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Organic wine: What you should know

By: Anne Martin, Sommelier

Author: Canadian Living

Menus & Entertaining

Organic wine: What you should know

By: Anne Martin, Sommelier
This article was originally titled "The Wine Taster: Organic Wine" in the April 2009 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!

There's no comprehensive resource that lists all organic producers, so ask your wine merchant if she knows any in your area.

Organic vineyards date from the 1940s (mainly in France), but it wasn't until the 1980s that the wines they produced got any respect. Previously criticized as too costly and poorly made, these wines are now recognized as good quality at a fair price. And with the growing concern over additives and chemicals in what we consume, wine made from organically grown grapes is an expanding market.

Organic viticulture became popular after a series of food contamination scandals in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Vintners felt that organic farming practices could also save money in the long run by preserving and improving their soil, and that labelling their wines "organic" could give them a marketing advantage. Some parts of Europe also offered subsidies for up to a five-year period.

Organic wine is produced from grapes grown without the use of pesticides or chemical fertilizers and without the addition of sulphur dioxide (SO2) during winemaking. An organic standard is legally defined in only a few countries, such as the United States and Australia. In those places, a further distinction is made between "wine produced from organically grown grapes" (to which SO2 has likely been added during winemaking) and "organic wine" (made without the addition of SO2). (More on sulfites on page 2.)

8 things you should know about organic wine
1. Organic viticulture shuns the use of man-made compounds, such as fertilizers, fungicides and pesticides, and anything that is genetically modified. Growers tend to take an "ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" approach to farming, and there is an emphasis on manual labour.

2. The health of the soil is key for the organic grape grower – without it, the vines will struggle. Organic fertilizers in the form of compost are often used.

3. Organic grapes grow much more easily in drier, warmer areas. The climates of the south of France, California, Chile, Greece, and parts of Spain and Italy are conducive to organic farming.

4. It takes between three and five years, depending on the regulations of the country, to convert a traditional vineyard into an organic one.

Many wineries are technically organic but choose not to be certified for various reasons. They may not want to go through the bureaucracy and cost of registering, or they may not agree with the government's standards. But without certification, they cannot use the term "organic" on their label.

Some grape varieties and wine styles are better suited to "sulphur-free" aging, such as a hefty, tannic Zinfandel, instead of a delicate, aromatic white, such as Riesling.

7. Canada has a few organic vineyards. In British Columbia, the certified vineyards are Summerhill Pyramid Winery, Rollingdale Winery, Forbidden Fruit Winery, and Deep Creek Wine Estate and Hainle Vineyards Estate Winery. In Ontario, Frogpond Farm used to be the only certified organic winery, but recently Southbrook Vineyards in Niagara-on-the-Lake received its certification. L'Acadie Vineyards in Nova Scotia is the easternmost organic winery. Le Clos Jordanne and Malivoire in Ontario have certified organic vineyards, but their wineries are not certified.

8. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is introducing a new label for organic wines sold across Canada. It will carry a logo of a maple leaf rising from behind a field with the words biologique Canada organic. Wines that are only sold in their own province will not require the new label.

What does VQA mean?
The Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) affixes its symbol to Canadian wines that have met certain quality standards. Like the wine regulatory systems in France (AOC), Italy (DOC) and Germany (QmP), VQA ensures that these quality wines are properly labelled with their geographical appellation, grape varieties and vintage. Only wines from Ontario and British Columbia currently meet VQA standards. For more information, visit and

Biodynamic wines
Depending on your point of view, biodynamic agriculture is either an enhanced or a more extreme (read: wacky) form of organic agriculture. Based on the theories of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, this approach sees each garden (or vineyard, in this case) as a self-sustaining organism. Thanks to its observations of the cosmic cycle and the burying of cow horns in the soil, biodynamics has a hocus-pocus reputation. However, there's no denying the excellence of biodynamic wines. Professionals have praised them in many blind tastings.

One reason is that they are better at exhibiting expressions of terroir – the smells, flavour and textures that represent the grapes' place of origin. Whether improvements in vineyard health are a product of organic farming techniques or due to the mysticism involved in biodynamics, the added attention to detail and level of craftsmanship can't help but make better wines.

Sulfites: What are they and why they may be in your wine glass
Contrary to popular myth, there is no such thing as sulfite-free wine. Sulfites are a natural byproduct of fermentation, and yeasts that are present on all grape skins generate small amounts of them. Sulphur, often in the form of sulphur dioxide (SO2), has been used as a preservative for more than 200 years. It inhibits mould and bacteria growth, stops oxidation (browning) and preserves the wine's natural flavour.

When properly handled, sulfites are not toxic to humans or the environment, and many winemakers feel that they are essential to prevent oxidation and spoilage. Therefore, U.S. and European organic winemaking standards allow for the addition of strictly controlled amounts of SO2.

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Organic wine: What you should know