I don’t know how I feel about “organic” when it comes to wine. It has no bearing on my decision-making process when I’m buying wine for myself. All I really think about is what’s in the bottle, and if it’s good or not… When I’m buying wine for the restaurant, however, these labels have some influence because of general consumer interest in things labeled “natural’ or “organic.” So, what do these terms mean in viticulture?
Let’s start with a little history here.
Some amazing things happened in the 20th century with respect to the development of chemical fertilizers, including the discovery of synthetic nitrogen infamously used as poison gases in World War I and World War II. The use of chemicals in disease and pest control was in widespread use by the 1950s. Farming yields climbed up, as did the use of GMOs in the 21st century. Viticulture tends to follow along with trends and advancements of general agriculture.
In the US or Australia, for a wine to be labeled “organic,” it must be produced from organically grown grapes and contain no added sulfites. This disqualifies a lot of wine. Many wines are thus labeled “made from organically grown grapes,” which permits the use of sulfites. As of 2010, less than 10% of California’s wineries use any organically grown grapes, though I’m willing to bet there’s more now.
There is no legal definition here. Biodynamic agriculture is similar to organic farming in the sense that neither process uses synthetic chemicals, but the biodynamic process incorporates ideas about viticulture as an entire ecosystem. In biodynamic viticulture, astrological influences, lunar cycles, soil fertility, plant growth, and livestock care all contribute to the bigger picture of wine production. Biodynamic viticulture views the process of winemaking as a cohesive system of interconnected ecological factors.
There’s no legal definition here either. Sustainability in viticulture is fairly subjective as of today. A winemaker can say it is sustainable because it uses ecologically sound vineyard management. Another might call itself sustainable because it uses economically viable and socially responsible practices. Some agencies offer sustainability certifications, and many associations are working on developing clearer standards.
I suppose there’s a balance somewhere in all of this. Some practices seem out of reach to me (fully organic), while others seem more manageable (sustainable). What’s most important is up to you. I think that less manipulation using synthetic chemicals is good, but I also understand that some level of manipulation is required to get the desired product.
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Will Olendorf, Maynards Market & Kitchen Sommelier