Organic Wine 101

Earlier this year, I researched the best organic wine bars in Boston, in a collaboration with the Organic Wine Journal, navigating my way through the biodynamic, sulfite-free, and small producers that make up the organic wine industry.

At the start of my search, I had nearly no experience in the field, and could not tell my “wine made from organic grapes” from my “organic wine,”  – and what are sulfites anyway? Since I figured I can’t be alone in this, here is a short introduction for all the non-sommeliers out there to help you make an informed wine decision, or just to be able to impress a date with the casual sentiment, “I always drink biodynamic – I prefer my wine to be harvested according to the cosmic cycles.”

Organic Wine 101

Organic Wines – These are wines that are free of pesticides, herbicides, and all that bad stuff. Natural preservatives like sulfites (more on that later) are kept to a minimum, and traditional wine-making techniques are observed, with hand-picked grapes and very little filtration.

Biodynamic Wine –  Like organic wine on overdrive, this refers to the agricultural processes involving the grapes. Biodynamic producers often use compost, and plan their harvest schedule with the cosmic cycles. Wines that use biodynamic practices are also certified organic. The concept of “terroir” is often used in describing these wines, as they are said to be the best representations of the land that they came from.

Wine Made from Organic Grapes – This is a separate category of organic wines, which are made from organic grapes, but can have added sulfites and can undergo other manipulations after harvest that are not organic practices.

Certified Organic Wines – Recognized by the small green badge of honor on their label, these are often larger commercial wines that practice organic production.

Uncertified Organic Wine – Many smaller producers practice organic production without getting certified because the certification process can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and getting certified in the US and in Europe are two separate processes. As Felisha Foster of the Boston wine bar, Spoke, puts it, many small producers believe, “My family’s been doing this for eight generations, why would we pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a stamp on the back of our label for something that we’ve been doing forever?” However, it is important to be careful here because many smaller wineries will claim that they are organic when they are not, so it’s best to go on a case by case basis. But most good wine directors have close relationships with their distributors and producers and will tell you if they believe that a wine is organic.

Sulfites – These are compounds that are naturally present in all wines – so when a label says “Sulfite-Free,” it actually means no added sulfites. Sulfites are usually added into foods as preservatives, and are added to wines to stop the fermentation process to prevent oxidation (pre-mature oxidation basically means spoiled wine). The reason sulfites are such a hot-button topic in organic wines is because the ingestion of too many sulfites can cause health risks. While a little won’t hurt you at all, sulfites can destroy vitamin B1, and can cause allergic reactions such as trouble breathing. If you have aspirin sensitivity or asthma, it may be best to keep in mind that white wines contain more sulfites than red wines, and sweeter wines contain more sulfites than dryer ones. But almost all wines have sulfites. For a wine to be deemed truly sulfite-free, it would have to be tested in a lab.

Why is organic wine a big deal?

Really, choosing between organic wines and non-organic wines comes down to personal preference. Here’s a chart of some of the main pros and cons to help you decide for yourself!

Organic Wines Pros and Cons

How to tell if a wine’s organic –

  1. Organic Label – Certified organic wines will have a green sticker on their label that reads “Certified Organic.” Easy, right?
  2. Wine menus – Many wine menus will boast their organic wines by placing an asterisk next to their organic options. When in doubt though, don’t be afraid to ask your waiter or sommelier – some menus leave their organic wines unmarked, and unless you recognize the producer, it can be impossible to tell whether the wine is organic.
  3. Case by case basis – Many smaller producers do not go to the trouble or financial burden of registering their wines as organic, so when you see a smaller producer on the menu, feel free to ask a sommelier you trust whether the wine uses organic practices.

Need a jumping off point? Here is a list of some organic wines to look out for and try yourself – 

Best Organic Wines Chart