What Makes Grapes or Wine Organic?

Wine from Organic Grapes is one of the most interesting yet least understood products within the current boom in organic and natural foods. Imported organic wines are even less understood than US domestic products, due to labeling and terminology differences. Customers are nonetheless very curious about these wines. It is up to journalists, producers, retailers and wholesalers to understand customer questions and educate them in laymen’s terms. This will help wine customers choose to buy wine from organic grapes and learn how to identify it and recommend it to others.

The great majority of wines are NOT made from organic grapes, despite the myth of all wine being a ‘natural’ product. The base of any wine from organic grapes is that 100% of grapes used are from certified organic vineyards. This reduces the use of dangerous agricultural chemicals and results in healthier grapes and tastier wine. Any substance used in the vineyard or in the wine must be from natural sources or allowed only as an exception by organic certification rules. All resellers should insist on proof of certification on the label!

History of US Organic Wine Sales

Change to organic vineyard methods by pioneers began in Europe in early 1960’s, early 1980’s in US, later in South Pacific areas. Certification of grapes, if done, was same as other crops. All but one or two organic wineries used added sulfur dioxide. Early wines sold as organic allowed any description on US labels regardless of use of sulfur or lack of it.

1980-1984 Initial limited sales of several organic French wines, minimal sales of US organic wines from 3-4 CA wineries and one NY winery. No labeling restrictions.

1985-1987 Increased sales of slightly larger US organic production, greater choice and distribution of imported French and Italian organic wines. No labeling restriction. Most sales only to committed organic customers.

1988-1990 ALL wines sold in US began mandatory ‘Contains Sulfites’ warning. Customers confused timing of organic wine sales with sulfite warnings on wine. Increased interest in and sales of organic wines to allergic and sensitive customers, as well as those committed to organic lifestyles or opposed to food chemicals. US wineries begin production of wine from organic grapes without added sulfites. Quality issues harm reputation of all wines from organic grapes.

European organic foods regulations adopted in late 1980’s. Certification under authorization of authorized groups such as Ecocert.. All organic wines only permitted label of ‘Made from Organic Grapes’ or similar term. No use of term ‘Organic Wine’. This remains current in Europe. Australia, New Zealand, and South America allow use of term ‘Organic Wine’ with or without added SO2, for wines sold in those countries.

Mandatory labeling of ‘Contains Sulfites’ for all wines begun in 1987 for all wines sold in US. At the time, all but one US organic winery and virtually all foreign wineries exporting used added SO2 in at least some of their wines. Some naturally occurring sulfur also exists in most wines. After label warning adopted, consumer misunderstanding of term ‘organic’ and new wine warning led some wineries to eliminate use of SO2 in their wines. BATF allowed various label terms at this time depending on analysis of actual residual SO2 in specific wine. Most common labels stated ‘Contains only naturally occurring sulfites-No added sulfites’ or similar phrase for wines with none added, others continued with most common term ‘Contains Sulfites’. Wines with no added sulfites are still a minority of overall wines from organic grapes and virtually unknown in wines from conventional grapes.

1990-1995 Increase of organic vineyards in US, Europe and So. Pacific. Launch of larger winery labels such as Bonterra. Greater sales of all organic wines and more wines without added sulfites. More confusion over category. First discussion of US organic regulations with USDA after passage of Organic Foods Act.

1995-2000 More organic wines worldwide, and greater US sales esp. of domestic wines. Greater acceptance of wines from organic grapes and more understanding of sulfite issue. Some continued skepticism over quality esp. of no sulfite added wines. Continued debate over future US organic regulations. Increased sales in large chain natural food stores.

2000-2002 Final passage of US organic regulations. More production of organic wines with and without added sulfites, esp. from US producers. Increased sales of all organic wines. Entry of low cost, good quality organic wines with or without added sulfites. Beginning sales in conventional supermarkets.

Key Challenges of US Market

  • Customer awareness of organic wines as a possible choice.
  • Misunderstanding of organic and sulfite issues leading to two types of organic wine.
  • Customer trust in quality level as compared to conventional wines.
  • Customer understanding of benefits and advantages of organic wines.
  • Adequate wholesale and retail distribution for variety and ease of purchase.
  • Difficulties of US state regulatory and distribution system.

Key Opportunities of US Market

  • Increasing interest in all types of organic and natural foods.
  • Increasing availability and quality of both types of organic wine, final USDA Rule clarification.
  • Increasing trust in quality of organic wines by customers, trade and media.
  • More large chain natural food stores and natural sections in conventional stores.
  • Presence of organic wine specialists in importing, wholesale and retail.

Wine and the USDA Organic Foods Act

US Organic Foods Production Act adopted 1990. First USDA Proposed Organic Foods Rule, in 1997, allowed all organic wines to contain up to 100 ppm SO2. Second Proposed Rule in 2000 allowed no use of SO2 in any wine labeled either ‘organic’ or ‘made from organic grapes’. Final Rule of 2000 currently allows use of up to 100 ppm SO2 in wine labeled ‘made from organic grapes’. Similar wines without added SO2 are allowed use of term ‘organic wine’ after Oct. 21, 2002.

Current and Future Label Status for Wine from Organic Grapes

Full label implementation of USDA Organic Rule on October 21, 2002 for grapes harvested after that date. BATF controls wine labels and will also send labels to USDA. Organic grapes harvested after 10/02 and wineries processing them must be certified organic by USDA accredited certifier if label states ‘organic grapes’. Labels must follow newly published rules which include an ingredient statement.

Wine labels for earlier harvests must show proof of organic grape certification. Certifier may be non-accredited and winery does not need certifcation. Labels may follow previous label standards without ingredient statement until stock used up. Most such labels must terminate by 10/21/03.

New USDA-BATF Organic Wine Label Regulation Summary

1. Wine made from only certified organic grapes, no added SO2, <5% non-organic ingredients, allowed use of term ‘Organic Wine’ or ‘Made from Organic Grapes’ on Principal Display Panel (PDP). BATF requires term ‘Contains Naturally Occurring Sulfites-No Added Sulfites’ or similar. If ‘No Sulfites Detected’, allowed term ‘Sulfite Free’.
Allowed use of USDA Organic Seal. May show percentage of organic ingredients.

2. Wine made from only certified organic grapes with <100 ppm total SO2 may also have <25% non-organic ingredients. Allowed use of term ‘Made from Organic Grapes’ on PDP.
BATF requires warning ‘Contains Sulfites’ or ‘Contains Sulfur Dioxide’. No use of USDA Organic Seal. May show percentage of organic ingredients.

The Quality Difference

Properly nurtured organic grapes are clearly the beginning of potentially great wine. Use of more local farm inputs to strengthen a healthy ecosystem, regular farmer vigilance and attention in the vineyard and a greater diversity of soil and surrounding life, are all integral to a well managed organic system. These are also the kinds of ideas that wine lovers have identified with well made wines for many years, even though the majority of conventional vineyards left these practices behind years ago. Winemaking techniques, including possible use of sulfur, will always greatly effect the final product and must be taken into consideration by customers, but the vineyard culture is at least as strong an indicator of quality as other factors.

Wine lovers are realizing that these important hand-crafted and natural-sounding vineyard techniques are much more likely to be practiced by organic vineyards. This will become more of a potential guarantee or at least an indicator of grape and wine quality. Wines made from organic grapes are much more likely to represent their origins more than conventional wines. That is what customers seek in a world filled with similar tasting wines. It is up to us to strengthen and continue that identification with final quality and character as the most important aspect of wine from organic grapes. Our wines are made in the most responsible and natural way possible, and their fruit quality and flavor complexity are direct results of this careful and nurturing vineyard culture.

We must be clear about the quality advantages of our wines and be ever more selective of the wines we represent, in order to capture and hold the high ground of quality that such wines deserve in the marketplace.

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