Organic Wine Definitions – Behind the Label
When you want to drink organic wine, there is a lot of terminology to sort through. There is wine that is certified organic, wine made with organic grapes, wine made with organic grapes, but not produced according to the federally-mandated National Organic Program, Biodynamic wine, wine made with Biodynamically-produced grapes but not produced according to Biodynamic standards, sustainably-produced wine and also conventionally-produced wine. To clarify the differences among these wine making methods, we offer some definitions.
First of all, you should know that making wine involves more than “just grapes.” Yeast is often used to aid fermentation, certainly in organic wines so-called native (local) yeast is used. Sugars can be added, including sugars naturally occurring in grapes. Conventionally-produced wine may include residual pesticides, added preservatives, coloring, animal byproducts and mouth-feel agents. A variety of chemicals can be used to speed up, slow down, and direct the process of turning grapes into wine.
Wine that receives the US Department of Agriculture organic certification is strictly regulated and never has any synthetic additives. Synthetic pesticides and herbicides are not allowed if wine is to pass the USDA’s organic certification qualifications. Any kind of pesticide that has been determined to be harmful to the environment or to people is not allowed. Wine that is made with organically-grown grapes may include small amounts of additives, such as sulfites, that are used as stabilizers to preserve the wine. All wine naturally contains some sulfites. Sulfites are on grape skins and in plants like onions and garlic.
The descriptions and chart below show the differences between the different methods and philosophies of wine making.
USDA Certified Organic Wine
Grapes that are certified organic under the USDA National Organic Program must be grown, handled and processed in accordance with uniform national standards. When wine is labeled organic by the USDA it means that the entire production cycle – from grape in the field to wine in the bottle – has been done in a way that promotes ecological balance, conserves biodiversity, and uses unadulterated ingredients.
Growers producing USDA certified organic grapes must pass a certification inspection every year. No synthetic pesticides or chemical herbicides are used to produce wine certified organic. No sulfites are added. Native yeasts can be used but are not mandatory. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) may not be used.
Wine Made with Organic Grapes
In this officially-designated category, you will see the term “Made With Organic Grapes” on a wine label. This means that the grapes used are grown organically, and production of the wine must be in accordance with standards set by the National Organic Program (NOP). No chemical pesticides or chemical herbicides are allowed, but less than 100 parts per million (ppm) sulfites may be used. Processing additives approved by the NOP may also be used. Among the most common are acadia gum, oak chips, pectolytic enzymes and tannins. Native yeasts can be used but are not mandatory. GMO yeast is not used, but GMOs may have been present in the growing medium used to cultivate the yeast. Some winemakers choose to have their grapes certified by a state agency such as CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers), but do not become certified as USDA organic producers – these producers are do not have “Made With Organic Grapes” on their labels.
Biodynamic Growing and Production Methods
A vineyard certified Biodynamic meets and usually exceeds the standards for certified organic farming. Biodynamic farming, which came to prominence in the 1920s, was defined by Dr. Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian professor and philosopher. It involves a deep connection to and respect for the land. Biodynamic farming techniques do not allow synthetic pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, growth stimulants or GMOs. Sulfites may be present only in amounts less than 100 ppm. Limited chemical additives are permitted. Only native yeasts are used. Crop rotation is practiced and biodiversity is respected. Demeter USA is a certification agency that reviews the practices of Biodynamic vineyards. Bonny Doon Vineyard follows Biodynamic practices, as does DeLoach and Frey Vineyards.
Sustainably-produced wine is made with the intention of having as little negative impact on the land as possible. Sustainable-method wineries will often use solar power, have water reclamation systems and recycling programs. These wineries are not regulated in the same way as organically-certified wineries are, so they are not required to disclose their methods, so it is difficult to measure their accountability. Some may use chemical pesticides and herbicides. The use of sulfites not regulated, but must be kept is kept under the legal limit of 300 ppm. The California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, a partnership between California vintners and winegrape growers, promotes sustainable grape growing and wine production practices.
Conventionally-produced wine allows a lengthy list of chemical additives. There are no labeling requirements, except for the requirement to list sulfites. Pesticides and herbicides are used in the grape growing process and remain in the wine after it is bottled. See our pesticide fact sheet for more information. Conventionally grown grapes may be treated with chemicals to deal with pests, like any other agricultural product.
A variety of chemical agents are added to the wine to slow down or speed up fermentation, adjust the sugar content, color, and mouth feel. Sulfites are added to stabilize the wine, in amounts up to 300 ppm.
Organic Wine Definitions
|Definition||Vineyard||Processing Facility/Winery||Processing Aids||Yeast||Sulfites||Label|
|USDA Organic-Wines||3rd Party Certified Organic-no synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers||Facility is Certified by 3rd party to meet Organic Standards||NOP Approved||Native/USDA Organic-Non GMO||None-naturally occuring under 10ppm||USDA Seal/CCOF|
|Made with Organic Grapes-Wines||3rd Party Certified Organic-no synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers||Facility is Certified by 3rd party to meet Organic Standards||NOP Approved||Native/USDA Organic/Commercial||Up to 100ppm||Made with Organic Grapes/CCOF|
|Biodynamic Wines||3rd Party Certified Organic-no synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers||Facility is Certified by 3rd party to meet Biodynamic Standards||NOP Approved||Native||Up to 100ppm||Demeter|
|Biodynamic Vineyards||3rd Party Certified Organic-no synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers||Conventional Winery||All processing aids in conventional wines-over 100 plus chemical additives allowed***||Native/Commerical||Up to 300ppm||Made with Demeter|
|Organic Vineyards||3rd Party Certified Organic-no synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers||Conventional Winery||All processing aids in conventional wines-over 100 plus chemical additives allowed***||Native/Commerical||Up to 300ppm||CCOF|
|Natural Wines*||No certification-can be grown organically but no 3rd Party Certification||Conventional Winery||All processing aids in conventional wines-over 100 plus chemical additives allowed***||Native-no certification||Up to 300ppm||None|
|Sustainable**||No certification-can be grown organically but no 3rd Party Certification||Conventional Winery||All processing aids in conventional wines-over 100 plus chemical additives allowed***||Native/Commerical||Up to 300ppm||None|
|Conventional||No certification-typically uses synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, Herbicides||Conventional Winery||All processing aids in conventional wines-over 100 plus chemical additives allowed***||Native/Commerical||Up to 300ppm||None|
Organic Agriculture: The United States sets Federal Standards for labeling food products with the Organic in name. All agricultural products must meet strict standards that are verified by a third party. Wine is also governed by these laws and in order to be called Organic Wine or Made with Organic Wine the wine also must be made in a certified Organic Facility and follow the set guidelines for making the wine. The NOP or National Organics Program governs these processes and approve all addtitives to the wine.
Biodynamic Agricuture and Wine Making: Biodynamic is a registered named managed by Demeter Organization which verfies all Biodynamic farms, vineyards and wineries. Be sure your Biodynamic wine has Demeter seal.
*Natural Wines: Makers of natural wines strive to create them with “nothing added and nothing taken away.” They work to make wine with as little human intervention as possible, letting nature take its course. Natural wines are unregulated and do not require any certification to be labeled “natural.”
**Sustainable Wines: Sustainable-method wineries will often use solar power, have water reclamation systems and recycling programs so that they will have as little negative impact on the land as possible. Sustainability is a practice but is not regulated or certified as organic practices and ingredients can be.
***Processing Aids: All wines are processed in some form or another. Even natural wines that claim to do nothing may use some sulfites or enzymes. The key is wine is not labeled and you do not know the ingredients. Conventional wines can contain 100-plus chemicals to enhance and manipulate the wine while made with organic grapes and organically-certified wine can only use approved organic additives approved by the NOPand their third party certifier, which in California is CCOF and in New York is NOFA-NY.
NOP: USDA’s National Organic Program regulates the standards for any farm, wild crop harvesting, or handling operation that wants to sell an agricultural product as organically produced.
GMO: GMOs are plants or animals that have been genetically engineered with DNA from bacteria, viruses or other plants and animals. They are experimental combinations of genes that cannot occur in nature or in traditional crossbreeding. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not allowed in organic or biodynamic wine production. But in conventional winemaking GMOs can play a role. A GMO strain of yeast used in winemaking has government approval and is on the market. GMO wine grapes have been made in labs but are not yet on the market.