Saturday, February 12, 2011

Organic Wine? Its Not That Simple.

It's news to nobody that organically produced foods have arrived as a powerful force in the market.

Nationally, organic food sales have enjoyed double-digit growth for the past several years.

Retail leader Whole Foods Market ended 2010 with $9 billion in sales. In Dubuque, The Food Store on Iowa Street just got a shiny makeover and added an organic deli, while Hy-Vee has expanded its Health Markets.

So, with wine sales bouncing back in 2010, up 10-15 percent from the year before, this should be the heyday of organic wine, shouldn't it?

Not as such.

While there's a lot of delicious wine made from organically grown grapes being bought and consumed, the vast majority of those bottles don't carry the USDA Certified Organic label.

Indeed, most wineries that use organically grown grapes don't go through USDA certification because of the vintners' disagreement with what criteria legally constitute "organic," and what following those criteria will do to the wine they are trying to make.

The heart of the problem stems from the use of sulfites. Sulfur dioxide is a preservative agent that
inhibits spoilage from oxidation and invasive microorganisms, the use of which has been documented to the 15th century in Europe.

Aren't certified organic wines sulfite-free?

As far as it applies to vine growing and wine making, "organic" does not mean "sulfite-free" anywhere in the world, though many people believe it does.

In the United States, certification means, among other things, a wine has no added sulfites. But as these occur naturally through fermentation, for a wine to be free of sulfites, they'd have to be removed.

It's a fairly brutal process that has rendered all such wines I've tried rather un-winelike. They're also unstable and unsuitable for cellaring.

A quick side story: the no-added-sulfites situation is akin to the legal definition of Stilton cheese in Britain, instituted in the '90s, requiring pasteurized milk only. Unpasteurized Stilton became instantly illegal -- including those preferred by many of the cognoscenti.

Enter "Stichelton," the ancient name of Stilton town, bestowed upon a raw-milk version of the cheese produced through traditional methods in the historic region.

Those who want real Stilton can get it ... but not by that name!

While there are some palatable wines that are Certified USDA Organic, most very good and great wines (defined as more complex and age-worthy) have added sulfites.

Interestingly, most producers are using less and less as advances in vineyard practices and winery technology allow.

Here are some wines that are available in our area, from wineries using largely organic methods or who have a serious commitment beyond mere green-wash claims of sustainable agriculture:

Bonterra, Benziger, Cline, Morgan Double L Pinot Noir and Newton in California; the excellent Gruet sparkling wines from New Mexico; Chehalem in Oregon; and Yalumba in Australia. Cambria Katherine's Vineyard Chardonnay doesn't claim to be organic but sulfite levels are extremely low (25 ppm).

Check their websites to see which particular wines meet your needs.

Source: Jim Terry is a Certified Sommelier.