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Organic: Does it Matter?
Copyright 2001 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed Mar 5, 2001. For more information go to

"Organic." The word evokes warm and fuzzy feelings of friendly farmers with their hands in the soil, shunning poisons and pesticides to grow crops Mother Nature's way.

But what does "organic" mean when it comes to wine?

The answer is not as clear as you might think, and neither, frankly, are the results. Around the world, a minority of producers make wines labeled "organic" or "produced from organically grown grapes." But the meaning - and legal force - of terms like these vary significantly from one country to another, depending on local law and practice. And many of those laws are changing as regulators ponder new definitions.

One key issue lies in the difference between "organically grown grapes" - fruit from vineyards grown without the use of industrial fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and pesticides - and "organic wines," made without synthetic additives.

Needless to say, in the U.S., the most controversial such additive is sulfur dioxide, a preservative that's harmless to most people but potentially dangerous to some asthmatics. Because every wine bottle sold in the U.S. must bear a warning label ("contains sulfites"), many people assume that they are unhealthy. In fact, as discussed in the March 29, 1999 edition of The 30 Second Wine Advisor, sulfiting is an ancient and natural process. In fact, ALL wines contain sulfites as a natural byproduct of fermentation.

In Europe, where no warning label is required, sulfiting is a non- issue; but there, defining "organic" runs into bureaucratic roadblocks at the European Economic Community, which has not defined wine as an organic product, stifling efforts by French, German and other wine producers to come up with consistent definitions or labels for organic (or "biodynamique") wine.

The United States Department of Agriculture recently unveiled proposed organic-labeling regulations for products, including wine. This would allow wines with sulfites up to 100 parts per million (in contrast with 350 parts per million for standard wine) to be labeled "organic wine."

What does all this mean to us, as consumers? In my experience, there's no consistent difference in quality or flavor between organically GROWN and other wines. If you like the idea of supporting farmers who use natural processes, then by all means choose their wines (such as those in the tasting notes below). But don't expect the wine to be any better, or worse, than others.

Organically MADE wines are a different story. In my experience, wineries that deliberately decline to take advantage of sulfites and similar traditional processes reap just what they sow: Nasty, earthy and organic aromas reminiscent of the barnyard or worse develop quickly in wines made without preservatives.


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