With Earth Day and environmentalists clamoring to save the earth, many folks are looking to go “organic” turning towards healthier foods and more sustainable choices, including their wine selections.
With grapes topping the list of the most chemically “sprayed” produce on the market—sprayed with insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides, it’s no wonder that consumers are seeking an organic alternative to conventional wines.
But what makes a wine “organic”?
Organic means grape farmers cannot use synthetic herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers, and must show that their farming practices increase the nutrition content of the soil and prevent erosion. USDA certification is required before a product can be labeled “organic”.
The differences between organic wine and wine made with organic grapes have caused doubts over the quality of organic wine, in general. Consumers often think that organic means the wines contain no sulfer at all. But sulfer is a chemical compound that occurs naturally at low levels during the process of wine fermentation. There is also some consumers confusion about wines with added sulfur and wines without added sulfur, when both are made with organic grapes.
True organic wine exists, but it must be made with organic yeast and no added sulfur—these wines mature after two years, then begin to degrade in taste and flavors. They are not known for their longevity.
Janet Guinco of 4JGs Orchards & Vineyards in Colts Neck believes in European vineyard traditions and grows her grapes as organically as she possibley can, using sustainable farming practices. She says she would like to be able to go completely organic, but she does use a small amount of sulfur as a preservative, during the fermentation stage of winemaking to protect and preserve the wine’s character, flavor and color. She further explained that because Sulfur dioxide (SO2), or sulfite is both antimicrobial and antioxidant in nature, she likes to have the option to use it if it should become necessary if the grapes develop a fungal disease.
She further explained that although Sulfur has been one of the top allies available to vintners used for hundreds of years, it is a substance not allowed under the organic label claim.
The Guinco’s vineyards also utilize Sulfur dioxide in small amounts as part of the housekeeping regime – harsh chemicals such as bleach isn’t a good cleaning alternative for fermentation tanks, equipment, hoses, and valves that process the wine.
Today, more vintners are like Four JGs Winery and taking the common-sense approach to both organic and biodynamic growing methods, results in not only “healthier” vines, but in wines with greater flavor, more distinct terroir character.
Organic vs. Biodynamic
While most people want to focus on the glamour or romantic side of wine, there are a decent handful that are just as interested in the chemistry of wine and sulfites in particular.
In the US, there are many organic and biodynamic wines available. Biodynamic farming techniques utilize the vineyard’s natural resources to cultivate the highest quality grapes possible without use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides herbicides or growth stimulants. Certified biodynamic vineyards often meet and exceed standards and regulations for organic certified farming. However, certification is expensive and takes time.
In New Jersey, only one winery, Villa Milagro Vineyards (House of Miracles) in Finesville has earned organic certification status. Owners Steve and Audry Gambino uses organic and sustainable practices to provide a protective habitat for native species of birds, plants and wildlife, as well as to grow grapes without use of pesticides or herbicides.
Many winemakers throughout New Jersey and the U.S. observe organic/biodynamic procedures, but can only put “Contains no added sulfites” or “Made from Organic Grapes” on the label. With the USDA’s creation of a National Organic Program, an organic wine is defined as “a wine made from organically grown grapes and without any added sulfites”. By this restriction, the vast majority of what had been organic wine must be referred to as “wines made from organic grapes” (or organically grown grapes).
Totally sulfite-free wines are accidents of nature; but wines low in sulfites or free of added sulfites do exist.
Sulfur dioxide (SO2) is a chemical compound that occurs naturally at low levels as a by-product of the fermentation process. Fermenting yeasts are present on all grape skins and these yeasts generate naturally occurring sulfites in amounts ranging from 6 to 40 parts per million (ppm).
USDA Organic winemaking standards allow organic wines to contain up to 100 ppm of added sulfites, yet most organic wines contain less than 40ppm of sulfites. In fact, the naturally occuring levels of sulfur dioxide without the use of chemical additives falls somewhere around 10-20 ppm. While some winemakers attempt to eliminate the use of sulfur dioxide, the truth is wines without sulfites are few in number and very unstable in quality.
Current FDA regulations in the United States require that all wines, both domestic and imports, that contain 10+ ppm of sulfur dioxide state “Contains Sulfites” on the label. The legal maximum sulfite level for U.S. wines is 350 ppm, with most wines averaging around 125 ppm nly 25ppm above the limit created for organic wines!
This label designation was intended to protect people that may be allergic to sulfites. The FDA says only .4% of the population (about a million people) is considered highly allergic to sulfites, and according to extensive research on SO2, sulfites pose no danger to about 99.75% of the population.
The most susceptible category are asthmatics (about 5% of the population) and only about 5% (about 50,000) of this group is allergic to sulfites. Allergic reactions include: nasal congestion, broncho-constriction, anaphalxis and dizziness. There are some people who are considered sulfite-sensitive. For these wine drinkers, the sulfites level found in wine cause: mild heartburn, burning sensations, hives, cramps, and flushing of the skin.
Despite the fact that more than 95% of wine is comprised of organic components, the wine industry has the dubious honor of being the sole industry that cannot call its product “organic”. Even with the higher permissible level of 100ppm SO2 present in the wine, the percentage is still 99.99% organic!
Red Wine wine headaches and possible causes.
Many people erroneously believe that sulfites are behind those headaches they get after drinking red wine. In fact, no study has managed to prove that sulfites are the culprit. There are several other possibilities, including: alcohol, histamines, tannins and protaglandins.
Alcohol creates a dilation effect on the blood vessels —causing the vessels to open, allowing increased blood flow. The alcohol in wine can cause the blood vessels in your nose and sinus area to swell causing a feeling of pressure. Depending on how sensitive you are to this effect, you might experience a headache.
Histamines are naturally produced chemicals, and are in wine. Red wine drinkers who are sensitive to histamines may find them problematic as they are more concentrated in red wines than whites, so switching to white wine may bring relief.
Others claim tannins are at the root of the headaches. Tannins are the flavonoids found primarily in red wine and are also present in chocolate and tea because of their coloring effect. For those who are susceptible to migraines, the tannins in red wine could cause headaches due to the release of serotonin. High levels of serotonin can cause headaches.
Stil others theorize that headache could be caused by the release of prostaglandins, which some people are not able to metabolize or, the headaches are caused by a strain of yeast or bacteria found in red wine.
Many wine drinkers have been misled into thinking sulfites in wine are the cause of headaches and search high and low for “sulfite-free” wines. In truth the “wine headache” which is often attributed to red wine, is not associated with sulfites, added or naturally produced. No one knows why the headaches occur, but sulfites are not the culprit. Several theories abound that it could a combination of several factors or an ingredient — alcohol, histamines, tannins or prostaglandins—in red wine causing the headaches.
Often wine drinkers are led to believe that European wines, especially from Italy contain no sulfites or lower percentages than in American wines. In fact, the U.S. is much more restrictive about sulfites in organic wine than most other wine-making countries. Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Latin America, permits the adding of sulfites are in organic wine. European wines contain sulfites (around 80 mg/L), but not all countries are required to add a “contains sulfite’ warning (in Australia a label is required indicating “Preservative 220”)
Sufites and Labeling
Sulfites are measured in parts per million, or ppm. Following is a brief overview of maximum amounts of sulfites allowed in different classes of wines in the US:
Organic Wine: Under 10 ppm naturally occurring sulfite
Biodynamic Wine: Can have up to 100 ppm added sulfite
“Made with Organic Grapes” wine: Can have up to 150 ppm added sulfite
All wine: Can have up to 350 ppm added sulfite
Wines that contain less than 10 ppm sulfites are not required to put “Contains Sulfites” on their labels; however, this does not mean the wine is “sulfite-free”.
Barbara Keenan who has been making her own wine for the past six years at Grape Beginnings, says “Making wine was a revelation—I never realized sulfites occurred naturally on grapes and in the fermentation process. I thought we could make a sulfite-free wine.”
When it comes to sulfites, many people don’t realize is that sulfite levels in most wines are lower than many common foods. For example, you never hear of anyone saying they got a dried fruit headache, yet a a two-ounce serving of dried apricots will have ten times more sulfites than a glass of wine. Other examples include: fruit juices and concentrates, tomatoes, pineapple, syrups, jams, pizza dough, frozen potatoes, as well as many prescription drugs. Often, wine drinkers who believe they react badly to sulfites in red wine, don’t realize that in their everyday diet they are consuming sulfites at much higher levels. Here’s an interesting fact: the human body produces about 1 gram of sulfites per day (vs. the 10 milligrams of sulfites in the average glass of wine.)
Another misconception is that white wine does not contain sulfites. In truth, many sweet white wines can contain more sulfites than red.
Depending on the style of wine and the color of wine, there are a few things to remember when deciding to go with wines with fewer sulfites:
Sweet white wines contain the highest levels of sulfites—think sweet dessert wines, Sauternes, Tokaji, Spätlese, Trökenbeerenaüslese and the like.
Next highest content of SO2 are Blush wines such as White Zinfandel, and semi-sweet white wines such as Riesling, Gewürtztaminer, Moscato and Asti.
The wines with the lowest levels of added sulfur dioxide are dry wines. Red wines have the lowest SO2 content, and dry white wines contain slightly more.