If you’re a wine enthusiast, or are interested in learning about wine, you may have heard these buzzwords while visiting your local wine shop. But what’s the difference in these methods of farming and winemaking and what does it mean for you…the consumer?
AND there are all kinds of myths and misconceptions about sulfites! Am I allergic? What do sulfites add to wine? Is it harmful?
Here’s a quick read to help clear up some of the questions in your head:
In the 1960’s, a group of winemakers in the Beaujolais region of France, wanted to go back to making wines the way their Grandparents had made wine; before the arrival of chemicals and pesticides that had become prevalent in agriculture after the end of World War II. Today “Natural” in winemaking is a movement to follow this path.
But what does Natural winemaking actually mean? This can be ambiguous based on who is running the conversation; however, the overall consensus is Natural winemaking has nothing added and nothing taken away. Some insist that no sulfites can be added; where others find adding some sulfites at bottling is allowed. In either case, Natural wines contain significantly less sulfites than non-naturally produced wines. Most will agree that Natural wines are made from organically grown grapes, and that only indigenous yeast strains are used to ferment the juice.
The following basic criteria are generally accepted by most natural wine producers and organizations:
- Organically or biodynamically grown grapes, with or without certification.
- Dry-farmed, low-yielding vineyards.
- No added sugars, no cultivated (cultured) yeasts, no foreign bacteria.
- No adjustments for acidity.
- No additives for color, mouth-feel, minerality, etc.
- No external flavor additives, including those derived from new oak barrels, staves, chips, or liquid extract.
- Minimal or no fining or filtration.
- No heavy manipulation, such as micro-oxygenation, reverse osmosis, spinning cone, cryoextraction.
- Minimal or no added sulfites.
Interestingly, the criteria for the Organic classifications differs by country, but generally Organic wine is wine made from grapes grown in accordance with principles of organic farming, which typically excludes the use of artificial chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides; while adding very little if any sulfites for preservation.
In the US, organic wines certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) have strict regulations. The grapes are grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers, and all ingredients going into these wines, which includes yeast, must be certified organic. No sulfites may be added to these wines, although some that occur naturally are permitted. Only these wines may display the USDA organic seal. A label that reads “Made with organically grown grapes” means the wine must be made entirely from certified organic grapes. Additional ingredients used in the winemaking process need not be organic, but they cannot be produced with the use of pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. Wines must be produced and bottled in an organic facility, and sulfites must be limited to 100 parts per million or less. Although these wines can state on their labels to have been made with organic grapes, they cannot use the USDA’s organic seal.
The European Union began to allow winemakers to use “organic wine” on their labels starting in 2012. Prior to that, wines were labeled as “made from organic grapes.”
The most notable difference between organic American and organic European wines is the amount of sulfites permitted in the final product. While USDA-certified organic wines can contain virtually no sulfites at all, their EU counterparts can contain up to 100 parts per million of sulfites like non-USDA-certified organic wines in the U.S.
Canada’s top organic standard is closer to the USDA. In Canada, a wine labeled “100% organic” must be produced using certified organic grapes and contain no added sulfites. Canadian winemakers also have the option to designate their wines as “organic” if they were made with a minimum of 95% certified organic grapes and contain very low levels of sulfites. Wines in Canada can be labeled as “made with organic grapes,” which is an unofficial distinction for bottlings made with a minimum of 70% organic grapes and added sulfites.
Important to note: There are many wineries across the world that have practiced organic farming for decades…well before there was an actual “classification” as such. For these and other smaller wineries application costs to receive the designation from their respective governmental agencies is exorbitant. These winemakers feel no obligation to certify their wines as organic because they’ve been practicing these methods all along.
THE TAKEAWAY – DON’T GET HUNG UP ON LABELS AND CERTIFICATIONS. If you want to drink organic wines, ask your local wine shop what they suggest. You’ll be surprised at the variety that is offered.
According to the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, biodynamic farming is “a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, gardens, food production and nutrition.” Biodynamic wine is made with a set of farming practices that views the farm or vineyard as one solid organism. The ecosystem functions as a whole, with each portion of the farm or vineyard contributing to the next. The idea is to create a self-sustaining system. Natural materials, soils, and composts are used to sustain the vineyard. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are forbidden for the sake of soil fertility. A range of animals from ducks to horses to sheep live on the soil and fertilize it, creating a rich, fertile environment for the vines to grow in. Biodynamic farming also seeks sustainability, or leaving the land in as good or better shape as they found it for future generations.
In the early 1920’s, Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner started the idea of biodynamic agriculture, predating the organic movement by a long shot. This early 20th century philosopher and social reformer also promulgated the use of agricultural practices based on the lunar calendar and astrological influences, which today are more controversial aspects of biodynamic farming. Steiner believed in living and farming “together with the earth” and its movements, as opposed to using a purely scientific approach. To some, it sounds a little like witchcraft; but many indigenous tribes have used these methods throughout time.
An example of biodynamic farming is the integral process of Following the biodynamic calendar. Farming practices, from pruning to harvesting, are controlled by this calendar. It breaks all the tasks associated with farming into four kinds of days: root days, flower days, fruit days, and leaf days. Each of these days has certain tasks associated with it that are reflective of Earth’s four classical elements (also on the harder-to-prove-scientifically end of things): Fruit days are meant for harvesting, leaf days for watering, root days for pruning. On flower days, the vineyard is left alone.
Heard about the cow horn (never a bull’s horn) in the biodynamic vineyard? Biodynamic farming calls for specific and sometimes strange compost and field preparations. One of these is known as cow horn manure or preparation 500. Cow horns are stuffed with manure compost and buried into the ground all through the winter, then later excavated. Upon excavation, the stuffed material is spread throughout the vineyard. There is little information out there about why specifically a cow horn is used, or why it’s buried in the soil. However, these farmers believe this method to be a powerful means for structuring the soil. They feel it stimulates soil microbial activity of the soil,” regulates pH, stimulates seed germination, and dissolves minerals.
But in spite of skeptics and lack of science to support biodynamic farming, retailers and consumers are driving demand. It seems that winemakers couldn’t help but notice that some of the finest wines in the world are made from grapes grown in biodynamic vineyards. Vineyard and winery adoption has occurred so quickly that [the US] now has the third largest number of biodynamic vineyards and wineries in the world, following France and Italy.
Facts and Myths.
Here’s the definition: “Sulfite” is an inclusive term for sulfur dioxide (SO2), a preservative that’s widely used in winemaking (and most food industries) for its antioxidant and antibacterial properties. SO2 plays an important role in preventing oxidization and maintaining a wine’s freshness.
There are two types of sulfites, also known as sulfur dioxide: natural and added. Natural sulfites are just that, totally natural compounds produced during fermentation. And you cannot escape them. Sulfite-free wines do not exist. It is literally, literally impossible. Sulfites are also a preservative, but the fermentation process doesn’t produce enough sulfites to create the legendary aged cellar wines people love bragging about. You think you can just drink a wine that’s been sitting around for 50 years without it having added sulfites? No way! Added sulfites preserve freshness and protect wine from oxidation, and unwanted bacteria and yeasts. Without added sulfites, a 1961 Bordeaux would be considered trash vinegar rather than a treasure. “Sulfites are among the most helpful compounds around—and without them, some wines would taste like a microbial stew,” says Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible and editor of the weekly wine report WineSpeed. “Sulphur is a natural anti-microbial agent. It’s a terrific aid to winemakers—and ultimately wine drinkers, because it destroys bad microbes.” And if you think you’ll avoid sulfites by drinking beer…think again; hops have natural sulfites as well and the brewing process also includes added sulfites.
Wondering if you’re allergic to sulfites? Read this: We’d all like to blame our wine headaches on something other than the fact that we drank too much wine last night without hydrating. But it’s probably not that you’re allergic to sulfites. The FDA estimates that less than 1% of the U.S. population has a sulfite allergy, and those who do are most likely asthmatic. If you are truly allergic, you may get hives and have trouble breathing within 30 minutes of sulfite exposure. A headache is not a symptom of being allergic to sulfites. NOTE: if you are sulfite allergic you should AVOID using injectable Epinephrine (EpiPen) and broncho inhalers/solutions for asthma…these both contain certain amounts of sulfites. (www.verywellhealth.com/sulfite-allergy)
For the rest of us trying to explain our “headaches” away, there is a chance that red wine headaches are caused by the histamines present in red wine. If you’re predisposed to allergies like hay fever, you could try Claritin before—but do some with an abundance of caution, or a designated driver. And don’t forget to drink plenty of water, allergic or not. What about the idea that red wines contain more sulfites than white? Interestingly, just the opposite is true…white wines actually contain more natural sulfites.
Sulfites Aren’t Generally Bad for You: Did you know your kids’ fruit roll-ups have more sulfites than wine? So do those french fries you had at lunch…yes! French fries have approximately 1900 PPM. An order of shrimp has more sulfites than an entire bottle of Sangiovese. Dried fruit contains sulfites too! Everything from pickles to pizza crust to painkillers contain sulfites. Manufacturers even use sulfites in many medications to prolong their shelf life.
Hopefully this clears up some of the questions our customers ask us on a daily basis. Thanks for reading!