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Can wine be green?

Organic produce remains as fashionable as ever, and we are always proud to open a bottle of wine labeled “Organic”—with a well-practiced look of modesty, of course. But how would you respond to the question: “why drink organic wine?”

Wine and organic agriculture

It’s an annoying, yet fundamental question: what is an organic wine? Does its production exclude all the pesticides, heavy metals and synthetic products (of which about 300 are listed!) that can be found in worrying quantities in wines produced by means of so-called traditional agriculture? The answer is nuanced. Until as late as 2012, truly organic wine didn’t actually exist. In fact, only the grape could be deemed organic, so the wine would bear a description along the lines of “wine made from organically produced grapes”. This is an important detail, because while organic grape growing is strictly regulated and prohibits the use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, GMOs, and herbicides, neither the winemaking nor the bottling process were subject to any kind of controls until that time. It was a text adopted on February 8, 2012 by the European Commission that specified the conditions necessary to obtain the ECOCERT label for organic winemaking. In particular, it restricts the levels of sulfites (100 mg/l for red wine and 150 mg/l for white wine compared with 150 mg/l and 200 mg/l respectively for conventional production). However, it remains permitted to use isinglass (derived from fish), gelatin, and other substances used for stabilization, acidification, deacidification, clarification, etc. It is also possible to chaptalize (in other words, add sugar), to flavor, and to treat with sulfur.

How to respond to non-believers?

ECOCERT may not satisfy everyone fully. On the other hand, while it doesn’t guarantee that the beverage presents no danger for the human body, the label does reduce the risks, because at least the base ingredient is high quality. And with ecological issues in mind, even if organic wine remains imperfect, it is unquestionably better for the soil, water and environment as a whole than its conventional equivalent. And if we consider that vineyards, which account for just 3% of cultivated land in France, consume 20% of the pesticides used in the country, the ecological argument is clearly very strong.

Which wines should I buy?

Besides watching out for reliable labels like ECOCERT—which is always worthwhile, as we have seen before—it is worth looking into the commitment shown by wine-growers themselves, particularly checking whether the bottle you love so much is AVN-certified (yes another certificate!). These unfamiliar letters stand for “Association des Vins Naturels” (Natural Wine Association), which is a French organization of independent wine-growers who have made a commitment to the overall process of growing, harvesting, wine-making, and bottling. The association also respects guidelines for organic and even biodynamic agriculture. As well as adhering to these precepts, AVN members hand-pick their grapes and use indigenous yeasts. The wine-making process is also subject to a very precise set of rules: no techniques considered “traumatic” for the wine are tolerated, thereby excluding “flash pasteurization” (a process that kills off lactic and acetic acid bacteria, notably), which is authorized by the EU. Finally, the acceptable sulfite levels are far lower than those set by the EU: 30 mg/l for red wine, and 40 mg/l for white or rosé wine.

To conclude, let us consider a common bone of contention between fans and critics of organic wine. We often hear it said that organic wines are unexceptionally vile, indigestible, oxidized plonk — in other words, undrinkable. But if we look more closely into the issue, by asking wine growers, experts and enthusiasts, we learn that organic production today is strictly controlled and, as with all wines, their quality depends on the skills and knowledge of the wine-grower. Its most ardent defenders claim that it has even more minerality, a more authentic bouquet, and greater presence in the mouth. In fact, six organic wines were awarded three stars in the Hachette Wine Guide 2010, and their recognition looks set to keep growing.

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