Clearing up the confusion

Organic wines (and their new labels) explained

Amanda Flaker
March 15, 2012

'Isn't all wine organic?' This is one of the most common assumptions made about wine, and the answer is no, not even close. Wine grapes, like most agricultural products, are treated with chemicals to manage fungi, viruses, pests and other problems. Yet unlike many conventionally farmed products, wine grapes cannot be rinsed. Like it or not, the chemicals end up in your glass. Although many wineries in Italy practice organic farming, because of labeling regulations, identifying their products can be tricky. However, new European regulations are clearing up confusion and helping Italy continue to lead the way in the production of organic wines.



The term ‘organic wine' is perhaps one of the most misunderstood in the natural food movement. The term itself is not currently permitted on any wine label, regardless of the farming practices used in its production. Traditionally, for a wine to be considered organic, it must be made from 100 percent certified-organic grapes. However, this designation excludes sulphites, which are added to most wines, even organic ones. Indeed, the necessity of sulphites is what makes the organic winemaking process complicated for winemakers and confusing for consumers.


Without the addition of sulphites, wine is vulnerable to deterioration in a few short years. Sulphites not only guarantee a longer shelf life, but also help stabilize the wine so the taste will not change during transportation or storage. Therefore, European organic certification allows for the use of a small amount-well below the quantity used in standard wines-of diluted mined sulfur. Consequently, wine is the only European agricultural industry unable to label its product ‘organic' despite the addition of a chemical. The European standard for organic certification allows wineries to identify their product as ‘made from organic grapes' on their labels, which causes confusion for consumers, as organic products in Europe typically bear the European Union's organic logo. To complicate matters further, some wine labels specify ‘no sulphites added,' which does not signify organic practices in farming the grapes; it is perfectly possible to make a sulphite-free wine with non-organic grapes. Thus, ambiguous labelling regulations frustrate many in their search for an environmentally friendly wine.


In an effort to demystify these terms, the European Commission's Standing Committee on Organic Farming (SCOF) has recently approved new standards specifically for organic wine production. Set to commence with the 2012 wine harvest, these new regulations allow organic growers to use the term ‘organic wine' and the European Union's organic logo on their wines' labels. This is a welcome change for organic producers, as the new stipulation will give wineries the opportunity to more clearly target their markets. It is also a help to consumers.


Small Vineyards, a Tuscan and Italian wine exporting company, has for years selected and showcased Italian wineries that practice sustainable farming (see box). Not only does it exclusively represent hand-picked, single-vineyard-designated wines, but every estate in the portfolio must use earth-friendly, sustainable farming techniques: no pesticides, fertilizers or irrigation.


Tom Kelly, American partner and wine educator for Small Vineyards importing in the U.S., explains that most of these standards are nothing new to Italians. Pride about regional expression and authenticity, whether through food, art or wine, is an essential ingredient in all of their productions. He observes that when Italian winemakers hear Americans raving about new ‘sustainable' farming techniques, they simply chuckle and say, ‘What you call organic, we call "two thousand years of common sense."'


As Tuscany currently produces the majority of organic wine in Italy, SCOF's new system of classification will help standout producers continue to distinguish themselves as leaders in the industry.



Time for tasting

Three upcoming events offer an opportunity to explore organic wines:


Vinitaly 2012

March 25-28, Verona: the world's largest wine and spirits exhibition will this year feature for the first time a selection on organic and biodynamic agriculture (


Villa Favorita 2012

March 24-26, Sarego, Vicenza: an intimate, unique showcase of some of the top natural wines of Europe (


ViniVeri 2012

March 24-26: Cerea, Verona: meet the winemakers, taste the wine and experience the goodness of over 120 naturally made wines from Italy and elsewhere in Europe (



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