Are organic wines any good?

November 9, 2010 6:45 pm - Posted by Roland Hulme in Drink, Learn

A few years ago, people dismissed the organic food movement as a fad. Today, it’s a ‘fad’ that’s worth millions of dollars in annual sales, and has revolutionized the way Americans think about the artificial chemicals and additives they put into their body.

Given this reaction, it’s only natural that more and more consumers are looking to live chemical-free in other areas of their life too. For some, this includes their choice of wine.

However, producing organic wine is very different from growing organic potatoes or carrots – and the debate still rages about whether organic wine can actually be any good – and if it is, what health benefits it might offer.

Organic Wine

Wine is good for you – there’s no doubt about that.

Research has proven that the antioxidants in red wine are heart-healthy; and statistics show that even heavy drinkers tend to live longer (and to my way of thinking, happier) lives than teetotalers.

But can wine be made even healthier? A growing number of people believe so. There’s a developing demand for organic wines and more and more producers are shifting their productions methods to meet that demand.

The first step is simple enough – the use of organically grown grapes. In order to be certified organic, a winemaker must ensure neither their fruit nor soil is treated with pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, chemical fertilizers or other synthetic treatments.

Where things get tricky, however, is in the production of the wine itself.

For more than two hundred years, winemakers have been using chemical substances to stabilize their wine – most commonly sulfur dioxide.

The addition of sodium or potassium metabisulphite generates this sulfar dioxide, which helps preserve the wine and acts as a microbial agent to prevent bacterial spoilage.

If it wasn’t for this simple addition of common chemicals, the bottles of 50s-era Chateau Margaux and Mouton Rothschild people bid thousands for in auction would have turned to vinegar decades ago.

But modern organic winemaking standards have strict limits on the addition of substances like sulfur dioxide. Most organic winemakers don’t add any sulfates at all – and that has an impact on the very nature of organic wine.

The most obvious effect is the color – added sulfates prevent wine turning brown. This is why sulfate-free organic wine will often have a brownish-tint that turns off those more used to the vibrant, cherry and plum hues of regular wine.

In addition, sulfates kill the fermentation process – meaning that a ‘completed’ wine retains its taste and bouquet for years afterward. Wine untreated with sulfates can continue to grow and develop after bottling, and this means it’s especially prone to spoilage.

While organic wine might be popular right now, you won’t see sulfate-free wine gracing the auction tables in fifty years time – as none will have lasted that long!

These factors, detractors argue, mean that organic, no-sulfate-added wine has a horrible color, inconsistent taste and doesn’t last on the shelf very long. Most advocates of organic wine concede these points – but retort that there are benefits that outweigh those sacrifices.

Chief amongst them, the reaction no-added-sulfate wine has on the body (or rather, doesn’t.)

For example, although there’s never been a concrete link between the two, many organic advocates argue to it’s the added sulfates in red wine that cause the notorious ‘red wine headaches’ that plague some drinkers.

Similarly, they suggest that added sulfates cause heartburn, and exacerbate the skin flushing some drinkers experience. Those particularly sensitive to sulfates, organic fans argue, will find the experience of drinking no-added-sulfate wine much more enjoyable.

And while ultimately that’s a subjective decision, it’s certainly one worth trying out for yourself. The next time you’re at the wine store, ask about what organic wines they offer try one yourself. Let us know what you think about the experience in the comments section below.

Finally, it’s worth remember than even organic wines labeled ‘sulfate free’ aren’t quite that. Some sulfates are produced naturally during the fermentation process – so the correct term for organic wine should be ‘no sulfates added’ rather than ‘sulfate free.’ The level of sulfates in the finished product, however, are a fraction of what you’ll find in regularly-produced wine.

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