When it comes to the topic of wines, particularly organic wines, separating myth from fact can be a daunting task. Much of the information available on organic wines is contradictory. While there is generally no argument that drinking wine made from organic grapes is better for you than drinking wine made from grapes laden with chemicals, there is quite a lot of controversy surrounding the topic of sulfites in organic wines.
According to the USDA’s definition of organic wine, an organic wine is simply a fermented beverage made from organically-grown grapes, to which no sulfur dioxide has been added. Sulphur in this form has been used in winemaking as far back as the Greco-Roman period for its anti-bacterial and antioxidant properties. While sulfites occur naturally at low levels during the winemaking process, as a by-product of the fermenting yeasts present on all grape skins, the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) guidelines state that even a wine made with 99.99% organic ingredients cannot be labeled “organic” unless no sulfur dioxide has been added to it. Therefore, as sulfites are naturally occurring, there is no such thing as a sulfite-free wine.
A small percentage of people experience sensitivity to sulfites, particularly asthmatics and people with severe allergies. For these people, having access to a low-sulfite alternative means that they can enjoy the pleasures of wine without experiencing the unpleasant drawbacks. But what the sulfite restriction on organic wine has translated into for the larger population of consumers is a vague and general notion that organic wines are inferior to non-organic wines.
When organic vintners first began making wine without added sulfites in the 1980’s, the resulting wines, being more susceptible to spoilage, were of uncertain quality. Of course the poor quality of these first organic wines had nothing to do with the “organic” nature of the wines, but was a direct result of the absence of the stabilizing and preserving agent in sulfites. Since then, the organic wine industry has struggled with the public misconception that organic wine is bad wine.
The winemaking technology available to today’s organic vintner has progressed to the degree that the amount of sulphur dioxide needed to prevent oxidation, control bacterial growth, and stabilize the wine is more minimal than ever, and the quality of low-sulfite wines has greatly improved since organic wines were first introduced. With the legal maximum sulfite level for U.S. wines being 350 parts per million (ppm), even conventional wines made today contain far less, averaging about 125 ppm.
The most serious consequence of sulfite-generated misconceptions about organic wine is that they tend to eclipse the real and powerful advantages that organic wine has to offer. Worries over sulfites tend to drown out the known fact that conventional grapes are among the most heavily sprayed of all agricultural crops. Typically, as many as 18 different chemicals are used on non-organically grown grape crops during their growing cycle. These chemicals are absorbed through the skins of the fruit and seep into the soil around the vine’s root system, and inevitably these chemical residues make it into your wine. Chemicals also contribute to soil depletion and erosion, water pollution, and loss of biodiversity in surrounding areas.
By choosing wines made with organically grown grapes, you support the winegrower whose goals are aimed at nurturing the health of the vineyard rather than depleting it. You also no longer need to sacrifice variety, complexity or longevity to have wine that is good for you all the way down to the last drop.