For years, the main color decision a wine drinker had to make was red or white. Now the question is whether the wine should also be green.
Organic wines are one of the hottest trends in restaurants today, according to a report last week from the National Restaurant Association
. But while a restaurant sommelier can help you navigate the world of green wines while dining out, the wine aisle is a confusing place for organic shoppers.
Wine labels carry various permutations of the organic label. Some wines are 100 percent organic, while others say “made with organic grapes.'’ Some labels use words like “sustainable” and “biodynamic.'’ And then, there is the all-important question of whether any of it tastes good.
In a recent article, Salon.com
makes the case that wine lovers who want to go green should look past the organic label and read the fine print. That’s because the organic label requires wine makers to adhere to a strict set of rules that may not always result in the best-tasting wine. Instead, oenophiles who are concerned about pesticides and the environment should look for wines “made with organic grapes” or those that are grown using sustainable agriculture methods. These wines don’t meet specific United States Department of Agriculture standards to carry the organic seal, but the contents are still the result of earth-friendly farming practices. In fact, wine makers who use sustainable practices typically meet most or all of the criteria necessary to use the word “organic” on their label, but some winemakers avoid the term because many consumers associate it with poor taste.
For a wine to be labeled organic and bear the U.S.D.A. organic seal, that means at least 95 percent of the grapes were grown without pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, according to the Organic Consumers Association. Wineries that bottle organic wines can’t use chemical cleansers or preservatives.
And that’s often a dilemma for winemakers, who for centuries have added sulfur dioxide to wines as a preservative. Although some people, particularly those with severe asthma, have sensitivities to sulfites, the vast majority of drinkers don’t have a problem. Some wine experts say the absence of added sulfites causes organic wines to change flavor after it’s bottled and is the reason organic wines often don’t taste as good as their conventionally-bottled counterparts.
Salon suggests that wine lovers who aren’t concerned about sulfites shouldn’t focus on whether the bottle carries the organic seal, and instead should just look for wines made from organic grapes. To make the claim on its label, a wine must be made with at least 70 percent organic grapes, according to the Organic Consumers Association. There’s no official seal for wines made from organic grapes, so you’ll have to read the label or ask the wine store owner where to find them.
Finding wine makers who use sustainable farming practices, which conserve soil and water, among other issues, is more difficult. Often the label will explain the farming methods or the wine will be in a section of the store devoted to “green” wines. Salon lists two Web sites that can help. Low Input Viticulture & Enology, Inc.
certifies participating wineries and vineyards in the Pacific Northwest. The California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance lists California wineries
that follow sustainable guidelines. And this spring, New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov listed several winemakers who practice some form of organic, sustainable or natural winemaking in his article “When the Wine is Green
.'’ And finally, the Organic Consumers Association
has a useful guide explaining the various permutations of the organic label on wines.
Marnie Old, assistant dean of wine studies at New York’s French Culinary Institute, tells Salon that wines made from pesticide-free grapes usually are more interesting to drink. “The less interference in the farming of the fruit, the more pure the flavor is,” she said. “Everything you do to that ingredient, the grape, is reflected in the final product.”