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The Rise of Wild Wines Part 1: Organic Wine

Natural, organic and biodynamic wines are on the rise! There’s a growing movement of producers and wine lovers around the world who are advocating for a return to a focus on farming and the vineyard, away from much of the processing and manipulation of “modern” winemaking.

So, what does it mean for a wine to be natural, organic or biodynamic? More importantly, what does it taste like? Take a walk on the wild side and decide for yourself! First, we’ll explore organic wine.

So, what is organic wine?

In the simplest of terms, organic wines are made with organic grapes.

To have organically grown grapes, a vineyard manager must implement different sets of practices to maintain the vines, largely without the use of artificial chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. 

This is where things get tricky. While the central philosophy around organic wines is shared around the world, different countries have different certifying bodies and specific expectations for what makes an organic wine. In the USA, for example, organic means a wine made from organically-grown grapes that doesn’t contain added sulphites. Under Canadian Organic regulations, the maximum allowable limits vary based on residual sugar- though the levels are still quite low.

Many wineries in North America become certified organic through ProCert or EcoCert organizations accredited to provide third party certification. The EU has its own regulations about labelling and producers in the EU may use third party certifiers as well. Here in Nova Scotia, L’Acadie Vineyards has been certified organic since their inception (2005) and they were the first in our province to do so. Lightfoot & Wolfville’s winery and vineyards are also certified organic.

Something you may not know: Organic does NOT mean no additives. Things like yeast, egg whites and animal enzymes (like rennet) can be found in organic wines. Organic does not equal vegan, but it can.

Photo: Wild and wonderful organic vines in Spain.

A few nitpicky, but important, notes about sulphites:

The term sulfites is a term for sulfur dioxide (SO2), a preservative that’s widely used in food and winemaking  for its antioxidant and antibacterial properties. Sulfites help preserve a wine’s freshness and slow chemical reactions. 

Sulphites get a bad rap, mainly because of some misinformation floating around: 1) They do not cause red wine headaches. 2) All wine has some sulphites, as S02 is released naturally during fermentation. If a wine has more than 10 parts per million of sulphites, it must be included on the label where it might say something like “Contains Sulphites”.

To put it in perspective though, wine has less sulphites than you’ll find in most processed foods- everything from cured meat, cheese, french fries and dried fruit- which can have anywhere from from 5 mg/L to 200 mg/L.

Wines that naturally have less acidity and less colour tend to require more sulphites to maintain freshness and shelf life. Even in ancient Roman times, winemakers would burn candles made of sulphur to clean barrels and impart the benefits on the wines they were creating. Organic wine certifications that speak to sulphite content are focused on added sulphites throughout the winemaking process, not the naturally occurring sulphites.

Semi-organic or organic without certification

Many wineries that are technically organic choose not to be certified. There are lots of reasons producers choose this path: some do not want the added costs and bureaucracy of registering or may have a philosophical rationale for this. Either way, they are not allowed to use the word “organic” on their labels. Instead, you may see terms like “lutte raisonnée” aka “the reasoned struggle” on the labels of French wines where producers make efforts to use less chemicals than conventional winemakers. 

Increasingly, you may also see words like eco friendly or sustainable on labels as well. As a marketing professional, I do try to think critically about all this and remember that without oversight or certifications, we’re meant to trust producers to commit to the values they share on their labels. Organic or not, that’s why working with producers and suppliers we respect and trust is so important to us here at Bishop’s Cellar. Check out some of our organic wines here.

This blog post is based on the workshop I gave at Devour! The Food Film Festival back in October 2018. Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 about Biodynamic and Natural Wines later this week.

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