As mentioned on the Binny’s Wine Blog before, the term “organic” is often used as a general term for any green wine. It does have a specific, legal meaning. Organic wine is wine from grapes grown with no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, the goal being a healthier product, both for the consumer and for the environment in and surrounding the vineyard.
In the United States, organic produce is regulated by the National Organic Program (NOP), a branch of the USDA. The NOP maintains The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances for the production, handling and processing of organic products. It is worth pointing out that sulfites, though not recognized as a health risk for the vast majority of consumers, are not allowed to be added to organic wine, and naturally occurring sulfites must stay below 10 parts per million.
Though the seal displayed on organic products says “USDA Organic,” the agency doesn’t do the actual certification. Instead, the NOP accredits third-party certifying agents, such as the CCOF, who are then responsible for ensuring that production and handling of organics meet the national criteria. You’ll find the third party certifying agency’s seal along with the USDA seal on the back label of many domestic organic wines.
In order to be certified organic, a farm (or a specific field) must be free of prohibited substances for three full years before the first organic crop is harvested. This includes preventing contamination from nearby fields and farms, even if they are owned by someone other than the organic producer.
Organic Wine Labeling
According to NOP regulations, there are five labeling options for all organic products, and wines fall into these five categories:
If a product is made entirely from organically grown produce and made entirely with organic processing aids, it can be labelled 100% organic. I couldn’t think of a single example of this in wine, so I called a popular producer of organics and asked about it. The answer: as of right now, organically produced yeast isn’t available, so it’s virtually impossible to produce wine with this label.
If a product is made from at least 95% organic ingredients, and produced using aids from The National List, or from a few other ingredients (with approval from the certifying agency) then it may be labeled “Organic.” It’s just a tiny bit less restrictive than 100% Organic. It makes room for yeast, but not for added sulfites: the wine must contain less than 10 parts per million of naturally occurring sulfites.
These bottles may bear the USDA Organic seal and/or the certifier’s seal, and their labels are required to include a certification statement naming the accredited certifier. The majority of organic wines on Binny’s shelves fit into this category check out the back labels. Popular brands at Binny’s include Frey, Orleans Hill, and others.
“Made with Organic Ingredients”
This is another very popular labeling option. For a wine to be labeled “Made with Organic Grapes,” it must be made from at least 70% certified organic grapes. This labeling option allows for the use of sulfites, so many wines that would otherwise be Organic are currently labeled “Made with Organic Grapes” for their sulfites.
These wines may be labeled with their accredited certifier’s seal, but cannot include the USDA seal, as the finished wines are not organic. If they contain added sulfites, they must be labeled with the ominous “CONTAINS SULFITES” warning. Bonterra is a popular brand, and Binny’s carries many more.
“Made with Organic and Non-Organic Ingredients,” and “Organic Ingredients”
As far as I can tell, these two categories are intended for other kinds of organic products besides wine. Like the “100% Organic” label, I can’t think of any examples on Binny’s shelves of these labeling options. They are used when a product contains organic ingredients mixed with non-organic ingredients, the former containing over 70% organic ingredients and the latter containing some amount of organic ingredients. A wine example would be a blend containing organically grown merlot but non-organic cabernet. A wine carrying this label would require an ingredient statement similar to a food.
For a bewilderingly complete look at legal labeling regarding organics, check out the NOP’s guidelines here. With this (hopefully) more clear understanding of organic wine, we can go forward and ask more interesting questions questions about organic wines and their role in the health of consumers and the environment and the marketplace. Expect more soon, along with I dunno maybe a funny story about a guy I met on the bus or something.