First things first; Benchmark wines and their affilated sites make every effort to ensure that the claims made by the wineries in this catagory are in fact the truth. We do our best to investigate and confirm that the wines we have presented under the Organic heading meet your standards. If they do not, we would love to hear from you. If you know of other wineries or wines you would like to see offered here please contact us @ firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy drinking!
So . . . . here we go. What a bowl of spaghetti! Different countries, definitions and interpretations. Below you will find some objective definitions. At Benchmark Wines do all we can to ensure that the wines listed as any of the following are true to their claims. We cannot do any more and stand by the confirmation of the producrs are such. All that legal mubo jumbo said, we just want to help you find the best wine for you as an organic wine lover.
Organic wine is defined as wine made from grapes grown in accordance with the respective defining principles of organic farming, which typically excludes the use of artificial chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides.
The legal definition of organic wine varies from country to country. The primary difference in the way that organic wine is defined relates to the use (or non use) of preservatives during the wine-making process.
Production and preservatives Wine production comprises two main phases – that which takes place in the vineyard (i.e. grape growing) and that which takes place in the winery (i.e. fermentation of the grapes into wine, bottling etc.). The baseline definition of organic wine as “wine made with grapes farmed organically”, deals only with the first phase (grape growing). There are numerous potential inputs which can be made during the second phase of production in order to ferment and preserve the wine. The most universal wine preservative is sulphur dioxide.
The issue of wine preservation is central to the discussion of how organic wine is defined.
Wine matures over time, and it is widely considered that certain types of wines improve with aging, as the flavors become more integrated and balanced. As a result, the greatest percentage of wines are produced in a way that allows them to last, sometimes as long as decades. The use of added sulfites is debated heavily within the organic winemaking community. Many vintners favor their use in small quantities for stabilization of wine, while others frown on them. Currently the only effective preservatives that allow wines to last for a long period are ‘non-organic’. While there are a growing number of producers making wine without added preservatives, it is generally acknowledged that these wines are for consumption within a few years of bottling.
The various legal definitions of organic wine serve to address this challenge regarding the use of preservatives. In some parts of the world, namely Europe, wine cannot legally be labelled as ‘Organic Wine’. Wines that have added sulfites, but are otherwise organic, are labeled “wine made from organic grapes.” In the United States, wines certified “organic” under the National Organic Program cannot contain added sulfites.
Organic vs. conventional wine growing In the USA, strict rules govern the organic winemaking process at all stages of production including harvesting, the types of yeast that can be used during fermentation as well as storage conditions. These rules are applied for all imported and domestic wines that acquire USDA certification. In the USA, the total sulfite level must be less than 20 parts per million in order to receive organic certification. Organic certification in the UK is more simple as based on the fact that the grapes are grown organically.
Organic certification Organic certification of wine is complex; different nations have different certification criteria. In the United States, the National Organic Program, run by the United States Department of Agriculture, sets standards for certification of organic foods, including organic wines. In the United Kingdom, organic wine is defined as such made out of organic grapes. Some wineries that are technically organic choose not to be certified for various reasons.
Natural wine Natural winemaking is a style of winemaking that can be applied to any wine. It is loosely defined as using native yeasts in the fermentation process and minimal or no sulfur dioxide in the winemaking process. It may also mean unfined and unfiltered as well. Natural winemaking is not governed by laws and has no inspection or verification process (unless it is a biodynamic wine).
Natural winemakers may use organic or biodynamic grapes in their wines. Using native yeasts and relying on minimal manipulation often means that wines have a varrying profile from year to year. Different vintages vary more than conventionally made wine because of the non-interventionist approach. This is a key part of the natural wine aesthetic which emphasizes the least amount of intervention to bring the true flavor of each vintage to the glass.
The natural wine movement has grown in popularity in response to what some observers have called “Parkerization” or the globalization of wine tasting. A small number of critics’ palates and the points system has come to define the market value of wines. The effect of this on wine producers has been to try to manipulate the taste of their wine (for example trying to increase the intensity of fruit and oak) in order to please certain wine critics and get higher ratings. As a result, critics of these critics say this is causing an increasing uniformity amongst wines and a loss of regional and varietal character. The natural wine movement is one response to the global commodification of winemaking.
Another reason why consumers find natural wines made with no added sulphites useful is the existence of wine intolerance. Sulphites in wine result in different wine allergies and hence wines made with no added sulphites are the solution.
Sustainable wines Some farmers take additional steps beyond standard organic winemaking to apply sustainable farming practices. Examples include the use of composting and the cultivation of plants that attract insects that are beneficial to the health of the vines. Sustainable practices in these vineyards also extend to actions that have seemingly little or nothing to do with the production of grapes such as providing areas for wildlife to prevent animals from eating the grapes and allowing weeds and wildflowers to grow between the vines. Sustainable farmers may use bio-diesel for tractors in the vineyards to reduce emissions among the vines, or plough with horses.
Sustainable wine making is a systems perspective of integration of the natural and human resources, involving environmental health, economic profitability, and social and economic equity. It requires small, realistic, and measurable steps as defined in the Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices Workbook published by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA).
What preservatives are in wine?
Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) is the main preservative used throughout the stages of making a wine. On a wine label, it can be sometimes be labelled as ‘preservative 220 added’ and I’ve also seen it labelled as ‘antioxidant 220 added’ – which makes it sound like a healthy vitamin to me (hook it up to my veins!). Go and check a few wine bottles in your house and I am sure you’ll see some sort of mention on the back label.
The maximum amount of sulphur that can be added to a wine in Australia is 300 mg/l as stipulated by Wine Australia. However you’ll find most wines have a lot less than this and typically stick to 150mg/l and under.
It’s also important to understand that yes sulphur dioxide can be added to wine, but it can also be produced naturally by the yeast during fermentation. Therefore when winemaker’s do label their wines as ‘preservative free’ it more so means that they haven’t physically added in sulphur dioxide into the wine. Therefore perhaps on labels, it would be more accurate to write ‘no preservatives added’ instead. Interstingly, the Australians have develpoed a yeast that produces no sulphur dioxide as part of the fermentation process – the wines from Em’s Table use this yeast in the production process.
What does ‘may contain sulfites’ mean?
If you have read the back of a few wine labels in your time, then you may have seen the phrase ‘may contain sulfites’ on the back of the label. The French Rose bottle I currently have in front of me says ‘contient des sulfites’ – despite failing French at school, I have a feeling this means the same thing.
SO2, HSO3 (bisulphite) and H2SO3 (sulphurous acid) are collectively called ‘sulfites’. The interesting thing is that wine producers never actually (well not that I have seen) ever disclosed exactly how much mg/l of sulfites are in the wine. If you have anything over 10mg/l of sulfites in the wine, then by law winemakers have to pop this fairly general term on the label.
Compared to the ‘olden days’ of winemaking, a lot fewer preservatives are added to wine as winemakers aim to produce the best quality fruit (the better the fruit and careful handling of it = the fewer preservatives you’ll need – more on this below). There are many wines out there which are very low in sulfites however from the label it’s hard to tell so some extra research is needed whether that’s doing a few Google searchers and checking out the winery’s website or perhaps reaching out to the winery on social media. The Macaw Creek winery in the Clare Valley of South Australia has a very useful guide about sulphites – “The truth about sulphites in wine”
Why add preservatives to wine?
Sulphur dioxide is a good thing in winemaking – it helps the wine get to your palate in the best condition possible. It defends the grapes & wine against nasty bacteria’s and oxidisation. Just like we consume vitamins to keep us healthier for longer, we add SO2 to wine for longevity. I will touch on this more below, however unless you suffer a reaction from sulphur dioxide there is really no health benefits to drinking only preservative free tipples.
This brings me to the point mentioned above – having the best quality grapes in pristine condition means a lot less sulphur dioxide needs to be added. Just prior to vintage and during vintage you may drive past vineyards which have netting covering their vines – these nets are to help stop birds and pests damaging the grapes. The more damaged the grapes are at harvest, the more sulphur dioxide will be needed to produce an enjoyable and drinkable wine.
As you may also know, oxygen isn’t a good friend to wine – as soon as the wine has a large exposure to oxygen it will slowly (or quickly in some cases of very old wine) start to deteriorate. The sulphur dioxide during the winemaking stage will help neutralise any oxygen that may get near the wine so it can be bottled and sealed up for your delicious consumption.
How does wine last without adding preservatives?
This comes back to the natural preservatives wine makes on its own – alcohol, tannin (phenolics) and natural acidity. Red wine typically has more of these natural preservatives which is why you may see more preservative free red wines on the market than whites.
Plus you’ll also find that typically white wines do contain more sulfites than red wine. This is because the tannin in red wines (which comes from when the grapes are in contact with the skins) contains natural sulphur dioxide. So if you are looking for a wine with low amounts of sulfites in, then heading towards the red wine aisle of your bottle shop might be wise.
And again, the more the grapes are looked after in the vineyard prior to harvest – the easier they are going to be to turn into preservative free wine.