The wine sulfites battle rages on.
Some of you will recall that the Dude has been commenting on the topics of sulfites in wine, as well as biodynamic and organic wines.
Jason Haas over at Tablas Creek Vineyard has posted a great article on how the widely misunderstood fear of wine sulfite allergies (& “wine headaches”) has combined with overly-cautious (and poorly-constructed) U.S. wine regulations to cause winemakers unnecessary grief…
What U.S. Sulfite / Organic Regulations Mean for Winemakers
In a nutshell, it seems that the U.S. regulations regarding sulfite use for wines that are to be labeled ‘organic’ have a big negative impact on potential quality of the wine. That’s because some use of sulfites in higher quality wines is inevitable – otherwise the finished wine could be too unstable.
According to the Guidelines for Labeling: Wine with Organic References from the U.S. Dept. of Treasury – Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms:
“100% Organic” products cannot use added sulfi tes
in production. Therefore, since no add ed sulfi tes
are present in the fi nished product, the label may
not require a sulfi te statement. In these cases, a lab
analysis is necessary to verify that the wine contains
less than 10 ppm of sulfites.
Less than 10 ppm of sulfites… hmm… good luck! I wrote about the challenges of achieving such a low level of sulfites in wine before. Those winemakers that chase after the pot-o’-gold at the end of the marketing rainbow may make “organic” wines, but that will need to be done without much thought to the ultimate quality of the wine. Those winemakers that truly care about quality – well, they end up being discouraged from even trying to make wines that would be labeled “organic” by the U.S. government.
What U.S. Sulfite / Organic Regulations Mean for You
And who suffers the most – wine consumers. Because the average person is likely to a) be scared off because of the required sulfite warning labels on wines, often believing (mistakenly) that there last ‘wine headache’ was caused by sulfties, and b) assuming (mistakenly) that wines labeled as ‘organic’ are healthier and of higher quality, consumers can have a poor experience tasting a nasty unstable wine that is labeled ‘organic’ but sucks – and possibly get turned off to wine altogether because of that experience!
[WARNING: SARCASM] Gee… what’s not to love about this scenario? Besides everything, I mean… [END SARCASM]
Don’t Get Suckered into Following the ‘Organic’ Marketing Bandwagon
Unfortunately, it means that we wine lovers still need to have our wits about us when shopping for wine. Stay sharp, and don’t assume that a wine labeled as ‘organic’ is better for you or is higher quality, or contains no sulfites. Higher quality wines will contain sulfites and probably will NOT be labeled organic – but they will taste better, and in the grand scheme of things will be better for you, will provide better value for money, and will give you a better wine tasting experience!
Happy Holidays to all, and greetings from sunny FL!
A (very) quick update on my last post regarding low-sulfite wines, just to prove I’m not totally biased against all organic / biodynamic wines!
I’ve come across a few other quality wines (featured in body + soul magazine) that I’ve recently learned are either organically or biodynamically made (or both), and that I’ve found to be of good quality…
Thought I’d take a brief moment during my holiday respite to share these wine finds with you. Hope that anyone looking for low-sulfite wines (that don’t also totally suck!) will find this helpful:
- Bonterra Vineyards – Most of their wines are organic, and they make at least one decent wine that’s also biodynamic.
- Fetzer – All organic, with a big focus on recycling during production and distribution.
- Frey – Both organic & biodynamic, and vegan to boot!
- Quintessa – Fully biodynamic since 2005; probably the most fabulous biodynamic wine you’ll find out there, but you’ll pay for it!
Dude has seen quite a bit of press regarding organic and biodynamic wines, which are understandably riding the marketing wave of increased consumer demand for healthier, more naturally-made food products.
At industry wine-tasting events, organic and biodynamic viticulture is touted at nearly every distributor’s and/or winery’s boot,h in order to get a edge over their adjacent competition for eyes, mouths, and wine orders.
Anyone who has had local, organically grown produce, or tasted a fresh hunk of free-range chicken right off the grill, knows firsthand that these products often taste better, are healthier for you, and are superior in quality to their mass-manufactured counterparts.
The story is a bit different when it comes to wines.
That’s because most organic wines suck.
It’s not just this dude’s opinion – in 2005, Tom Stevenson (noted wine writer and critic, and the driving force behind the brilliant Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia and the indispensable annual industry Wine Report) wrote the following regarding the state of organic wines:
- “When great winemakers… “go green” they produce great organic or biodynamic wines. However, it is quite another matter when others less passionate about the quality of wine are organic. While they may well have a true passion for the environment, the majority of the world’s organic producers clearly have no idea how to make a superior quality wine.”
Part of this viewpoint undoubtedly has to do with our expectations as consumers of organic / biodynamic products, spurred on by marketing that goads us into automatically assuming that these products are better for the environment (usually true), are healthier for us (also usually true) and are of higher quality (uh… not quite…). That last part still requires skill, and a passion to make something of real quality, no matter what the methods.
As consumers, we’re also confused about exactly what organic and biodynamic really mean. In summary, they are both government-regulated terms, meaning if you follow the production standards laid out by the government, then you’re allowed to use those terms on the label. At a high level, this is what’s required for winemakers to “go green”:
- Organic: the wine is made with the minimum amount of sulfer dioxide, using grapes that have been grown without using chemically-based pesticides/herbicides and fertilizers.
- Biodynamic: the grapes are grown without using chemical or synthetic fertilizers & sprays; natural yeasts are used for fermentation of the wine, with minimal use of sulfer dioxide, filtration, and chapatalization (the addition of sugars to raise the potential alcohol in the finished wine – which happens much more often then you really want to know about…).
Notice what is NOT represented above – measurements of quality.
So, how have things fared in terms of quality standards for organic wines since the dire outlook penned by Mr. Steven in 2005? Not too good.
Most organic wines still suck.
A great example comes from the Organic Wine section of the 2007 Wine Report: according to the report, Chile (an ever-expanding hotbed of quality wine production) is becoming “a graveyard for failed organic projects” because in order to make quality wine some producers are running organic and non-organic wine growing systems in parallel – a total nightmare in terms of vineyard management.
The problem is that it’s much easier to market organic than it is to make great organic wines. And if producers had figured out how to make top quality wine organically, they wouldn’t need parallel systems – and certainly would have more certified organic acreage under vine.
Europe has, by far, the largest amount of certified-organic vineyard areas – just under 82,000 hectares, which sounds impressive but is only a “whopping” 2.2% of the total vineyard acreage. Half of that 2.2% is concentrated in just one country – Italy, whose farmers were subsidized heavily by the government to convert to organic! In the U.S., biodynamic conversions are on the rise, but the numbers are equally paltry – 1.7% in California (though Oregon is leading with just under 10%).
The moral of the story, at least for this dude, is not to jump too fast onto the organic bandwagon when it comes to wine. While there are some organic producers making top-notch stuff, if you don’t know the producer and it says organic on the label, then it could (in fact, is likely to be) “green” plonk.