With the US trend in organic food growing by more than 20% per year it is no surprise that organic wine has become a heated topic for debate. But with the organic food flood in the marketplace isn't the absence of organic wine curious? Wine, like food, in the US must comply with the USDA standards for "organic" certification. For farmers and vintners alike this provides numerous barriers and red tape to negotiate.
The basic premise of the organic standard is simple: growing, irrigating, fertilizing and harvesting grapes with a holistic approach, the way nature intended.
Grape growers must insure that their bounty is protected from weeds, pests and the elements and have been using technology in recent decades to achieve this. Organic vineyards, however, refrain from using artificial fertilizers and synthetic chemicals (pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, soil fumigants) or growth regulators and hormones. Comparisons in taste, body, terroir and character have shown organic grapes to posses more varietal character, have more intense flavors and taste more like where they are grown. There are many environmental, ecological and economical arguments for organic farming but to any aficionado taste is the bottom line.
Organic farming in any branch of agriculture follows the same feedback loop of inputs and outputs and uses similar techniques. Cover crops, mulch, beneficial insects and composting are the four pillars of this approach. Cover cropping is essential to an organic viticulture program, and is seasonally multi-functional. Following fall harvest, various indigenous crops high in nitrogen (i.e. legumes) are alternately planted between the vines to minimize soil erosion during winter rains. Come spring, the cover crop is plowed under, acting as a natural fertilizer, returning valuable nitrogen to the soil.
Additionally these cover crops and various insect-friendly plants and flowers provide a habitat for beneficial insects, which eat the pests that could potentially damage the vines. Each year the beneficial insect population grows, balances out and becomes more effective. In response to an unexpected epidemic or influx of pests, more beneficial insects can be introduced or in extreme cases there are organic soaps and oils which can be sprayed on the vines. Controlling weeds is always another challenge and can be achieved with hand hoeing, careful mechanical weeding and mulching with old vine cuttings.
Compost is the origination and termination of the feedback loop that supports an organic regimen. All by-products of the winemaking process: stems, grape skins and seeds are combined with vine cuttings, leaves, and other organic material to provide much needed nitrogen to the crop. A new method of nitrogen dispersal has been to brew a "compost tea". Compost is wrapped in cheesecloth and water warmed by the sun is percolated through it for a few hours. This "tea" is a potent brew that can be sprayed directly on the leaves and grape bunches to combat mildew and rot or can be fed directly through irrigation drip lines to the roots.
While this creative approach to natural threats seems like common sense it is often misunderstood as industrial, chemically based approaches are referred to as "conventional". There are two other reasons this simple, straightforward regimen to agriculture becomes complicated and convoluted: USDA organic standards and misinformed, uneducated consumers.
The USDA organic standards have met with much controversy due to their many contradictions. Firstly, for a wine to be labeled "organic" in the US it must contain 100% organic grapes and also be free of added sulfur dioxide. This eliminates many organic vineyards. Secondly, the European certification for organic is not recognized thus eliminating all wines coming from the EU, many of which have been organic for decades. Thirdly, vineyards must pay for a third-party USDA representative to come inspect and certify their vines. For small wine makers this cost is prohibitive.
All these obstacles to the organic label leave only a handful of vineyards able to achieve such status and with so many vineyards growing organically for their own peace of mind and a higher quality product the hoops are just not worth jumping through.
Sulfur Dioxide, an antioxidant, has been used for centuries as a preservative, to prevent oxidation, to ensure clarity in white wines and to allow wine to age gracefully and prevent growth of bacteria that could turn your vintage to vinegar. Sulfites occur naturally in wine as a bi-product of fermentation. Reds have their own natural preservative, tannins and need less sulfites added than whites.
Sulfites also preserve those light, crisp, fruity flavors in young wines that can dull with aging and be drowned out by more earthy tones. Wines made from "organically grown grapes" can add sulfur dioxide during the fermentation process, although no more than 100 parts per million. Wines called "organic" can only add 10 parts per million.
A few northern California vineyards produce excellent certified organic wines. These wines command a higher price in the market place and have shelf lives of one year and five to eight years for whites and reds respectively. The main difference in the flavor profiles of these "organic" wines is the absence of the brighter fruity flavors that sulfites accentuate and the emergence of the earthy notes.
Most people who drink organic wines say they can never go back as the palate is now expecting this more mellow flavor. An easy comparison is between the flavor profiles of a freshly cut avocado and an avocado with a pinch of salt and a squeeze of lime. The resulting taste and texture is different but the avocado is still organic.
Whether you're on board the organic bandwagon for social, environmental or political reasons there is no doubt that it produces wine that is the truest expression of the "terroir." From a vinophiles perspective this is the motivation for any approach to grape farming. Similar to the way food is categorized currently, the organic label leads to more confusion than clarification of process and product.
Whether you prefer a more natural fermentation of the grapes, or wine with a longer shelf life and crisper, fruitier notes is a matter of personal preference. Either finishing approach to viticulture is appropriate based on the intended outcome and has little do to with the way the rest of the process impacts the earth, the workers and the flavor of the raw material: the grape.
Educate yourself about the wines and Vineyards you choose to support, an educated consumer is a happy consumer!