What is organic wine?

Struggling to understand organic wine? You’re not alone. Organic wine is incredibly popular today, and despite – or perhaps because of – that, it’s very often misunderstood. What precisely constitutes an “organic” wine can vary between one place and another, and labelling terms can be a little confusing as a result.

Understanding organic viticulture

Unsurprisingly, things start in the vineyard. Organic viticulture, or growing organic grapes, involves avoiding artificial or genetically-modified fertilisers, herbicides, fungicides and pesticides.

Organic winegrowers aim to prevent, rather than cure, vineyard disease and pests. This is achieved through careful vineyard management and the use of naturally occurring treatments to fertilise and treat the soil. The goal is to promote rich and healthy soils with plenty of microbial life.

Defining organic wine

Organic wine is subject to slightly different definitions depending on where in the world you are. The term “organic wine” has slightly different meanings in the European Union and North America. No matter what, all organic wine must come from grapes that have been farmed organically.

The difference comes later, when those grapes get to the winery and the winemaker makes decisions around the addition of sulphur dioxide. Sulphur dioxide, or SO2, is used as a preservative and disinfectant in winemaking.

In the EU, “organic wine” indicates that the wine has come from organically grown grapes, with the addition of SO2 allowed within strictly defined limits. In the US, “organic wine” is produced from organic grapes and contain no added sulfur. Should the winemaker add sulfur, the product ceases to be “organic wine” and must instead be labelled as “made with organic grapes”.

The costs of organic wine

Making organic wine is a costly business in terms of time, labour and money. This affects different producers in different ways.

Large producers with a lot of land under vine may find organic viticulture particular challenging. Organic farming is done largely by hand, and its various treatments and practices can be expensive and time-consuming. The more vineyard land a producer has, the bigger the cost. This does not necessarily translate to higher consumer prices, however: Big producers such as Torres or Emiliana incur a larger cost than smaller operators, but through economies of scale and stronger financial backing they may be able to absorb a lot of these costs.

Smaller producers may have it a little easier. They have less ground to cover, and they tend to run a more artisanal operation anyway: Growing grapes and producing wine on a small scale is inherently more manageable by a smaller team, and things can be done by hand. Such producers generally don’t have the same financial muscle as the larger players, however, so the cost of organic production is more likely to be reflected in their end prices.

Organic wine certification: Is it worth it?

It’s one thing for a producer to practice organic viticulture, and it’s another for that producer to hold organic certification. The primary benefit of certification is its protection of both the consumer and the producer from unscrupulous producers – guaranteeing that what’s in the bottle is an organic wine. There is also a related commercial benefit to the winery as the organic seal of approval is a clear selling point for many consumers.

The certification process for organic wine is time-consuming and costly, and the certification is granted through a third-party organisation. There are many such organisations throughout the world, including AB and ECOCERT in France, AIAB in Italy and USDA in the USA. These bodies are accredited by their country’s ministry of agriculture and must adhere to international organic standards.

Conversion from conventional to organic viticulture is a three-year process, and represents a considerable investment in both time and money. The financial cost can vary between regions and certification bodies, though in all cases there is a requirement for meticulous paperwork and record-keeping. Some smaller producers may be unable to incur costs such as these, and simply opt to work in an organic fashion anyway without pursuing certification.

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