed now or put down for better development and expression. If I were to buy an organic wine from the U.S., I would be looking to open it soon, just as I would do with milk, eggs or other produce.

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