Monday, January 23, 2012

Is Organic Wine Better?


Photograph by Jeff Harris

Organic labels on wine don’t guarantee better quality — or even best eco-practices.

Now that organic has become a magic word, many high-end wineries are spending a fortune to convert their operations. Some eagerly splash the word all over their labels, but others hardly bother to tell anyone. Understanding the reason top winemakers are conflicted about the organic hype can help you pick wines that are better for the Earth without compromising on taste.

There are four main claims you’ll see on bottles: 100 Percent Organic Wine, Made From Organically Grown Grapes, Sustainably Farmed Wine, and Biodynamic Wine. The federal government regulates use of the word organic, so any wine labeled as organic, the most stringent of these qualifications, has grapes grown without chemical pesticides or fertilizers and turned into wine without nonorganic additives.

“Made from organically grown grapes” means what you’d think: Grapes from organic farms have been turned into wine by means that the government doesn’t consider entirely organic.

As for the claims of sustainability and biodynamic farming, the federal government doesn’t regulate either of these concepts. But nonprofit certification bodies are trying to ensure that wineries claiming a high degree of sustainability use low-footprint measures like composting, solar power, and recycled materials. Biodynamic agriculture tends also to include quasi-mystical stuff like planning harvests around lunar cycles and even using various homeopathic preparations to harness the Earth’s natural “energy.”

But scores of high-end producers have great environmental practices — Napa’s Charles Krug Winery is a terrific example — without bothering with any of these designations. For them, going organic isn’t a fad. For starters, they depend absolutely on the environmental health of their topsoil, so they have every incentive to preserve its fertility. Then there’s the little matter of quality: Chemical pesticides can get into the grape juice and screw up the fermentation yeast. Many serious artisanal winemakers feel they get the best product by emulating old-world European operations that were, by default, largely organic. This means avoiding chemicals as well as the modern use of Bentonite clay and organic egg whites to “fine” the finished wine, meaning to remove any sediment that might cloud the juice.

However, there is one additive that winemakers have been using since Roman times: sulfur. Because the Department of Agriculture classifies sulfur as a nonorganic preservative, you can make wine the way they did back in Charlemagne’s day, and you still can’t claim it’s organic. As such, many wineries that are otherwise eco-conscious don’t rate as “organic.”

Ironically, some wineries actually avoid using the organic label, worried that consumers might be turned off and perceive the wine as low-quality hippie juice. The moral of the story: Don’t fear words like organic and biodynamic. They’re now seen on some excellent wines, such as Amity pinot noir and Quivira Wine Creek Ranch zinfandel. But if you care about good wine, don’t buy exclusively organic or you’ll miss out on some terrific Earth-friendly vintages. So long as you stick to handcrafted, small-batch artisanal wines of high quality like Sequoia Grove or Fort Ross pinot noir, you’ll keep your drinking green.

By Daniel Duane, for Men’s Journal

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