The US and Europe have different definitions of organic wine
What is the difference between certified “organic” wine and wine “made with organic grapes” in the United States? As for the content, added sulphites – up to 100 parts per million, or 1/2000th of an ounce in a drink – and that’s it. But on the label, only the former can display the easy-to-understand USDA Organic green seal that helps growers attract customers looking for “green” products. The distinction sparked a battle among winemakers over what organic wine should be.
The American standards differ from the new European Union rules which, from the 2012 harvest, will allow winegrowers to use the “organic wine” label. (Previously, only “wine made from organic grapes” was allowed.) In early February, an EU committee agreed on standards for organic winemaking practices, including the permitted addition of certain sulphites.
Because of this discrepancy, “organic wine” was left on equal footing in a three-year trade deal, signed Feb. 15, recognizing US and European organic programs as equivalent. Most products certified in the United States or the European Union can be marketed as organic in both places starting June 1, eliminating the need to obtain a second set of certifications. US wines “made with organic grapes” will soon be able to be sold as organic in Europe, but European bottlings of “organic wines” with added sulfites will still have to carry the “made with organic grapes” label in US markets. (The same problem persists in the US agreements with Canada, which has authorized the addition of sulphites in organic wine since 2009).
“If we could lump everyone who uses 100% organic grapes into the same category, there could have been about 800 more grape growers around the world who could enter the US market and use the USDA Organic seal,” said Paolo Bonetti. , president of Organic Vintners, a Colorado-based importer who believes the National Organic Program‘s labeling regulations for wine are confusing consumers and stunting growth. With more volume, it would be easier for traders to devote a section to organic wines.
Condemned by U.S. rules, Bonetti and three California wineries specializing in organically grown wines – backed by 35 other companies and 60 individuals – petitioned the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) in April 2010 to allow all wines made entirely from organic grapes to be labeled “organic”, whether or not the sulfur dioxide preservative is added.
The group says quibbles over a widely used preservative are discouraging more grape growers from embracing organic certification and shunning synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides in favor of more natural methods. “Without the USDA Organic seal, many consumers don’t understand that this is an organic product,” said Bonetti, who filed the petition with Barra of Mendocino, Paul Dolan Vineyards and Redwood Valley Cellars. If consumers don’t pay a premium for organically grown wines, as they do with organic milk, Bonetti said, “there’s no incentive for farmers to do a really good job.”
Although a NOSB committee initially approved the petition, the full board voted 9 to 5 to reject it in December 2011, after another coalition of organic winemakers and marketers, including Frey, LaRocca Vineyards, the Organic Wine Works and Organic Vintages, have advocated to keep the standards the same. They were backed by the Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Association, which garnered more than 10,000 signatures opposing the petition.
“If you call something organic in anything, whether it’s wine, bread or pasta sauce, you should try to keep the standard at the highest level,” said Californian winemaker Phil LaRocca, who makes sulfite-free. -has added organic wines for 30 years and helped develop the origin standards.
Sulfur, a natural element, is allowed in organic vineyards as a non-toxic fungicide. Added during wine production or bottling, the sulfur dioxide compound protects against oxidation and microbes, keeping wine fresh, stable and free from defects throughout shipping and non-refrigerated storage . A small but growing number of producers are making wines without added sulfites; however, most winemakers believe that certain sulfites are essential to making quality wine for commercial distribution.
LaRocca and his group consider the form of sulfur dioxide added to wine to be synthetic, which violates the principles of organic farming. “Our fear is that this opens the door to other problems. Why couldn’t a bread maker say they would like to use calcium propionate as a preservative in their breads? LaRocca asked. He acknowledges that making sulfite-free wine isn’t easy, but believes the “made with organic grapes” label is a fair way to accommodate producers who do.
In the United States, “organic wine” and wine “made with organic grapes” are made from grapes sourced only from certified organic vineyards and are produced in certified wineries. But the former contain less than 10 parts per million of sulphites, representing those that can occur naturally during the fermentation process, while the latter can contain added sulphites up to 100 parts per million, well below the 350 parts per million permitted in conventional wine. . (The “contains sulfites” label is required because some asthmatics have adverse effects; while many others blame sulfites for headaches and allergic reactions, these may be caused by the histamines and tannins present in wines.)
In contrast, new EU rules for “organic wine” allow a maximum of 100 parts per million for red wine (compared to 150 for conventional reds) and 150 parts per million for whites and rosés (compared to 200 for their conventional counterparts). Sweet wines are assigned an additional 30 parts per million, as more sulfites are generally needed to prevent residual sugar from fermenting in the bottle. Canada allows up to 100 parts per million in its organic wines.
When it comes to the distinctions between organic food labels and wine labels in the United States, even buyers of sophisticated organic products can be confused, Bonetti believes. In either case, “organic” must contain 95% organic ingredients, allowing for processing aids for which there are no organic options. However, in the organic food category, the “made with…” label means that the item must only contain a minimum of 70% organic ingredients. For example, a salsa made with organic tomatoes but conventional onions might not be an “organic” salsa but rather “made with organic tomatoes”.
Because wine is essentially a single-ingredient product, any wine that simply says “made with organic grapes” is completely organic grapes. A wine that contains up to 30 percent non-organic grapes should be labeled with another one category – “made with organic grapes and non-organic grapes” – and the grapes must be of different varieties, such as 70% organic Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% non-organic Merlot. (Wines containing less than 70% organic ingredients can only indicate this in an ingredient declaration, with the corresponding percentage.)
For now, Bonetti is taking a break from the time and expense of trying to change the regulations, instead focusing on educating customers about organics, labeling and sulfites. But he does not rule out a rematch of the petition in the future. “If someone gives me $40,000 to $50,000,” he added, “I’ll do it again in five years, when the 15 board members are all new.”