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Organic Winegrowing: What Does It Mean to be Organic?
By Sandra Taylor
Oct 30, 2018
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Organic food and beverage sales are setting records among grocery shoppers worldwide.  Organic wine statistics are equally impressive.  And around the globe, organically grown wine is one of the fastest growing categories.  Organic wine production grew by 295% in Europe and 280% in the world between 2004 and 2015, according to a recent study by Wine Monitor Nomisma.  Organic wine grapes account for an estimated 5% of total vineyard acreage worldwide.  European organic viticulture (293,000 hectares) accounts for 88% of total global organic vineyard area.  In France 9% of all vineyards (or 146,000 acres) are organic.  Italy (83,000 hectares) has the highest organic vineyard-area ratio -- 11.9% of its cultivated vines are organic -- followed by Austria, with 11.7%, and Spain, with 10.2%.

Last year, organic wine sales in Italy reached €11.5 million in the grocery-retail channel, recording 51% growth, compared to 2015 (compared to a tepid +1% of wine sales in general).  Organic wine accounts for 0.7% of total wine sales in the country.

The organic wines most appreciated by Italian consumers, according to Nielsen, are:  Red wine (57% of organic-wine sales in the grocery-retail channel, up 42%, compared to 2015), white wine, growing at an even higher rate (+93%), and sparkling wines (+59%).  Prosecco was still the best-selling organic wine in supermarkets in 2016 (17% of the sales value therein).

By contrast, U.S. production of certified organic wine has declined while U.S. consumption of these products has increased, growing at rates between 10% and 20% per year in volume between 2013 and 2016, according to Nielsen.  Consumption data shows sustained and rapid growth for both domestic and foreign organically grown wines. 

Not surprisingly, Millennials are embracing organics, yet most Americans worry about potentially harmful ingredients in their food and beverages.  Consumers want to know what they’re eating and drinking and are concerned about pesticides and agrichemicals.  In France, pesticides awareness groups have sprung up in most viticulture regions, and anti-pesticide protests have been rife since 2016 with the Gironde administrative region and Bordeaux at its epicenter as the country’s largest user of pesticides.  Pressure groups in Burgundy and in the Mâconnais area have demanded that grape growers cut pesticide use.

As with organic food, consumers want to believe that sustainable wine is the healthy choice.  The obvious conclusion is that wines produced with fewer chemicals are even healthier for consumers.

At the same time, organic wine tastes better than it did years ago.   However, some consumers tend to view wines with organic labels on the bottles in a negative light.  This can be attributed to the early days when organic wines entered the marketplace and consumers were disappointed in the taste.  Indeed, many consumers will remember organic wines of the late 1980s and early 1990s as almost undrinkable.  However, advances in winemaking technology and natural viticulture have allowed the quality of organic wine to increase dramatically.  A UCLA study released in 2016 in the Journal of Wine Economics revealed that wine reviews for 74,000 wines to compare eco-certified wines made with sulfites to conventionally grown wines, found that organically grown wines, on average, rated four points higher in critics’ reviews.

Many producers in the wine industry are figuring out how to enhance quality and production of wines while being more cognizant of their impact on their immediate and global environments.  For some, this means reducing the use of certain chemicals.  For others, it means making daily operations greener by reducing the waste stream and using more renewable energy sources.  And obviously for an increasing number this means foregoing the use of all chemicals in the vineyard and for others no use of chemicals in the wine-making. 

The key question for many producers is whether or not the adoption of organic practices or ingredients adds value to their products, markets, and community.  Over the past decade, wine labels containing the phrase “made with organically grown grapes” has been increasing as the certified acreage increases, and the inclusion of this information on labels is used by some as a marketing distinction along with appellation or variety.

In organic farming, the use of chemicals is strictly controlled by law.  Pesticides and chemical fungicides that are made available to the conventional farmer are prohibited from use by the organic farmer.  The organic growers concentrate their efforts not on reacting to pests but on growing a healthy vine that is able to withstand pests and feed itself naturally.  First and foremost, this means developing a healthy soil and a balanced ecosystem within the vineyard.  The producer must implement cultivation practices that minimize soil erosion, including crop rotation that provides erosion control.

Soil is a living, breathing, and ever changing part of the vineyard.  A healthy soil is vital to the organic grower because it supplies the vine with nutrients.  Organic farmers must adopt practices that maintain biologically active soil.  The uses of beneficial insects, cover crops, natural fertilizers, and the planting of companion crops (such as Echinacea to attract natural predators) are common.  In addition, weed management is integrative, allowing a cycle of growth, mowing, and composting, wherein biomass is used as fertilizer instead of traditional  chemical fertilizer sprays.

Organic viticulture doesn’t come easily, and to become certified is quite a process, taking up to three years.  Converting conventional farm acreage to organic processes can take even longer, as it can take many years to get rid of all the chemical residues in the soil, and initial yields are likely to be small.  Additionally, growers often have to spend 5 to 10 percent more on various production costs during their three-year certification transition, but after that, costs are similar to (if not less than) traditional farming.

Natural Remedies for Disease

Since organic farmers don’t use traditional pesticides and fungicides to protect their crops, they must adopt a “prevention rather than cure” approach in order to survive.  In dealing with pests and diseases, there are no magic organic sprays capable of removing pests and diseases after they have taken hold.  Organic growers must therefore rely on preventive procedures to enrich the soil.  Otherwise, they only have sulfur and copper in their arsenal to deal with pests and disease, and these must be applied in advance and repeatedly since they get washed away with each rain.  Additionally, rainfall causes moisture and humidity in the vineyard, which can lead to the development of mildew--so organic growers must be very watchful of weather forecasts. 

Copper is the remedy for downy mildew, a type of mildew that delays ripening and makes the vine more vulnerable to other pests.  Another fungal disease of the vine is powdery mildew, prevalent in hot, dry climates.  Powdery mildew causes leaves to fall prematurely, and often prevents buds from opening.  The organic remedy for powdery mildew is sulfur, and both sulfur and copper also serve as an organic remedy for botrytis, a fungus that causes grapes to shrivel and decay.

Despite being natural remedies for mildew, large amounts and/or repeated applications of sulfur and copper can be harmful to the soil and to the vine.  Too much sulfur can be harmful to plants, causing nutrient uptake issues.  Meanwhile, too much copper can be toxic to the soil, as it is a heavy metal.  Copper, however, unlike chemical pesticides, presents no danger to the person who does the spraying.  Organic growers recognize that extensive use of copper and sulfur are not consistent with good environmental stewardship and are vigilant about reducing the amounts used when possible.

Organic Practices in the Winery

Organic grapes do not necessarily make organic wines.  An organic vineyard is not enough to be fully certified; the process in the winery must be organic, too.  Many producers opt for labels "made with organic grapes" instead of "certified organic" because it allows them to add a small number of sulfites, a preservative that prevents oxidation and bacterial spoilage.  In America, wines with added sulfites cannot display the "USDA organic" label, even when the grapes are 100 percent organic.

Wines to be labeled “Certified Organic Wine” must be made from at least 95 percent organically farmed grapes and vinified without added sulfites (naturally occurring sulfites may not exceed 10 parts per million) and without genetic modification.  Additionally, any yeast that is added must also be certified organic in order for the wine to be labeled organic.

Wines to be labeled “Made with Organic Grapes” are subject to different rules.  One hundred percent of the grapes used to make the wine must be certified organic.  Additives (like yeast) don’t have to be certified organic but cannot be genetically modified.  Finally, sulfites can be added--up to 100 parts per million (ppm). 

You’ll find many more wines labeled “Made with Organic Grapes” because this allows the winemaker to add sulfites.  Sulfites are sulfur compounds that are naturally produced by yeast during fermentation; some producers add sulfites to their wine at the beginning or end of fermentation.  Sulfites act as a stabilizing agent for the wine, allowing it to have a longer shelf life.  Many people assume that organic wine is inherently sulfite free, but this is not the case.  Conventional wines are allowed to have 350 ppm of sulfites, while organic wines have less, with a maximum of 100 ppm of sulfites.

The United States has set official rules when it comes to sulfites in organic wine:

--A 100 percent organic wine is made from organically produced grapes only, with no sulfur added.  The wine’s natural sulfur cannot exceed 10 parts per million (ppm).

--Wines made from 95 percent organically produced grapes and 5 percent conventional grapes, with no added sulfur and not exceeding 10 ppm can also be labeled organic.

--Wine made with 70 percent organic grapes can add sulfur (up to 100 ppm) and be labeled “made with organic grapes,” but it will not be labeled USDA-certified Organic.

As a result of the strict regulations, there are few Certified organic wines produced in the United States.  Conversely, in Europe, the regulations are more relaxed.  Red wine can be labeled organic if it contains 100 ppm, and white or rosé wines can be labeled organic if they contain 150 ppm.