Organic Wine: Aged to Perfection

Organic Wine: Aged to Perfection
Are there too many pesticides on the grapes you’re buying? According to the Environmental Working Group, if the grapes are imported, they’re included in the (one of twelve crops with the highest pesticide residue levels). Because domestic grapes have only slightly fewer residues, more shoppers are choosing those grown organically. It should come as no surprise then, to learn that sales of organic wines are up sharply; even the wine snobs out there are toasting pesticide-free grapes.     

Unlike in years past, many wine connoisseurs today say that organic wineries are making top-notch wines, winning awards in national tastings. Vintners point out that organic production methods can produce great tasting wine for various reasons, including healthier soils and healthier vines. Frogmore Creek Vineyards believes that organically grown grapes are “more alive”, resulting in the true flavor that nature intended. Weed killers or insecticides are not used on organic vines, allowing wild yeast strains to survive; these strains can enhance the subtle flavors of the grapes during fermentation.

More wineries are practicing organic methods and noting that their vines are more productive for a longer period of time. Growing wine grapes organically is not as difficult as growing many other crops organically. But complying with the new organic certification standards can be complex and cost prohibitive, at least initially, for small vineyards and winemakers.  Additionally, the stigma remains that organic wines just can’t compete in taste. For these reasons, many vineyards are not selling organic wine, at least just yet. As consumer demand increases, this will change. When buying organic wines, it is helpful to understand the following labeling definitions. 

Organic Wine is made from grapes grown in a certified organic vineyard. No chemical or artificial fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or other treatments are allowed for use on the vines. No genetically modified yeasts or other ingredients are permitted. Organic methods focus on building healthy soil by using compost, cover crops, and natural methods to manage pests. No sulfites can be added to organic wines. Naturally occurring sulfites must be maintained at a level less than 10 ppm (parts per million). Organic wine is less likely to be filtered during the winemaking process.

Wine Made with Organic Grapes means that the grapes used are grown in a certified organic vineyard that contains added sulfites at a level no higher than 100 ppm. No genetically modified yeasts or other ingredients are permitted.

Biodynamic wines are made from grapes grown in a certified vineyard to meet the strict biodynamic guidelines originally established by Austrian Rudolf Steiner. The biodynamic method views the earth as a living organism and works to create healthier soil by natural methods. One practice distinct from traditional organic farming is herb-based preparations that are added to the soil to increase microbial activity and nutrient content. No chemical or synthetic herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, or genetically modified ingredients are permitted in biodynamic agriculture.

A Word about Sulfites
For years, it has been a common practice to add sulfites to wine to protect against oxidation and bacterial spoilage. Sulfites are a natural byproduct of fermentation and occur in all wines at very low levels. Winemakers, however, can use sulfites excessively, masking subtle flavors, assaulting the nose, and triggering headaches and allergic reactions for some. Modern winemaking equipment and sanitation practices make it possible for wine to maintain a long shelf life

Health Benefits of Wine
It is almost too good to be true to hear doctors extolling the health benefits of wine. At first, we were skeptical to hear that the French consumption of red wine is the reason they have less heart disease (for there are many lifestyle factors to consider). Then came the evidence that all types of alcohol, not just red wine, serve up heart benefits. In fact, one to two alcoholic drinks per day increases HDL (good cholesterol) by 12%, decreases LDL (bad cholesterol) by 5% to 17%, reduces C-reactive protein levels (inflammatory marker), and is estimated to reduce heart disease risk by 30% to 50%. There is even evidence that moderate alcohol intake improves insulin sensitivity lowering the risk for Type II diabetes.

Red wine may offer additional benefits in the form of phytochemicals, including resveratrol, proanthocyanidins, and flavonoids such as quercetin, kaempferol, and catechins. Pinot Noir has the highest resveratrol levels, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon. White wines have very low polyphenol concentrations, but they appear to offer similar antiplatelet effects and have shown to reduce heart disease risk as well.

Moderate drinking does raise cancer risk, however, and excessive drinking (more than one drink daily for women and two for men) negates any health benefits. For those that are heavy drinkers, make sure to supplement with 400 micrograms of folate daily (typical dose of a multivitamin) to significantly reduce your cancer risk (alcohol interferes with folate metabolism).

Other Reasons for Organic Wine
In addition to the risk of pesticide exposure to us, the consumers, there are many good reasons to support the organic wine industry: Pesticide residues contaminate ground water, kill wildlife, and put farm workers at a higher risk for cancer. Many EPA-approved pesticides were registered before health risks were known and there is a growing concern that pesticide residues can accumulate over-time and cause health problems. While many vineyards are using fewer pesticides, it is clear that most are not:

Studies show that wine grapes are bombarded with a medley of poisons. In fact, 17 different insecticides, herbicides, and fumigants are used in wine production, many containing possible carcinogens. In California, where 90 percent of domestic wines are produced, grapes receive more pesticides than any other crop: 59 million pounds in 1995 alone, according to Californians for Pesticide Reform.

Hippie Wisdom
The organic wine industry is growing 20% each year for good reason: happy consumers. Next time you’re at the natural foods market, visit the organic wine section and check out your selection, which will likely include wines by Frey, Bonterra, Frog’s Leap, Fetzer, Orleans Hill, and Badger Mountain. Spend a little extra money and try out a few bottles. Organic grapes are something worth drinking to.

- Greg Hottinger, MPH, RD