What exactly is organic wine? Is it better for you? In recent years, organic wine has moved from the realms of health nuts and hippies to the mainstream, where it now represents one of the fastest-growing categories in the liquor store. But is it really that different from conventional wine?
With Earth Hour coming up on March 30 and Earth Day on April 22, I’m dedicating today’s episode to organic wine, with a deep dive into what it is, its history and what the research shows about its benefits.
- How has the public perception of organic wine changed in recent decades?
- When did farmers start routinely using chemicals on their farms?
- What triggered the initial backlash against the use of chemicals in food and drink production?
- How have modern food concerns helped to build the demand for organic wines?
- What criteria do wines have to meet to be considered organic?
- Are there unified standards for organic designation?
- What techniques do organic vintners use instead of synthetic chemicals?
- Are organic wines really better for you?
- Does organic wine cause fewer hangovers?
- How is organic wine different from vegan wine?
- Does organic wine taste better?
- Canadian Food Inspection Agency
- California Certified Organic Farmers
- My reviews of organic wines that are in store now
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Transcript & Takeaways
Welcome to episode 16!
What exactly is organic wine and is it better for you? That’s what we’re talking about on today’s episode.
But before we get started, I’d like to give a shout out to Les Payne from California, who emailed me about episode 14, which was entitled “Bottle of the Sexes: Men versus Women on Wine.” If you missed that one, go back and have a listen as it’ll definitely provoke discussion between you and your wine-loving friends.
Les Payne says: “I don’t how to characterize guy vs gal wines, however, that being said, my wife and I have very different taste buds. We can share a Cab and have 2 very different experiences. I love BIG reds and can be drinking a Barolo and she says I can barely taste, as it takes the enamel off my teeth. Love the podcast. I spend a lot of time travelling in my car and it makes the trips enjoyable.
I’m so glad that you’re enjoying the podcast on your commute Les!
I love to share reviews of this podcast for those of you kind enough to post them on Apple podcasts, social media or email. If you want me to mention your website or social media handle, please include that in your review, along with your name. I want to celebrate you and let others know how to connect with you online!
Earth Hour is March 30 and Earth Day April 22. Naturally, you might think about pouring yourself a glass of organic wine to celebrate. But what is organic wine and how is it different from “inorganic wine”?
Is that even a thing?
Back in the 1970s, the concept of “organic wine” conjured up images of pony-tailed vintners in tie-dyed T-shirts, producing wines more for ideology than taste. Thankfully, those days are just a watery memory now.
Today, organic wines are no longer just for health nuts and tree-huggers. Wine lovers drink them for their quality. They’ve gone mainstream and represent one of the fastest-growing categories in the liquor store.
Getting into the mainstream required settling some key issues, and that story reveals as much about contemporary life as it does about organic wines. Until the 1950s, most grapes grown for wine (like most crops of all kinds then) were “organic”: that is, they were grown without using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.
This often meant that crops were at the mercy of diseases and pests and farmers had no choice but to wait until nature re-calibrated itself after the blight died out with its food source, the crop.
Then along came the so-called “green revolution” and the chemicals perceived as the modern and progressive way to farm. They seemed to offer problem-free fields without destroying the crops.
For two decades or so, these intensive and expensive interventions ruled agriculture in North America and around the world.
The backlash started with the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s. Consumers worried about the domination of big business, about harm to the environment and the long-term effects of chemicals used to produce food and drink.
Scientists now believe that all such substances accumulate in our bodies; and since they’ve only been used for several decades, we don’t yet know the long-term effects.
These factors, together with the yearning for self-sufficiency of the hippie culture, strengthened the public desire for natural food products.
Modern food concerns since then—genetically modified foods, mercury poisoning, mad cow disease, fast food, and obesity—have all contributed to the momentum.
So what is organic wine?
Many foods are described as “organic” nowadays, but what does it actually mean applied to wine? Making wine is a two-step process: first, you grow the grapes and then you make the wine.
That means there’s a difference between wine from “organically grown grapes” and “organic wine.” Grapes that are organically grown must have no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or soil fumigants used on them.
Do organic wines use chemicals or not?
The concept that organic grapes are grown without chemicals is misleading. All wine grapes use some form of chemicals in farming, the difference is that organics use chemicals derived from naturally occurring materials.
For example, most organic wine grape growers use sulfur to control powdery mildew and so do conventional growers. The only difference is that the formulations of sulfur used by organic farmers are approved by the federal government whereas the sulfur used by conventional growers can be any sulfur.
In both cases, these materials are pesticides. It’s true that all synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are “synthesized,” which requires energy. However, organically approved sulfur dust is mined, which also consumes a lot of energy, whereas most synthetic sulfur dust is a by-product of petroleum distillation.
There’s still debate over whether organic grapes are allowed to be irrigated with “gray water” (partially treated wastewater). Purists also nix the use of genetically modified vines and growth hormones.
To qualify for the organic designation, the farm or vineyard must be free of synthetic chemicals for a certain period as determined by governmental agencies, such as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
This varies by country, but three years is the most common length of time for the soil to be declared free of most chemical residue. “Organic wine” takes the no-chemical use a step further.
It means that not only were the grapes grown organically, but the wine itself was then made with none of the 500 available additives and agents.
Who defines what’s organic?
This is a confusing subject because different winemaking regions use different definitions and several organizations provide a number of different certifications.
For example, the California Certified Organic Farmers organization inspects and certifies member growers according to its own standards, which are more stringent than those in the California Organic Food Act of 1979.
Many producers are advocating a single set of international standards, which would help consumers to understand and trust the organic designation.
What do organic vintners use instead of synthetic chemicals?
In their quest to enrich the soil and keep pests at bay, many vintners inter-plant the vine rows with other crops, such as ryegrass, chicory, fescue, oats, mustard, lupins, and red clover. These cover crops control weeds and encourage bugs to feed on them rather than on the vines.
They can also be plowed back into the soil to replenish its nitrogen. Some organic winemakers also add compost made from pomace, the solid material left over from pressing the grapes.
Other vintners allow chickens the run of their vineyards since they both eat bugs and scratch the soil, naturally tilling it. Some build nesting boxes and perches to encourage hawks and owls to roost and hunt rodents and other pests in the vineyard.
This can be surprisingly effective. Doug Price, viticulturist at the California winery Clos de Bois, once laid out a tarp under one of the 30 owl boxes he built around the vineyard. Over the course of one summer, it collected more than 500 gopher skulls.
Featherstone Vineyards in Niagara uses “lamb-mowers” to reduce their environmental hoofprint: the spring lambs eat the low-hanging leaf canopy of the vines as well as the grasses growing between vineyard rows.
Are organic wines really better for you?
The good news about even non-organic wine grapes is that far fewer chemicals are used on them than on other fruit.
Consumers want strawberries and pears to look good on the fruit stands, so they ignore the chemicals that keep them that way even to the detriment of taste and health.
However, the appearance of wine grapes is irrelevant, since they’re going to be crushed. As a result, they’re grown specifically to optimize their taste.
Still, there are 17 chemicals commonly used in vineyards today and grapes aren’t washed before being crushed.
This means non-organic fruit may have trace amounts of chemicals, but many winemakers purport that the process of fermentation neutralizes such residues and filtering the finished wine usually removes whatever might remain.
Federal law stipulates that there can’t be any chemical residue in the finished wine, organic or not.
The science on this is still pending. However, University of California at Davis studies note differences in the internal chemistry of fruits and vegetables between those that had preventive prophylactic sprays applied when known insect infestations would occur, and those that did not.
The unsprayed plants produced significantly more compounds related to the immune systems of those plants, the ones we also value as human anti-oxidants, including phenolic compounds and flavonoids.
There’s really no evidence that organic wine is any better for you than non-organic, or that it will reduce your risk of cancer, heart disease or other illnesses.
Does organic wine cause fewer hangovers?
Sadly, no. The only cause of a hangover is drinking too much alcohol. Organic wine won’t even make your hangover less severe.
How is organic wine different from vegan wine?
It’s all in the clarifying—the removal of the particles which create cloudiness. Some vintners skip this step because they believe it can strip the wine of some of its character.
One of the traditional ways of “fining” wine is to add whisked egg whites to the barrels of fermenting wine. As these settle through the liquid, they bond with particles and eventually float back to the top, where the vintner scoops them out.
Organic wines allow the use of the whites of organic eggs, but not vegan wines.
Vegan wines also don’t use clarifying substances in the trade like gelatin, blood, skim milk, and fish bladders in favor of certain types of clay like bentonite, centrifuge machines or cellulose filters.
Another method is to simply allow the wine a longer time in the barrel so that any particles settle naturally at the bottom and can be left behind when the wine is drained out into bottles.
Do organic wines taste better?
In blind taste tests, many experts perceive no difference between well-made organic and non-organic wines.
Winemakers themselves certainly believe that their wines are more complex when the grapes are organically farmed.
That process demands careful hands-on attention to matters such as canopy management when growers prune back the leaves to create better air circulation among the grape bunches so that there’s less chance of rot.
Still, in the words of Randall Grahm, owner of California’s Bonny Doon Vineyards: “Our vision must go beyond taste.
We have to ask, ‘What are the costs of chemical co-dependency? Does our business advance values that we esteem? Are we making a product that customers want to buy?’”
I believe that wine is an expression of the earth in which the vines grow. If that earth is rich and alive, rather than a chemical wasteland, that’s got to affect the wine, even though the difference may be subtle.
How about you? Do you try to buy organic wine? If so, which ones? Do you perceive any taste differences?
You’ll find links to my reviews of organic wines in stores now in the show notes, at nataliemaclean.com/16.
Next week, we’ll chat with Thomas Bacheldor, the rockstar winemaker, who produces organic and biodynamic wines in Niagara, Oregon and Burgundy.
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I can’t wait to share more personal wine stories with you. Thank you for taking the time to listen to this one. I hope something great is in your glass this week!