What is Organic Wine? The Answer Might Surprise You

On paper, organic wine is a great idea. 

By growing grapes organically, you deliver higher quality fruit often with more vibrant aromas and flavors. And in theory, you help to protect the environment by reducing the amount of harmful chemicals that can accumulate in the soil and the water table. 

You also help to protect the vineyard workers by eliminating toxic compounds in the vineyards. 

But is organic wine really better than its conventional counterpart? 

Below we’ll take a look at what exactly organic wine is, what constitutes “organic” pesticides and herbicides, and why the removal of a certain crucial element that keeps conventional wine from spoiling may not make organic wine all it’s cracked up to be.

What is Organic Wine?

The basic concept of organic viticulture (organic wine) seems relatively simple and straightforward: Organic grape farming excludes the use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides. 

In order for a wine to be certified by the USDA as "organic," it must not only be farmed organically (and in accordance with the USDA's guidelines) but it also has to be vinified using only organic ingredients. 

Of course, the grapes have to be organic. But all other elements involved in the wine-making process — like yeast — for example, also have to be organic certified. 

As the USDA clearly states on its website, "Before wine can be sold as organic, both the growing of the grapes and their conversion to wine must be certified. This includes making sure grapes are grown without synthetic fertilizers, and in a manner that protects the environment and preserves the soil. Other agricultural ingredients that go into the wine, such as yeast, also have to be certified organic."

A winemaker can say that their wine is made from organically-farmed grapes as long as they don't use any of the products prohibited by the USDA. But they can't write "organic wine" on the label unless all the ingredients are organic. 

What are the Benefits of Organic Wine?

Most wine experts agree that organic farming is better for the environment, and that it can make for wine that truly expresses the place where it’s grown (“terroir expression,” as it’s known in wine parlance). 

And there’s no doubt that organic farming practices can deliver higher-quality fruit that makes for higher-quality wine. 

While not all organic grape growers are certified, more and more producers of fine wine across the world are employing organic practices in the vineyard. It’s just one element in a wave of higher quality wine that is made around the globe. 

How Do Organic Wine Growers Protect Their Grapes?

Synthetic (chemical) products used by non-organic growers are not only bad for the environment, but they can be harmful to wine country wildlife. They can also compromise the “expression of place” by adding a non-organic component to the mix. 

Organic wine growers use herbicides and pesticides that are made from organic (i.e., non-synthetic) substances. Similarly, they can also use fungicides that are made from organic substances. 

By using preventative measures and organic pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, not only do organic growers help to protect nature, but they also can deliver superior products.

Some organic grape growers use other preventative and predictive techniques and strategies that make it possible to grow their grapes without the use of synthetic products. 

"Sexual confusion" is a great example of this. Instead of using pesticides to eliminate harmful insects in the vineyards, grape growers will distribute pheromones that "confuse" the male of a given species. The males may be attracted to the pheromones, but they aren't able to spawn once they’re lured to them. As a result, the insect population is significantly reduced without the use of harmful products.

Another example is using highly-localized thermometers and barometers set up around the vineyards. If the weather forecast calls for rain for a given region, different places will be more gravely affected by the rain than others. 

By using multiple weather stations in the vineyards, the grape grower has a better sense of where they need to focus their preventative measures, thus avoiding problems before they arise and eliminating any need for synthetic products. 

The biggest problem faced by organic wine growers is peronospora, a type of mildew that can spread when there is too much humidity in the vineyard. If the grower knows a rainstorm is coming, they can preemptively spray the vines with organic treatments that will protect the plants. 

Similarly, by knowing which parts of the growing site are most affected immediately following a weather event, the grower can spray those areas without having to use the sprays for the entire site. 

Copper and Sulfur Treatments for Organic Wine

Despite the alternative methods used by organic wine growers, you might be surprised to learn exactly which herbicide and pesticide compounds are considered "organic" and suitable for "organically farmed vineyards."

In organic viticulture, copper and sulfur are often used to spray the vineyards to prevent and treat the spread of mildew. It’s a practice that dates back to the mid-1800s when French growers discovered serendipitously that vines were immune to mildew when covered in a patina of copper. 

Copper — a heavy metal that is toxic if ingested — can literally poison the water supply in farming areas where fine wine grapes are grown. And because copper has been used for this purpose for generations in Europe, it's begun to accumulate in the soil, causing EU regulators to limit the amount of copper that can be used each year. 

In 2019, the EU took action by imposing severe limitations on how much copper can be used to treat vines. But it’s still used today to ward off pests in organic wineries.

Sulfites and Organic Wine

If you read a bit further down in the USDA requirements for organic wine labeling, the organization specifies that "while wine naturally produces some sulfur dioxide (sulfites), they can’t be added to organic wine. Sulfites are commonly added to wines to stop the fermentation process or preserve the flavor profile."

Here is where "organic wine" becomes problematic.

Sulfur (the same thing as sulfur dioxide, SO2, or "sulfites," as described by the USDA) is actually a friend — not an enemy — of wine. All wine has at least small amounts of sulfur in it.

Without adding additional sulfur when the wine is bottled, it's extremely challenging to ship the wine from the winery to another destination without the wine developing unwanted aromas. This is one of the ways that wine labeled as "organic" may actually be an inferior product. Sulfur is a fundamental element in the production and keeping of fine wine. 

Nearly all fine wine has sulfur added to it. though there are a few exceptions like labels produced by the progressive “sans soufre” (“without sulfur”) winemakers that have popped up across Europe in recent years. 

But that $300 bottle of Burgundy that you just picked up at Boulder Wine Merchant? It has sulfur added to it. That $25 bottle of Sonoma Chardonnay? Sulfur added. 

Despite the many myths, sulfur is not harmful to consume in small quantities. There are some folks who have an allergy to sulfur, and they need to be careful about drinking wine. But without sulfur, our wine would spoil. 

Organic Wine: Is it Better?

While many of us — including top wine collectors and wine experts — regularly enjoy “wine made from organically farmed grapes,” American wine lovers need to think twice when shopping for organic wines. 

From the copper used to ward off pests and molds to the absence of added sulfur to keep the wine from spoiling, some organic wines may not be as healthy for the environment as you think (or as delicious to drink). 

However, there are certainly some quality organic wine products, which we’ll explore in our next blog post. Stay tuned!