The Mountain Times

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Organic wine: Pros, cons and a middle path

Organic or not - what's the difference? The primary defining difference is the level of sulfur in the wine (yes, the same sulfur that makes matches light.) To get the USDA's organic seal and be labeled "organic" wine, it must be made from organically grown grapes, give information about the certifying agency and have no sulfites added. The total level of naturally occurring sulfites in the wine must be less than 20 parts per million, or qualify a wine as truly "organic." That is about half a pinch of sulfites in a bathtub of liquid.

If there are more than 10 parts per million, the label needs to state 'contains sulfites' and the naturally occurring sulfites from the skins and fermenting yeasts usually exceed that level, as they amount to somewhere between 6 to 40 parts per million (ppm), making it almost impossible for any wine to be completely free of sulfites or sulfur dioxide (SO2).

Sulfites exist in a variety of groceries without much further notice. Levels of 6 to 6,000 ppm of sulfites can be found in fruit juices, dried fruits, fruit concentrates, syrups, sugar, jams, gelatins, cake toppings, baked goods, pizza dough, frozen and dehydrated potatoes, processed vegetables, cheeses, as well as in many prescription drugs.

Sulfites pose no danger to about 99.75% of the population. In the highest risk group are those affected by asthma (about 5% of the population) and only about 5% of this group is allergic to sulfites. And there are those that are considered sulfite-sensitive, where even moderate consumption of wine can cause heartburn among other unpleasant side effects (the list would remind you of that fast-talking voice at the end of most pharmaceutical commercials.)

In commercial agriculture sulfur is used in numerous ways from insecticides to fertilizers. Additionally, for the wine maker, sulfurs act as a preservative and adds strong antimicrobial and antioxidant properties. Without it wine can go bad very quickly with a shelf life of only a few weeks. In a way, wine without sulfur is like un-pasteurized milk.

So what's a wine maker to do? Sell inferior product with a short life or go un-organic?

The solution lies somewhere in the middle and resulted in the term 'made-with-organically-grown-grapes.' Organic farming practices are better for the wine production and for consumers - who wants to be on the receiving end of all those pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, chemical fertilizers, or synthetic chemicals that are absorbed through the roots into the vine's sap and passed through leaves, stems, fruit and finally, into your glass?

Too much sulfur is definitely a flaw in wine with smells resembling odorized natural gas and skunk scent. Even small amounts give wine characteristics of grapefruit or garlic. Combined with hydrogen it more resembles rotting eggs or other biological processes.

Also, in the wine making process yeasts are used for fermentation and would need to be organic, as would be the fining agents (usually egg whites, milk protein, or a gelatin substance made from the skin of fish), that are used to get rid of impurities that cause wine to appear cloudy or have an off taste or smell. Some wine makers now choose bentonite clay or carbon as clarifying agents to remove impurities instead to make wine 'vegan friendly.'

In the end the winery is faced with the decision to spend a lot of money and efforts to be certified organic to appease those who look for organic products, but risk the loss of revenue in a bad year. Most will practice organic farming, but reserve the chance to use sulfur when needed and therefore be left un-certified as organic wine.