~When it comes to food and drink the word “organic” seems to have been taken to new and unsubstantiated heights. Indeed, many of those rebel farmers with their small plots of “back to the earth” farms that they tilled with their wives and the brood have long been co-opted by Archer Daniels Midland, Kellogg’s and a host of other conglomerate food giants. While the word might still mean that the farming isn’t heavily dependent on petrochemicals, “organic” isn’t exactly hand produced either.
~I suspect that, in the context of wine, “organic” does not mean what many of you think it means.
~Put simply, organic wine is produced from organic grapes.
Read the above sentence over. It does not say anything about how the wine is produced—does it? That’s where the confusion—and the problem—lies.
~Growing grapes organically is indeed a noble endeavor. I grow my own vegetables for the same reason that I like the idea of organically grown grapes: I know (or at least I hope) they have not been subjected to potentially dangerous insecticides.
~When it comes to my vegetables, I also know they are not processed with potentially contaminated water, they are not blended with potentially contaminated vegetables from some other farm, they are not transported and packaged with vegetables from other farms, and they are not treated in my kitchen with chemicals before I eat them. When it comes to commercial grapes I know little or nothing about their treatment, and believe me, if you knew what shows up in a vat of grapes you’d understand why the word “organic” is the least about which you should worry!
~I’ve heard with my own ears wine sales people call certain products “organic wine” when I know that the wine had been subjected to a few inorganic processes—not that the processes are necessarily detrimental, just that they certainly are not organic.
You notice I don’t dignify the word “natural” here. That’s because in the food and drink industry that word literally is a lie.
~Assume, however, that organic wines are supposed to be produced a certain way. Did you know that the US Department of Agriculture definition of organic wines refers to wines that can prove 95% of the resources were from certified organic sources? Further, wines that are “made with organic grapes” need only include 70% by volume from certified organic sources.
~Each of the “organic” wines above can have sulfur dioxide added to them, which is not exactly an organic process, but that is up for argument in some quarters.
~The only guarantee that I know of that makes sense is when a wine is labeled 100% organic, 100% of the grapes must have been certified organically grown and no sulfur dioxide was added.
~Now, you know about sulfur dioxide, don’t you? No? Let me explain.
Sulfur dioxide is a naturally occurring sulfite gas from decaying vegetation (its chemical signature is SO2); it is also a pollutant gas produced from industrial smoke; it is also a gas that is used to preserve food and wine; and it is also a gas produced as a by-product of fermentation. You might think that its natural state would make it an organic substance, but SO2 is not considered organic, mainly because it is not carbon based.
~The fact that SO2 is a natural by-product of fermentation is cause for some confusion when it comes to wine.
~The preservative affect of SO2 for wine was discovered in second century Rome. Since that time, it has been used to protect many foods from spoiling by slowing oxidation, which is what it does for wine. But because it is not considered organic, an addition of SO2 is not allowed in 100% organic wine.
~Remember, however, that SO2 is a by-product of fermentation. That means that while it may not be added to 100% organic wine, there still could be small levels of SO2 in the wine, from the fermentation. The confusion is when so-called organic wines claim they are sulfite free, which may be untrue—they may not have had SO2 added, but they also may contain low levels of it.
The reason for concern over SO2 is that in its gaseous/airborne state, the chemical can negatively affect the respiratory system of asthmatics. But the levels allowed in wine have never been proven to be cause for concern, whether added to the wine or in there naturally.
~It appears there are no restrictions on using the word “organic” when wine is subjected to other processing like fining or filtering. While some of the material used for fining is organic, materials used for filtering may not be. Plus, other additions to wine like certain chemicals to fix certain problems that may pop up in the winemaking process are not all necessarily produced from organic matter.
~The use of the word “organic” generally has power as promotion, but it can also be misleading. The best thing for consumers to do who are concerned about whether or not their wine is truly an organic product is not to read the label but to ask specific questions of the producer. Come to think of it, that’s the best thing to do concerning all consumer edibles and potables.
Next time, I’ll explore “biodynamic.”
April, 2007. All Rights Reserved.