Once you become a wine drinker, you’re immediately bombarded with a ton of terminology. Add to the list a growing interest in organic labeling and there’s even MORE to sort through! There are wines that have been certified organic, wines made with organic grapes, conventional wines, biodynamic wines…it can start to get confusing. Luckily, we’re here to help clarify the differences among the many wine making methods out there so that you can make informed purchases.
There’s more to your bottle of vino than meets the eye!
Did you know that creating your favorite glass of Merlot involved a whole heck of a lot more than just grapes? Oftentimes yeast is used to aid in the fermentation process. Typically this yeast is native (or local) when found in an organically labeled wine. Sugars can also be added, including those naturally occurring and extracted from the grapes themselves. Conventional wines occasionally contain residual pesticides, added preservatives, coloring, or mouth-feel agents. A variety of ingredients can be used in production to speed up, slow down, and otherwise direct the laborious process of turning grapes into your favorite wine.
However, if that wine has received the U.S. Department of Agriculture organic certification, it’s production was strictly regulated and never contains synthetic additives. Synthetic herbicides and pesticides are strictly prohibited if a wine is to pass the USDA’s organic certification qualifications. Any kind of pesticide determined harmful, not just to people but the environment as a whole, is not allowed in any stage of the production process. Whereas wine that is made with organically-grown grapes can include some additives, like sulfites, which are typically used as stabilizers and help the wine last longer. Because sulfites are naturally found on the skin of grapes, all wine contains at least SOME sulfites but adding more can be beneficial for preservation purposes.
Let’s delve deeper into the descriptions and differences of two “organic” methods and philosophies of wine making.
USDA Certified Organic Wine
In order to be certified organic under the USDA National Organic Program, grapes must be grown, handled and processed in accordance with consistent national standards. Wine receives this label from the USDA when the entire production cycle, from grape to glass, occurs in a manner which conserves biodiversity, supports ecological balance and utilizes the purest ingredients.
Those growers and producers responsible for creating USDA certified organic wine must acquire passing marks on a certification inspection every single year. USDA inspectors check to make sure the following rules are upheld– No chemical herbicides or synthetic pesticides can be used. Adding sulfites is prohibited. Genetically modified organisms (or GMO’s) are never present.
Wine Made With Organic Grapes
This category of wine will be clearly marked on the label as “Made With Organic Grapes.” Meaning, the grapes found within were grown organically and the production of the wine itself was in accordance with National Organic Program standards. Much like USDA Organic wine, no chemical pesticides or herbicides are allowed in the production. However, unlike organic wine, sulfites MAY be added (up to 100 parts per million). There are also a variety of processing additives which are approved for use by the National Organic Program. Commonly used additives include tannins, pectolytic enzymes, oak chips, and acadia gum. Native yeasts are often used but are not a set standard.
It’s important to note, some producers seek out certification for their grapes from state agencies, such as the California Certified Organic Farmers. These winemakers will not have “Made with Organic Grapes” on their wine labels, however the standards they uphold are exceedingly similar. Keep an eye out for the CCOF mark when purchasing California wines if organic grape growth is an important asset to you!
Now, keep in mind that organic labeling does not equate better or lower quality. A great wine is all about flavor nuances and body. Organic is just one part of the equation when it comes to achieving a superior wine.
If you value organic practices we have curated a number of local Napa and Sonoma wineries that you must add to your next wine tour itinerary. Please mention this preference to your wine concierge and he or she will make sure your experience includes industry leaders in organic practices. Want to do a little exploring on your own? Try this nifty app from Organically Napa.