Years ago the term “organic wine” brought to mind the image of hippies fermenting grapes in the cellar of the commune. Recently wine made from organically grown grapes and without the use of chemical fertilizer has grown in popularity. There has also been some controversy as to what exactly defines an “organic wine.” Organic wines have three tiers. The first is flavor. Many organic wines nowadays are as good or better than conventional wines in flavor. Secondly, there are health factors. It’s been pretty much established that the fewer chemicals that we ingest, the better off we are. And finally, by consuming organic we are contributing to a safer and healthier environment.
The large majority of wines that are called organic are simply made with organically grown grapes. The bottle usually boasts a seal that certifies that the vineyard is operating without the use of herbicides, pesticides, or chemical fertilizers and a minimum amount of sulfur dioxide is added. The other type of organic wine is made without the use of sulfur dioxide at all but these wines tend to be of poorer quality and very unstable. A lot of people are sensitive to the sulfur dioxide and get headaches after drinking conventional wine, but according to experts some of that reaction may be due to other chemicals in the wine and not the sulfur dioxide after all.
Conventional agricultural practices adopted over the past 50 years or so have stripped essential minerals from the ground .necessitating the increasing use of artificial help to replace what has been lost. There are now seventeen different insecticides, fumigants, and herbicides currently used, on average, in conventional wine grape production. In organic farming, the emphasis is on maintaining a healthy biologically active soil. In the vineyard it means cultivating the soil and using cover crops instead of herbicides. It means using natural fertilizers like manure instead of artificial ones. Instead of using poisonous insecticides, the growth of natural predators is encouraged.
In the cellar, “organic” suggests minimal processing and no use of chemical additives. There are three important factors involved: the use of yeast, the filtration process, and the use of sulfur dioxide. The need for cultured yeast in organic winemaking is reduced because wild yeast remains present, unaffected by the use of weed killers or insecticides. Minimizing the use of sulfur dioxide is strictly observed. It’s difficult to produce a wine that will keep well, especially true of the whites, without adding at least some additional sulfites to those that are naturally produced. Red wines ferment with the skin and juice together and the extra tannins act as a natural preservative.
More and more French organic wines are showing up among the top ten best wines of any region when they are available. Since there is a relative lack of public awareness, these wines generally don’t come with the added cost of some of the other organically grown products. Most of the organic wines come from smaller vineyards where the grapes are hand-picked rather than by mechanical means. This means that you get the strongest and richest grapes with minimal effects on the environment. As Emerson said: “We did not inherit the Earth from our forefathers, we are borrowing it from our descendants.”