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Monday, December 8, 2008

Organic Wine & Sulfites

Organic wines and sulfites

December 7, 10:09 PM
by Julia Timakhovich, Boston Wine Examiner

There's been a lot of calamity lately with the organic movement and how it translates into wine, and the proliferation of organic wines in the marketplace.

The definition of organic in the wine industry, however, has become confusing for consumers--because of a tricky restriction that is now required for proper labeling.

Here is the definition of organic wine: a wine made from organically grown grapes without any sulfites added.

A wine that has added sulfites can only be referred to as a wine made from organically grown grapes.

Why is that such a pain? Because thanks to sulfites, the wine industry is essentially being excluded from the "organic" market niche and penalized for something without which it cannot make a stable, long-lasting product.

Sulfites are a naturally occuring by-product of fermentation, and they are also added to wine after fermentation to prevent the growth of bacteria and make the wine "stable", i.e. the taste will not change during transportation and storage, and the wine will be ageable. Pretty much all wine produced is made with added sulfites.

According to the Organic Wine Company, "In the U.S., wines can contain up to 350ppm of sulfites. Organic winemaking standards, as adopted recently (12/00) by the USDA, limit the use of sulfites to 100ppm in all finished products. However, most organically grown wines contain less than 40ppm of sulfites."

So in and of itself, adding sulfites is not bad. They have been used as a preservative for quite a long time. But because of stricter regulations, a wine made from organically grown grapes but with added sulfites can not be classified as truly organic, giving winemakers a headache and consumers confusion about what to make of this mess.

The idea behind organic winemaking is not to use chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides, which, like other organic agricultural methods, are better for the earth and the environment. I agree with that concept and look forward to more wines on the market that were grown using these methods. But adding sulfites, just like adding acid or sugar (where allowed) to make the wine stable, transportable, ageable and consistent-tasting is not something that the industry should be getting penalized for.

The good news is that organically grown wines do not yet carry as high of a premium as other organic produce does. Check them out in your local wine store, and see if anything tastes different to you.

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