Organic wine doesn't enjoy the same reputation as vintage wine -- at least not yet. But as more wineries respond to consumer demand for high-quality organic wine that can hold its own against the finest gold-medal vintages, organic wine and so called green wine has gone from being a niche product to a real player in the wine marketplace.
But what makes a wine organic? Like with most organic foods, you'll find there are several confusing and overlapping terms being tossed around by marketers and vintners. Let's clarify these:
Organic Wine: You Want Sulfites With That?
A wine that's "100% Organic" is made from grapes that are organically grown, i.e., cultivated without the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers or other treatments. It also cannot have any added sulfites, which act as a preservative, though it may contain a small amount of naturally occurring sulfites.
Wines that are labeled "Organic" can contain up to 5% of ingredients that are not available organically. These wines, and wines that are 100% organic, can carry the green and white "USDA Organic" label.
For organic-style wines that have added sulfites, the label "Made With Organic Grapes" applies. Because the organic certification process can be cumbersome, expensive and time consuming, many wineries eschew the USDA process and instead produce wines that might qualify as organic, but don't carry the official USDA label. These are sometimes called "natural wine," for lack of a better term.
Biodynamic, Vegan and Other Wines
There are other niche wines, like those labeled "biodynamic wine." This term, first conceived in the 1920s, adopts a holistic approach to viniculture, including cow horns filled with manure that are then buried in the vineyard's soil, and herbal/mineral preparations that are used as pest repellents or soil amendments. Planting and harvesting are timed to coincide with astronomical events like new moons. Though it's definitely sustainable, critics have charged that some biodynamic techniques are little more than New Age pseudo-science.
Other specialty labels exist, too; be aware that these don't carry any substantive legal weight and are usually not third-party verified. Vegan wines claim to use no animal products whatsoever in the cultivation, fermentation or processing of their spirits. The term "natural," when applied to wine, could mean anything -- using only the yeast that's found on the grape in the fermentation process, for example. And "sustainable" wines are presumably made by wineries that are wholly committed to alternative energy sources like biodiesel tractors and solar-sourced electricity.
Organic Wine: Into the Organic Ghetto
One issue that's often lost in the epicurean debates over wines -- organic or otherwise -- is the environmental impact of viniculture. Like all organic foods, organic wines may or may not be superior to other wines in flavor, and they might not be any healthier to drink, but it's undeniable that organic methods of agriculture are much healthier for the environment.
There are a number of high-quality vintners making excellent organic, biodynamic and other "natural" wines. Bonterra Vineyards, Badger Mountain and Frey Vineyards are some of the better-known American producers, but there are dozens of other great wines from U.S. and international vintners. Look for these and other labels at your local wine shop, where they may be hidden away in the "organic ghetto" section of the store.