As a foodie who is also passionate about holistic, healthy living, I've been a bit confused about organic wines. Is organic wine better for your health? Is organic wine better for the environment? And can it even taste good?
Every few months I take a weekend trip up to the Santa Ynes Valley, just north of Santa Barbara for a wine weekend with my blogger friends. We talk business and girl stuff, eat great food, and sample organic wines. This past weekend Sylvie from Hollywood Homestead joined us, and we biked around the beautiful valley and had the grown-up version of the perfect slumber party minus the curlers and frozen bras.
On all of these trips, I've chatted with winemakers and wine lovers in search for the facts about organic wine.
Is organic wine better? Here's what I learned:
Conventional wines are born from vineyards that may or may not use chemical based pesticides on their vines. It’s also common practice for conventional wines to include GMO yeast and sulfites. (source)
For a food or beverage to be USDA Certified Organic it has to be grown free of pesticides, insecticides, herbicides and other potentially harmful chemicals. With wine, though, the distinction of organic isn’t as clear cut as you might think.
Organically grown vs. organically produced wines
Wine labeled ‘made with organically grown grapes' are typically produced exactly the same way as conventional wines. This is because the whole wine isn’t organic, just the grapes were grown that way. These wines usually contain sulfites just like conventional wines.
Sulphur dioxide (a sulfite) acts as a preservative which extends the shelf life of foods and beverages. While sulfites aren't necessarily bad for everyone, people who have asthma or other respiratory disorders should use caution because “sulfite sensitivity [is] a condition that causes asthma-like symptoms such as wheezing and difficulty breathing” (source).
It's important to note that sulfites naturally occur in all wine during fermentation. That said, fully USDA Certified Organic wine are forbidden to have any added sulfites. This is the main difference between wine ‘made with organically grown grapes' and ‘certified organic' wines.
Here's the downside: wine without added sulfites won’t retain its flavor because it doesn’t contain this traditional preservative – leading to an unpleasant tasting wine.
International wine judge Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan explains that, “Sulfur is as an antimicrobial which prevents nasty microbes from creating awful flavors or turning the wine into vinegar.” Despite my high hopes, most certified organic wine that I've taste has been pretty darn yucky.
Why sulfites are not your worst enemy
According to this article by IntoWine.com, “Worries over sulfites tend to drown out the known fact that conventional grapes are among the most heavily sprayed of all agricultural crops. Typically, as many as 18 different chemicals are used on non-organically grown grape crops during their growing cycle.”
Pesticides can negatively impact our health – linked to everything from mild nausea to cancer. From an environmental perspective, pesticides “damage agricultural land by harming beneficial insect species, soil microorganisms, and worms which naturally limit pest populations and maintain soil health” among other harmful effects on the plant itself. (source)
Unless you're sensitive to sulfites, choosing organically grown over certified organic wine will eliminate the pesticides without sacrificing taste. Some of my favorites (I'm a white wine lover) from the Santa Ynez valley: Coquelicot's incredible viognier and chardonnay and Ampelos rose, and anything from Dragonette Cellars.
Biodynamics – taking winemaking to a whole new level of awesome
Now that we have a grasp on the nuances of organic wine, hold your hat for the gold standard: biodynamic wine.
In 1924, Rudolf Steiner helped to develop the biodynamic approach to farming where the entire farm is seen as a living and breathing organism.
With biodynamic wine practices farmers only use the natural, self-sustaining resources available inside their vineyard. From compost to weed prevention through pasture-raised farm animals, a biodynamic farm won’t use “chemically synthesized fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, or fumigants, no hormones, antibiotics, growth regulators or GMOs.” (source)
Biodynamic farming goes beyond organic standards to protect and heal the earth. Wines produced under these stringent biodynamic standards are by far the best choice for the environment and for your taste buds.
If you can't get biodynamic, then opt for wine from organically grown, sustainably farmed grapes. Cheers!
One may dislike carrots, spinach, beetroot or the skin on hot milk, but not wine.
It is like hating the air one breathes, since each is equally indispensable.
Marcel Aymè, French Writer (1902-1967)
Have you found an organic (or biodynamic) wine that you love?
Share with us in the comments!