It was the late 1990s when "organic wine" began appearing on store shelves. Many consumers, including this writer, were thrilled to finally discover organic wine options. But according to Adam Morganstern, wine expert and editor of the Organic Wine Journal, many wines that aren't labeled organic actually are. "Some of the best organic wines in the world have always been organic; they just don't put it on their label," he says. A deeper look into the labeling of organic wine offers the full story.
So what is organic wine anyway? It depends on the country that it comes from, but for the most part organic wine is defined as being made from grapes grown without pesticides, fungicides and other chemicals. In the US, there are two categories for organic wine: wine made from organic grapes, and organic wine that is made from organic grapes and does not contain any added sulfites.
Most winemakers add very small amounts of sulfites ("We're talking parts per million," Morganstern says) to help preserve wine. There is a spirited debate among winemakers whether the addition of sulfites is necessary or not. Wine naturally contains small levels of sulfites, which are a byproduct of yeast fermentation. In the European Union, wine can have added sulfites and still be organic.
If you prefer wine that is made from organic grapes and doesn't contain added sulfites, your best bet is to buy wine labeled "organic." Many stores now have organic wine sections with at least five or so varieties of organic wine. Asking your local wine merchant for more organic varieties is also a good way to increase offerings, Morganstern advises.
If you are okay with wine made with grapes that are grown organically and has added sulfites, the world of organic wine options opens up significantly.
"A lot of the best wines in the world may be made with organic grapes, but those manufacturers never felt the need to say anything. They felt they were growing their grapes the best way and want to be known for making great wine; they don't want to be known for making organic wine," explains Morganstern. Sometimes it comes down to placement on the shelf. "Many wines labeled organic get placed in the organic wine sections at the back of the shop; a good Bordeaux maker wants his wine in the Bordeaux section, even if it's organic."
You also have a growing number of wine manufacturers that have switched to organic farming methods. "I can't tell you how many winemakers I've spoken with who have taken a corner of their vineyard and grown it organically," Morganstern says. "Then at harvest time they taste a conventional grape and it's just kind of dull; and then they take a bite of an organic grape and it's bursting with flavor and they say, 'Well, there's no question about what's going to make better wine.'"
So, how can you spot the wines grown with organic grapes if they're not always labeled? Get to know your local wine merchant. The more you show interest in what's important to you, the more they will be able to help you and meet your needs, Morganstern recommends.
He also suggests using websites like Organic Wine Journal. Here you'll find lists of organic wineries by country. These days many restaurants indicate organic wines on the menu and some have sommeliers on staff who can walk you through their wine list. "The important thing is to let the merchant know that you want organic. That indicates to them a demand for it and then they can work on getting you the best organic options," Morganstern says.