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The organic wine gamble

With healthy eating – and drinking – all the rage, Monty Waldin investigates why some organic wines may be better for you than others

Hidden extras

The explosion of interest in organic wines shows no sign of abating after years of consumer caution. But while the world’s organic vineyards adhere to a single principle when it comes to growing the grapes (namely that man-made chemical herbicides, pesticides, insecticides and fungicides must not be used on the vines), when it comes to the use of preservatives during winemaking two organic wine-types exist: those which contain them and those which don’t. What’s more, organic wine labels are rarely obliged to distinguish between the two.

Ingredients listing on all wine labels is due to become law in the UK within three years, but until then consumers are left in the dark as to whether or not a given wine contains ‘hidden extras’. This is important because, with the exception of GMO yeasts, most of those same additives (acid, sugar), aids (selected yeast, enzymes) and fining agents (egg white, milk and fish derivatives) used in non-organic wines can also be used in wine from organic vineyards too.

Sulphur dioxide

Also, almost all wine growers – organic and conventional – rely on sulphur dioxide during winemaking. Sulphur dioxide, a gas applied in liquid form to wine, gives the wine a longer shelf life once bottled. Sulphur dioxide is also used to preserve commercial salad dressings, fruit juices, dried fruit and alcoholic products such as spirit mixers.

The bad news is that sulphur dioxide is known to cause allergic reactions such as headaches, especially in asthmatics. There is no concrete proof (yet), but wines with high levels of sulphur dioxide probably exacerbate the nausea and head pain of hangovers. Organic growers claim their wines contain lower levels of sulphur preservative than their non-organic counterparts, but such claims are hard to police.

Sulphur free organic wine?

A small number of organic producers do make wines containing no added sulphur preservative. In Europe these include Saint-Emilion’s Château Meylet and the Rhône Valley’s Domaine Saint-Apollinaire; in Chile, Viña La Fortuna and the Lomas de Cauquenes Cooperative; and in California, Frey Vineyards (Mendocino), H Coturri (Sonoma), plus two from the Central Valley, LaRocca and The Organic Wine Works.

Even though these producers use similar, sulphur-free methods, their wines must be labelled differently according to where they are sold. In California, the 1990 California Organic Foods Act makes a distinction between ‘organic wine’ with no added sulphur dioxide (‘sulfites’ or Preservative 220), such as Frey Vineyards, and ‘wine made from organically grown grapes’, which will have had sulphur added, such as Bonterra made by Fetzer Vineyards.

In contrast to California, Europe’s Directive 2092/91 which governs organic production there, takes account only of practices used on the vines, not those in the winery during winemaking or what it calls ‘processing’ solid grapes into liquid wine. This means organic grapes made into wine with no additives are not recognised, and are still described as ‘wine made from organically grown grapes’. So, if you are asthmatic, prefer organic produce and drink wine, live in California rather than Europe.

So does sulphur preservative affect wine? Of course it does – sulphur dioxide has a marked, eggy flavour and a smell which affects the taste of the wine (more dulled), its colour (brighter initially but dulled in time), its chemical make-up (by altering acid levels) and its general ‘mouthfeel’.

The difference between Bonterra’s California Zinfandel 1997 (organic grapes plus sulphur) and Coturri’s Sonoma Valley AVA, Zinfandel, Chauvet Vineyards 1997 (organic grapes without added sulphur) is marked. The fruit flavours in the Coturri Zinfandel are so clear and exuberant that the wine tastes like alcoholic grape juice – precisely how wine is supposed to be.

When well-made with interesting grapes and on a small-scale, wines such as Coturri’s sulphur-free wines (which came from a Sonoma mountain vineyard planted in 1936 and 1976) are a revelation which will alter your taste parameters forever.

Moon Mountain on course for AVA status

The problem with sulphur-free wines like Coturri’s is they can spoil easily, especially if stored incorrectly (too warm). The safest option when buying sulphur-free organic wine is to obtain it direct from the winery – or if through a third-party, withhold payment until you have had the chance to sample a bottle to make sure it has not, for instance, re-fermented in bottle, a common problem in sulphur-free wines.

In terms of the supposed health benefits associated with organics, there is no concrete proof that organic vineyards produce ‘healthier’ wines than non-organic ones. On the other hand, no one knows what the long-term effects are of ingesting traces of the 240 man-made compounds allowed in non-organic wines as spray residues. It is conceivable that by avoiding these compounds you will risk fewer allergic reactions, less toxic hangovers and get a more authentic tasting wine.

Organic producers have also been criticised for their high prices. They justify the organic price-premium because yields are generally lower in organic vineyards than in conventional ones to encourage stronger, more naturally disease-resistant vines. There is no doubt that the ‘hard-core’ organic producers who went organic from the 1960s for ideological – rather than financial – reasons are giving way to a more commercially astute generation of organic growers who are in it for profit first, the environment later.

Until a single global standard is drawn up, what constitutes an ‘organic wine’ will remain a moot point between Europe and the New World. Only the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements offers a global rule book. But while it has consultative status with the USA federal government and the United Nations, it is not recognised by the European Union, and has no rules on wine production. Until organic winegrowers worldwide can agree on the additives, aids and agents that are permissible in organic wine, their product will retain an air of mystery which could ultimately induce more than just a headache in the mind of its proponents.

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