What is Organic Wine and Why Should We Care?
In the wine industry we have a semantics problem when it comes to organic wine. The government requires that not only must grapes be grown with only organic pesticides and fertilizer; no added sulfites may be used. For this reason, there really are no organic wines because sulfur dioxide is basically mandatory if you are going to sell your wine. Wines made without using sulfur dioxide are very unstable and most bottles would end up undrinkable. Without the sulfites to protect against oxidation and bacteria, wine spoils in less that one year. Therefore most wineries promote their wines as "organically grown".
Actually, the fact that organic methods are used to grow the grapes is the most important thing to consider both for the quality of the wine, and the impact on our environment. Even with sulfites added, your product will be 99.9% organic, and unless you are allergic to sulfites which is the case for ½ of 1% of the population, you will be drinking a much better product.
Organic Makes Perfect Sense
More farmers of food products are realizing that the days of applying routine applications of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides to their crops are over. Customers are demanding that the produce they buy be natural because it is healthy and also much better for our environment. This is especially true in California wine country where many of the major players such as Mondavi, Gallo, Beringer, Fetzer, and others have made the commitment to eco-friendly farming. In France and many other wine producing countries this trend is also accelerating. Why are grape growers leading the charge for organic methods? Because they work better and make better wine. Growers are finding that their vines are healthier, their production greater, and quality of the harvest is higher after conversion to organic methods.
Organic Growing Methods
Farmers committed to organic grape growing must swear off all chemicals and go back to the methods used in the past that worked well for our forefathers. Gone are the nitrogen based commercial fertilizers now replaced by manure and compost. Instead of herbicides, we let the weeds grow and mow them leaving them on the ground to decompose and turn into organic fertilizer. Instead of the pesticides and fungicides, we promote biodiversity which helps control pests and disease by attracting beneficial plants and insects. Many plants such as lavender, wheat, clover, and others can be planted throughout the vineyard, and they attract many of the pests that would otherwise eat the grape leaves.
The Future of Organic Grapes
There is no doubt that given time to educate grape farmers, all grapes will be grown organically. It definitely takes more labor to do this, but this is balanced out by the savings on chemicals. University of California in Davis is expanding their research in this area and making new discoveries that make this process even better and more cost effective. The real proof is in the final product, and most winemakers agree that the grapes grown in organic vineyards produce a better wine. Let's hope that the US government will address their definition of organic and allow sulfites to be added so the consumer will be able to buy wine labeled Organic as they are in the rest of the world.