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Two Women on Wine: Organic -- all about the sulfites

Organic wine quality has improved considerably

Posted: August 19, 2011 6:00 a.m.
Updated: August 19, 2011 6:00 a.m.

Whenever we talk about organic wines we often hear, "Isn't all wine organic?" In order to understand where wines fall in the organic spectrum, it's helpful to understand where they've been.

The organic movement in the U.S. began in the 1960s with the publication of a very controversial book at the time. In her book "The Silent Spring," Rachel Carson exposed, for the first time, the detrimental effects of pesticides on the environment and accused the chemical industry of spreading misinformation about its toxic effects.

The book was so well read that it caused widespread concerns, eventually leading to the ban of DDT in 1972. Because of the work of these early pioneers, the call for organic products has become part of our everyday life decades later.

Organically grown food and beverages are now big business. According to the Organic Trade Association, U.S. sales of organic food and beverages grew from $1 billion in 1990 to $26.7 billion in 2010. According to the Organic Monitor, organic sales reached $54.9 billion in 2009 globally.

In this age of recycling, hybrid cars, non-toxic cleaning supplies, organic produce and energy efficient light bulbs, it's no surprise that it is time for wine to go green.

Since just about everyone on the planet is aware of the detrimental effects of chemicals on the environment, it's no wonder wine producers and winemakers have jumped on board. First and foremost, winemaking is about farming. So it stands to reason that steps have been taken in the vineyard, as well as in the winery, to protect the environment.

Organic wines have been on the market since the 1990s. However, the common opinion was that the wines were not well produced and, therefore, not very good. The main reason was that these wines contained absolutely no sulfites, which caused the wine to deteriorate at a fast rate.

Today, we're glad to report that the quality of organic wines has improved considerably. However, the stigma still exists to some degree, just as the old notion that screw caps on wine meant cheap, terrible wine. Both of these notions could not be further from the truth.

Slowly, people are making the leap into trying organic wines. Their color choice now is not only red, white or pink, it is also "green" in the sense that it was produced organically. There isn't any doubt that with new technology and sustainable farming practices, organic wines are gaining more respect in the wine industry and by wine lovers.

Organic grapes do not necessarily make organic wine. It's all about the sulfites. Sulfite (sulphur dioxide) is a preservative that prevents oxidation and spoilage, which occurs naturally during the fermentation process. Almost every winemaker in the world, including those in Europe, adds a certain amount of sulfites to their wines. Without sulfites, the world's most renowned wines, such as the great Bordeauxs, would not be able to be enjoyed years later.

Each country, including the U.S., has specific guidelines as to the amount of sulfites that are permissible in the production of wine. Wines grown in cool climates require less sulfite; reds usually have less than whites; and wines with screw-cap closures usually have less than those with corks.

However, labeling is a source of confusion for organic wines. For a wine to be truly considered organic, it must be produced without pesticides or herbicides and have no sulfites. These wines carry a USDA Certified label. For those who love wine but have an allergic reaction to sulfites, wines that have the USDA Certified label may be a good choice.

If sulfites are added, the wine can be labeled as "Made with Organic Grapes." According to the Organic Consumers Association, these wines must be made from at least 70 percent organic grapes. Unlike the seal for certified organic, these wines have no seal and identification will be on the back label. Even though these wines contain lower levels of sulfites, they are still produced organically and are a nice alternative to the USDA Certified organic wines, which may not be as favorable.

The reality is that more and more wine producers are using green farming methods and have been for years. Not just because it's earth-friendly, but also because it produces good, quality wine.

"Every step of wine production from pruning to bottling is considered to minimize our impact on the environment and our products," believes Jim Milone, organic winemaker and owner of Terra Savia in Mendocino. "If you want to make great wines, you must grow excellent grapes, nurture the grapes organically and do as little as possible to the wine."

There is no doubt that organically produced wines are evolving and improving remarkably. As these wines become more mainstream, the choices are increasing. Here are a few producers you might want to consider: Terra Savia Winery (Mendocino), Alma Rosa Winery (Santa Barbara), Halter Ranch (Paso Robles), ZD Wines (Napa), Ampelos Cellars (Paso Robles), and Familia Zuccardi Santa Julia Organica (Argentina). Cheers!


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