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What does 'organic wine' actually mean?

I hope you've enjoyed a good glass or two recently. Maybe one of those was an organic wine. It's a term we're seeing more and more these days, just like 'vegan', which we've discussed before.


What does it mean, though? As usual, the answer is 'it depends', because there are different definitions depending on where in the world you're based. At its heart, it refers to wine which is made from grapes farmed entirely organically, in other words without the use of any synthetic chemicals such as man-made herbicides, fungicides or pesticides. In the EU, for example, this used to be the only definition, and in fact the term 'organic wine' was formerly incorrect and you had to specify that it was 'wine made from organically grown grapes'.

That's since been updated, however, and now in the EU there is a formal definition of organic wine, which specifies not only the methods used in the vineyard but also certain winemaking practices, of which the main one is the use of sulphur dioxide as a preservative. It's pretty standard practice to use sulphur dioxide in winemaking, and in fact there's a lot less of it in wine than there is in, say, a pre-packaged fruit salad. It preserves the fruitiness of wine and helps prevent it from premature oxygen spoilage.


Organic wines, however, must by law contain less of it. So if you think you may have a sensitivity to sulphites then you might want to look out for the little 'organic' certification on the wine label. Also, some wine producers operate organically but prefer not to invest in the expensive process of certification, so you might want to ask your wine merchant if they know of any, as these can often represent better value.


Is organic wine better quality? In some cases, the extra care that's necessary in the vineyard when a producer is unable to rely on regular sprayings to manage pests and diseases can lead to superior grape quality and thus wine quality - but it's too much of a generalisation to say that all organic wine is better quality, since each wine and producer are individual. It's not too far of a stretch, though, to imagine that traces of pesticides might make their way into your glass of wine, so if this is something that concerns you, then perhaps you may wish to think about trying organic.


So, next time you see that word on a label or on a wine list, you'll know exactly what it means - and can make an informed choice!

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Anne McHale Master of Wine, London, UK