Dear EarthTalk: I’ve been noticing a lot of organic wines lately in the supermarket. Is this going to be a continuing trend?
—Mark Numby, via email
The recent upsurge of interest in organic foods has indeed not escaped the wine business and, yes, organic wines are more popular and more readily available than ever.
According to the Organic Trade Association, an industry group representing organic food producers and distributors, U.S. sales of wines made with organic grapes reached $80 million in 2005, a 28 percent increase over the previous year. Such sales represent little more than one percent of the total U.S. domestic wine market, but the association expects organic wine sales to grow about 17 percent a year through 2008, mirroring growth across all sectors of organic agriculture.
There are two types of organic labeling on wines. The vast majority of wines made with organically grown grapes do not qualify for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA”s) white-and-green “certified organic” label. This is because, like many conventional wines, they include added sulfite preservatives to prevent oxidation and bacterial spoilage.
While trace amounts of sulfites occur naturally in wines during the fermentation process, most producers add more, later in the winemaking process, to prolong shelf life. An estimated one percent of consumers, primarily those with asthma, report sensitivity to wines with larger amounts of sulfites. Symptoms can include a quickened pulse, lung irritation, skin redness and rashes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of sulfites on fruits and vegetables in 1986 after 13 consumer deaths were linked to them.
Current USDA rules allow wines containing fewer than 10 parts per million (ppm) of sulfites and made from organic grapes to carry the “certified organic” label. But organic wines may only advertise that they are “made from organic grapes” if they contain more than 10 ppm and up to 100 ppm of sulfites. Some organic grape growers consider it unfair that the addition of sulfites—which occur naturally and are not synthetic chemicals—should disqualify their wines from “certified organic” standing.
Moving beyond organic, a handful of vineyards have adopted so-called “biodynamic” (BD) grape growing methods, adding to organic methods the practice of cultivating, pruning and harvesting on a strict calendar in sync with lunar cycles. Many view such practices skeptically; nonetheless, proponents claim that BD wines taste better and remain drinkable longer. The website Wine Anorak (“anorak” is British slang for “geek” or “nerd”) lists biodynamic wine labels from around the world.
Some leading organic (and low-sulfite) wines include varieties from Ceago, Frey, LaRocca, Bonterra and Organic Wine Works. Meanwhile, the California-based Organic Wine Company sources and distributes organic wines from around the world. Additionally, California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), a trade group representing that state’s organic agriculture industry, provides a free online directory of California organic products and services, including the state’s many purveyors of organic and biodynamic wines.