Here’s what we’ll cover in our 2019 organic wine guide:
- Soils and growing organic wine
- Benefits of organic wine
- What to look for
- Cost of organic wine
- Pesticides in organic wines
- Sulphites and organic wines
- Does organic wine taste better?
- 10 myths about organic wines
- The top ten organic wines
- The top 5 no sulphur added wines
- How to buy organic wine
Grab a glass… let’s pop the cork on this!
Wine is one of the oldest and most loved drinks in the world.
There’s evidence that wine has been drunk as early as 7000 BC, so you can see that wine has really stood the test of time.
The fermented grape juice, originally created to accompany food, has been through some serious changes since its humble beginnings.
Although the science and production (at the core) of wine has remained the same on a basic level, wine production, like many other productions in the world, has had to deal with climate change, human evolution, global shipping, and of course increased demand.
It’s been reported that in the UK alone British wine drinkers drink over 12 million bottles of wine a WEEK! Known as a social drink with meals and popular for after work drinks it is now very often drunk at home. Wine is a part of our society that looks set to continue for many years to come.
But what about this big change in the food and beverage industry to provide products that are more natural and less harmful to the environment? Human beings are, after all, the biggest threat to the planet. It was Jonas Salk that said:
“If all the insects were to disappear from the Earth, within fifty years all life on Earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the Earth, within fifty years all forms of life would flourish.”
Times are changing as we move more into the organic and environmentally-friendly choices in the supermarkets and we all become more discerning, and wine has to move with those times.
Organic wine is now becoming an extremely popular market!
What is organic wine?
Hang on! Isn’t all wine organic? Surely wine, produced from a traditional farming technique and grown from a natural product in the ground, is organic? Well you could also say the same for vegan wine. Isn’t all wine made from fruit and not animal products?
Well no, and when it comes to whether wine is organic or not, it has a lot to do with the way that wine is now produced to cope with a huge demand. One of the main reasons that most wine isn’t organic is the widespread use of chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides.
Why did this happen?
Go back one hundred years ago and you’ll find most wine (if not all) was organic and made without the aid of chemicals. Farming was a lot less intensive back then and way more natural and well… organic!
It was just after the second World War that things changed. The need to grow and produce products faster and more reliably with less waste saw a huge change in the way farming was done across the world and wine was no different.
Thankfully, agriculture started to grow rapidly and with that growth came great change.
Bigger yields of grapes were achieved with larger farms, and that brought more mechanisation and the widespread use of chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides that are now common place in most wines.
But we’re now seeing a change…
Organic wines are increasing in popularity and the rise is across the drinks industry. It’s widely thought that 35% of Europeans drink organic wines and in the UK supermarket Waitrose reported a 57% rise in their organic sales in 2018!
It’s an organic revolution!
So, what makes a wine organic? And what should you look for? In this guide we’ll cover the big topics that we’re often answering to help you understand and fall in love with organic wine too.
Wines get their different tastes, textures, and characteristics from many places but one that’s highly regarded as the most important is the soil that the grape vines are grown in.
The soils are paramount to the nutrients that the vines and therefore grapes will get. Just like your garden at home, the soil is important and just as a healthy hanging basket of pansies relies on the compost, so does the vine.
The difference in organic wines and non-organic wines can be seen very visually in the soils. You’ll never forget the moment you see soils from a non-organic farm compared to an organic one.
The pesticides and chemicals turn the soils into a brown sludge and the environment around it is a stale and eerie place. Move to an organic farm and you’ll see fresh, aerated soil full of bacteria, fungi, insects and all kinds of microorganisms.
Just like us, plants need nutrients in order to survive, and whilst some of those will come from photosynthesis, the bulk of them are only available from the soil.
The key to unlocking those nutrients lies with the microbes that survive only in healthy soils.
Healthy soils can convert nutrients to forms that can be assimilated by the plant roots.
- A well aerated soil aids this process, by providing oxygen to those microbes to do their job most efficiently.
- A healthy vine will have roots that penetrate deep down into the soil and rock to look for those important nutrients (This process is helped by earthworms which make channels, as well as aerating the soil.)
- The whole process is interconnected, with the microbes, worms, soil aeration, nutrient supply, deep roots feeding through for a healthy, disease resistant vine to grow balanced, nutritious grapes, for good wine!
This really does lead to a healthy vine, nutrient-full grapes, and a very healthy looking (and tasting) wine.
The obvious benefits are the lack of chemicals in your wine and the healthier farms and surrounding eco-system. Not all that organic farming benefit ends up in the bottle after all. Choosing organic is often more about the environment and production for many and with organic wine you certainly get that.
There are a lot of benefits of organic wine, here are the top ones:
- No harmful chemicals in vineyard, benefiting all vineyard workers and owners.
- Elimination or reduction of harmful pollutants into the wider environment, including water courses.
- Proven, increased biodiversity of insects, plants and animals on organic farms.
- Preservation and enrichment of our soils for the future.
- Organically grown grapes can yield the highest quality, in terms of balance, ripeness and nutritional content.
- Organic farms can help absorb more carbon.
- More job creation in the countryside as organic farms are more labour intensive.
- And for the wine drinker, confidence that authentic wine can be enjoyed without unnecessary pesticide residues.
Organic wines aren’t necessarily cheaper to buy, as we’ll cover later on, but they are a more rounded choice for the environment, the grapes, the vineyard, the glass, and the consumer.
The wine industry is heavily regulated, and every region and even grape style has its own classification. Organic wine is no different and the new European regulation ensures that the wine you’re buying has been certified and the vineyard has followed the organic wine standard.
New European Regulation (No. 203/2012) was introduced with specific rules for the making of organic wine. This has largely helped the growth in the organic wine market and the term ‘Organic Wine’ came into use more widely. From 1st August 2012 this was a big step forward. Previously wines could only claim to be ‘made from organically grown grapes’.
Requirements are the same for all European countries, and based on four key points:
- 100% of all agricultural ingredients used must be certified as organic: grapes, sugar, alcohol.
- There are restrictions on the use of certain physical procedures and dealcoholisation, electrodialysis, and the filtration process using a media with pores less than 0.2 microns, are all forbidden practices.
- A restricted list of additives and oenological auxiliaries (organic origin favoured for some).
- Restrictions on total SO2 (sulphur dioxide) level in wine sold.
This regulation is on all organic wine and makes your buying decision easier.
Does organic wine cost more? Well… yes, yes it does. One of the main reasons for introducing all those chemicals to the farming industry was to increase growth, speed up production, decrease waste, and allow farmers to create more in a more consistent way.
Removing those from the process, even with the modern advances in farming, does add a little more to the price as the waste due to pests goes up and the farming of the vines becomes more expensive.
There are varying estimates of anything from 5-30% extra on a bottle of organic wine compared to a non-organic one, but with the many variables it’s really hard to pin point the exact cost addition.
Let’s take this example from Albury organic vineyard in the Surrey Hills:
They can’t use herbicide glyphosate to tackle weeds under and between the vines. Instead they use a strimmer-style device to cut back the grass. To cover the whole vineyard in this way takes six days, and either two or often three passes through are necessary! This equates to 12-18 days extra work, compared to just 15 hours of spraying in a non-organic vineyard.
It’s clear to see why post-war when resources were low the farmers went down this route, and also clear to see why organic wine isn’t a cost-saving purchase.
Regular wines, farmed in the now traditional way, will have pesticides sprayed on their leaves and grapes during their growth.
If you’ve ever had a cheap glass of wine and then had a headache the next day but not from an entire bottle of a more expensive wine, then you can start to see that the production affects not just the wine, but your head (and body) the day after!
PAN (Pesticide Action Network) did a small survey back in 2008 on pesticide residues in wine and the findings were really shocking. PAN found that:
- All 34 samples of conventional wine were found to have at least one pesticide residue in them.
- The average was four pesticides per wine
- One bottle contained levels of 10 different pesticides!
More recently a study by research group US PIRG tested five wines and 15 beers for glyphosate (the common herbicide and ingredient in the weed killer Round Up).
US PIRG found that:
- 19 of the 20 samples contained glyphosate, these were common named beers such as Coors Light, Budweiser, Heineken and Draught Guinness.
- Of the five wines tested, two were actually organic, with levels found at around 10% of the other conventional wines.
This pervasive herbicide is everywhere, even in rainwater, meaning that even the organic samples will have very small residue levels but you’re going to have less of them with an organic wine.
Want a better hangover? It could be said that organic wine is easier on your head and it’s been said for a long time in the Champagne world due to the higher levels of quality in the grapes and the production.
How growers convert to organic
Growers who want to convert to organic usually have to go through a three-year process of reconversion. This time is considered necessary for the land to cleanse itself of most of the toxic chemical residues. This has to happen, even if nothing has been used on the land previously. Wine makers may only label for organic practices from the second year of conversion (C2) stipulating ‘Product under conversion to Organic Agriculture (AB)’. As you can understand, for any grower this is a serious undertaking and period of adjustment for the vines and soils. At Vintage Roots we choose to sometimes list wines under C2 as it helps support a grower to make the change and find a route to market.
If you’ve ever read ‘Contains sulphites’ on a bottle of wine and never really thought about it, then you might be interested to know that they could be the cause of your headaches and you could actually be allergic to wine… or at least the additives in it.
Since the early 2000s, new regulations have meant that virtually all wine labels must carry the allergen advice ‘contains sulphites’. This refers to sulphur compounds in different forms but the most common being sulphur dioxide (SO2).
These are used as an antioxidant, preservative, and disinfectant. This is also seen as E number (E220) on many food products, especially dried fruits and ready meals, and tins.
When it comes to wine, sulphites are a really common addition as they clean things up, and help to make sure there is no refermentation in the botte or oxidisation which can cause the wine to go off or turn to vinegar.
Clever and useful, but unfortunately not so much help for the minority of us that are allergic or sensitive to it. It can cause sneezing, headaches, shortness of breath for asthmatics, or dizziness.
An increasing number of wine consumers are also choosing to avoid wines with any added sulphur at all, in order to promote better health.
The good news for those that choose organic wine is that the maximum levels of sulphur addition is set below the levels set for conventional wines as the table below explains.
|content level for SO2 (in mg/l)||Conventional||organic||biodynamic|
|dry reds(suger less 2gl)||150||100||70|
|dry reds(sugar more than 2g/l less than 5g/l||150||120||70|
|Dry whites/rosé(sugar less 2g/l)||200||150||90|
|dry whites/rosé (sugar 2g/l – 5g/l)||200||170||70|
If you’re sensitive to sulphur a sensible idea would be to avoid the sweet or sweeter wines, as these necessarily have higher levels.
We’re obviously inclined to say “Yes” here as we’re solely about organic wine at Vintage Roots, but choosing organic doesn’t always mean getting a better-tasting wine. It is fair to say though that without all those chemicals and with the more manual farming and better soils you’re far more likely to find and taste the differences between the organic wines.
There’s not an ‘organic flavour’ as such but there are far fewer ‘shades of grey’ when it comes to organic wines. The flavours are often more pronounced and many of our customers and consumers around the globe will tell you that organic wine tastes ‘cleaner’ or ‘purer’.
Wine is very subjective, and we couldn’t possibly tell you that organic wine tastes better… we just feel it’s a better choice. That said, many organic wine consumers notice the less ‘groggy’ aftermath of a good bottle of organic compared to the traditional wine. Less pesticides and sulphites are surely a good thing, right?
10 myths about organic wines
As with any industry, fashion, style, product, or service there are some misconceptions about organic wine that we wanted to quash. We hear a lot of mis-quoted or ill-informed notions about organic wines and where they come from, how they taste and what they cost, so here are ten of the top myths we hear about organic wines and why they aren’t true.
Organic wines are just a fad.
The growth in the organic markets on the whole is huge and it’s not about to die down now. Organic wines from the supermarket shelves and certainly from specialist organic distributors like us are on the up and increasing at phenomenal rates… they’re not a fad!
Organic wines guarantee ‘no headaches’.
No, you can’t avoid a hangover by drinking three bottles of organic wine. Shame. But choosing organic will help you avoid too many sulphites that you might be allergic to and with fewer pesticides present it’s fair to say that organic wine is better suited to giving you less grief the next day. It’s just not guaranteed.
Organic wines cost twice as much.
Organic wines aren’t the cheap option, but they’re not over-priced either. When you understand what goes into the production of organic wine you can start to see why they demand a higher ticket. That said, they’re rarely twice the price of the equivalent conventional wine.
Organic wines are always the best quality.
Choosing organic doesn’t mean every bottle will be to your liking or indeed that good full stop. Like all wines, you need to be selective, read the label, try them first, and find a wine that suits you, your occasion, and your food. Organic wines can be disliked too. We’re honest enough to say that.
Organic wines are made from carrots!
Haha. We do love this one. We’re not sure where the rumour came from, but it’s funny and an industry favourite. This myth is 20 years out of date now but there was a time when people thought organic wines were made from something other than grapes. Certainly not, and our wines don’t help you see in the dark, either!
Organic wines (alone) can save the planet.
Organic wines are a choice to add to your environmentally-friendly shopping decisions, they can’t save the planet by themselves. Recycle the bottle, too!
Organic wines are made by folk who wear sandals.
Organic wines can be produced by any vineyard that has put in the time and effort to become organically certified. Some choose to, some don’t. There are some really normal people making organic wine and some less conventional ones too! They don’t all wear sandals (some of them will have long wispy beards though!)
Organic wines will not keep in your wine rack as well as others.
Organic wines will age and keep just as well as any other wines. They are completely stable, and many will improve and age gracefully. Remember many wines are best drunk on the younger side, when they are fresh. The choice is yours, but it is perfectly safe to experiment ageing your fine organic wines.
Organic wines don’t contain sulphites.
Organic wines’ maximum level of sulphur addition (sulphites) are set below the levels set for conventional wines so most will contain some. There are an increasing number of organic wines made with ‘no sulphur added’, these are the lowest of the low and often will contain under 10 parts per million of sulphites.
To help consumers navigate the choice of very low levels of sulphur, at Vintage Roots we have NS symbols against all ‘No Sulphites Added’ wines and LS symbols against all wines with ‘Low Sulphur Added’. We have taken this to be where the level is 50% or less of that allowed under organic standards.
Organic wines are all vegan.
This is a really common mistake people make. Not everyone knows why wine isn’t vegan as it comes from fruit. It’s all down to the fining and filtering process and some wine producers use an animal product to fine or clear their wines, while others don’t. Organic wines are certainly are not always vegan (or vegetarian), so don’t make that mistake with your vegan dinner guests! It’s always safest to buy from a specialist retailer who finds out how the wines are made, and indicates this. If in doubt do ask.
In our opinion, all our wines are our favourites. We can’t pick favourites. We can’t. We have to? Oh, OK then…
These are our top ten quality and value-driven organic wines. They are not necessarily always our personal favourites, but they are the ones that have stood the test of time to be high quality year in, year out.
They’ve also all proven to be best sellers over many years.
Quintessential Marlborough, and a style so many of us love, this wine has powerful aromatics and superb fruit intensity.
Looking for wine with no added sulphur? Many wine consumers will be blissfully unaware that they’re allergic to the sulphites found in wines and it’s often a shock that they’re not just a ‘lightweight’ or a cheap date!
Sometimes it’s down to the way the wine is produced and if you’re aware that sulphur in wine gives you that groggy feeling the day after or worse, then here are our top five no sulphur added wines.
Log on to our website and make a purchase. You can choose from over 400 organic wines. Simple. Or ask us for details of your most local store.
No… seriously. Organic wine (just like all types of wine) is a complex subject and to get the best bottle and enjoy a great glass you really need to know your onions… or grapes, should we say!
This is still a new and emerging industry and there are a lot of old wives’ tales out there and lots of greenwashing out there.
Thankfully, with new classifications and the way the wine world works, the good and the bad will quickly fall into their appropriate place in the world and on the shelf. If you’re serious about organic wine (as we are) then here are your seven commandments for buying organic:
- Thou shalt search
Look for the certification symbols on back or front labels. These will only be present if the wine (and wine grower) has ticked all the boxes and proved themselves to be truly organic.
- Thou shalt #BuyLocal
Look in your local, quality independent delicatessen, food shop or organic store. These are the perfect places to find organic wines and you’ll help your local economy too. If you’re ordering from Vintage Roots, you can rest assured that we carbon offset all the wines we import, and we use 100% renewable energy at our HQ and warehouse.
- Thou shalt seek authority
Ask the store manager. Don’t accept stories, ask for proof. There is a lot of greenwashing out there and a lot of people in stores and shops who mean well, but are only interested in passing you off with their most expensive product.
- Thou shalt avoid generalists
Buy from a specialist supplier who deals or specialises in only certified organic and biodynamic wines! There’s a reason we specialised and when you look at the vast information on organic wine you can see how niche and specialist it is.
- Thou shalt not be a stranger
Visit, taste and buy some organic wines direct from a UK vineyard or further afield. Just like with any wine, it really comes to life when you feel, smell, and see where it comes from. Look at those soils too. You’ll be amazed.
- Thou shalt be brave
Do not be afraid to ask for advice. A specialist will quickly be able to recommend the right wines for you and of course, if they’re anything like us, they’ll really know what they’re talking about!
- Thou shalt enjoy the journey (and the destination)
Enjoy the journey of new and exciting flavours that await you. Organic wines are fast-emerging as the first choice for many wine lovers and they’re really going back to the basics of wine production. We, for one, think that’s an exciting reason to try them.
Organic wines – a fresh and clean approach to wine and the environment
Organic wines are not necessarily cheaper, or going to save the planet on their own. But they are better for the environment, less likely to be full of sulphites, and less likely to give you a headache.
For many, the choice of organic is part of their choice to make a change and stop harming the world with their choices. Organic wine is part of that choice. Greener, cleaner, purer, and we think a much better glass on the whole.
Enjoy the journey and do let us know what you find.