Clearing up the Confusion about Organic Wine
There is a lot of interest and a lot of confusion about organic wine these days. The interest stems from the increasing presence of wines with organic claims on store shelves and from wine consumers who want organic alternatives to conventional wines. Most of the confusion has to do with the labeling of these organic wines.
Grapegrowing like most other farming is organic by origin, but like most other farms, most vineyards today are not organic. A more recent history of organic wine and the labeling of organic wine dates back to 1990 when congress passed the National Organic Foods Act. The goal of the Organic Foods Act was to protect producers, handlers, processors, retailers, and consumers of organic food by assuming that foods labeled as organic were in fact organic. The Organic Foods Act put the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in charge of establishing regulations for organic foods and food products. They in turn established the National Organics Standards Board (NOSB) to advise them. Since fermented beverages were included in the Organic Foods Act, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) which regulates wine labeling also became involved. The ATF said they would allow organic claims on the label if the claims were documented by an accredited or recognized certifying agency and that the certification had to be submitted for approval with applications for label approval. The ATF did not allow finished products (i.e. wines) to be designated as organic. This changed when Hallcrest Vineyards and the Organic Wine Works challenged the ATF and became the first exception based on an inspection of raw materials, production methods, and records by The California Department of Health Services, Food and Drug Branch. Since then, only a few wineries have followed the same course and become certified processors of organic wines.
Along came the National Organic Program (NOP), also part of the USDA. The NOP’s goal has been to set guidelines for the processing and labeling of organic products and to maintain the “National List” of allowed and prohibited substances. According to the NOP and the ATF who have stated that all label approvals filed with them must comply with the USDA relating to the NOP, there are four categories that organic wines can claim: 100% Organic, Organic, Made With Organic Ingredients, and Some Organic Ingredients. Today, these categories define organic wine so understanding the differences among the four categories is important if you want to know what you are really buying.
The standards are being monitored and regulated by the individual certifying agencies who are in turn being monitored and regulated by the USDA so be careful and make sure you trust the certifying agency that the label identifies.
For a wine to be labeled “Organic” and bear the USDA organic seal, it must be made from organically grown grapes and give information about who the certifying agency is. A wine in this category cannot have any added sulfites. It may have naturally occurring sulfites, but the total sulfite level must be less than 20 parts per million.
Made with Organic Grapes - or Made with Organically Grown Grapes
The wine in this category must be made from organic grapes, but it can include added sulfites.
The Confusion about Sulfites
What seems to further complicate the subject of organic wine is the subject of sulfites. Sulfite or sulfur dioxide is used as a preservative in wines. It has strong antimicrobial properties and some antioxidant properties. The health effects or consequences of sulfites are debatable though a small percent of the population does suffer a sensitivity reaction to them. A wine can make the claim,“Sulfite Free” or “ No Added Sulfites - Contains Naturally Occurring Sulfites”, but if sulfites are added and the total sulfites in the wine are above 10 parts per million, it must make the statement, “Contains Sulfites.” A wine that makes the claim Sulfite Free must have no detectable sulfites. There is some controversy about whether it is really possible for a wine to have no sulfites, but no detectable sulfites means that current ATF analysis is not sensitive enough to detect the presence of sulfites at such low levels. No Added Sulfites means that the winery did not add sulfites to the wine but there may be naturally occurring sulfites in the wine that occur as a byproduct of fermentation.
According to the NOP labeling laws. Any of the NOP categories could claim to be Sulfite Free or have No Added Sulfites, but the 100% Organic and Organic categories must meet one of these criteria. The Made with Organic Ingredients and Some Organic Ingredients categories may or may not have added sulfites.
According to the law, all organic claims must be stated on the label so you have to read labels carefully to know what is in the bottle. Also, be careful of the way that stores advertise and shelf the various wines. It may not be the same as what the bottle labels state.