A lot of Americans have become health conscience over the last decade or more. People are looking to cut back on various foods and drinks based on salt , fats, sugars, etc. Many of them choose only to buy organically grown products. What does organically grown mean? In simple terms, most of us would say that it is produce or fruits grown without the use of chemical sprays such as herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, etc. In regards to meat products it means that the animals are not subjected to any type of chemicals to enhance the growth, flavor or color of the final product.
What does it mean when we say that a wine is organic? First assumption is that the grapes were grown in vineyards where no chemicals were used and during the processing through bottling, no chemical additives were used. Basically, that the wine is free of all chemicals and is naturally grown and produced.
This is where it gets a little sticky as freshly pressed grape juice will oxidize and spoil due to contamination from bacteria and wild yeasts that are present on the grape skins. In order to prevent the grape juice from oxidation and spoilage sulfites need to be added. This is contradictory to what is considered to be an organic wine, however, organic vintners have argued to allow them to add sulfite to protect the quality and freshness of their wine.
In February 2001 the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) established new guidelines for the very complex question of what is termed an organic wine. The new guidelines take into account that all wines contain naturally occurring levels of sulfites which are found on the grape skins. The USDA National Organic Program regulations standard requirement to be certified “Organic” prohibits the use of all chemicals such as sulfites in food products, based on heavy lobbying from wineries, they now allow two exceptions for wine:
1) To be USDA “ORGANIC”, no sulfites can be added to the wine. This will allow the wine to carry the USDA certified organic seal on the label.
2) To be USDA “MADE WITH ORGANICALLY GROWN GRAPES”, vintners are allowed to use grapes that follow the requirements as established by the USDA for organically grown but allows low levels of sulfites to be added during the winemaking process. These wines are allowed to carry a label that states “made with organically grown grapes” as long as the sulfites are less than 100ppm in the final product.
The major opposition to allowing sulfites in what are termed organic wines is based on allergies of some people to sulfite. According to the FDA, only about .4% of the population is considered highly allergic to sulfites. Dr. Vincent Marinkovich, an allergist and clinical immunologist who has performed extensive research on sulfites, says that sulfites pose no danger to about 99.75% of the population; the highest risk group are asthmatics (about 5% of the population) and only about 5% of this group is allergic to sulfites.
Vintners are concerned about maintaining the freshness of their wine and preventing it from spoiling and oxidizing . Their business relies on producing wines that are marketable and enjoyable by the consumer. Some have chosen to add sulfites to prevent such issues. To prevent legal issues, since it is not an organic wine, they label their wines as organically grown or biodynamic. Thus by labeling “organically grown” guarantees that the grapes used were grown according to organic or biodynamic guidelines established by the USDA..
If you choose only to drink organic wines whether for medical reasons or otherwise, it is highly recommended that you do your homework on the wines that you select. The label is a good starting place. Some wineries are trying to find other means than sulfite to preserve their wines, but I am not familiar with them. If anyone has information on other preservation methods, please let me know.