The ruby liquid fills the mouth, sliding over the teeth and tongue leaving a taste sensation at the back of the palate. Warm, spicy and liquorice-sweet, or cool, smooth and wholesomely fruity. Ahhhh, wine…the universal pleasure, the great communicator, the drink for any occasion.
But this one is different. It’s organic. Organically grown, to be exact. So let’s cut right to the important bit. What’s the taste difference?
Well, not much. In fact, not much at all. To the majority of people trying organic wine for the first time, this fact is a huge relief. After all, they may want less chemicals in their chardonnay, and less pesticides in their pinot noir, but wine drinkers are a picky bunch. They don’t give up their standards of quality, no matter how committed they are to a healthy lifestyle.
The organic wine industry in Australia has struggled for years with the popular perception that their products are ‘cheap and nasty’ or ‘hard to find’, but at last the glass is becoming ‘half-full’. Due partly to a growing awareness of toxins and chemicals in food, and partly to a greater number of mainstream retailers choosing to stock them, organic wines in Australia are ripe to be plucked from the vines of obscurity.
As many as 240 chemical compounds from spray residues can be found in wine, yet most wine labels do not tell you this. The average person has no way of knowing what, or how much, chemical residue may be left in their wine. For a growing number of people, this is not good enough.
Allergic or sensitive individuals can have quite serious reactions to the sulphite-based preservatives used in wine. Some also believe that it is the toxins and sulphites, rather than the alcohol content, that causes those notorious red wine headaches and hangovers, or the white wine rash.
Many of the pesticides used in vineyards today were approved long before extensive research linked these chemicals to cancer, birth defects, nerve damage and genetic mutations. As with any other conventionally grown crop, traces of these chemical residues are often found in the end product.
When a wine is labelled organically grown, it means the grapes come from a vineyard that uses organic practices. The vineyard is inspected and certified each year by at least one the industry’s governing body, Australian Certified Organic (ACO) or the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture, Australia (NASAA) to ensure compliance with organic grape-growing requirements.
The main benefits of these methods are:
- No spray residues in the wine. (The use of systemic fungicides and synthetic insecticides is prohibited).
- Less sulphur dioxide preservatives (125ppm compared to 400ppm, the legal maximum for Australian wines).
- Long-term sustainable viticulture using natural renewable resources.
Without the crutch of commercial sprays and fertilisers, vines develop a natural, robust resistance to disease and produce bigger, juicier, more flavoursome grapes.
Certified organic grapes are grown using the following techniques:
The use of under-vine weed sprays (including glyphosates) is prohibited in organic viticulture. Instead, weeds are controlled by cultivation, mulching, manual removal and mowing or slashing.
Prevention is the cure. Approved preparations made from natural ingredients such as milk, egg white, tartaric acid etc are used in spray programs to prevent mildew problems occurring, rather than allowing it to become a problem.. Also, organic viticulturists pay more attention to air currents and circulation when they are laying out a planting!
Only organically approved insecticides are allowed, but these are rarely used.
Soluble artificial fertilisers are prohibited in organic viticulture. Many other forms of fertilising the vineyard are available, such as animal manure and cover crops.
The Benefits of Growing Grapes Organically
No Spray Residues in the Wine
The use of systemic fungicides and synthetic insecticides is prohibited in organic viticulture, so there are no residues from these sprays in wines made from organically grown grapes.
Much of a wine’s flavour is directly related to the soil in which the vines grow. Organic vineyards use broadly spread organic fertilisers to boost the nutrients available to the vines, and the vine roots spread further and deeper to seek the fertiliser and other soil-based nutrients, giving them ample opportunity to pick up the distinctive flavours from the particular soil type. Increased biological activity in the soil is promoted and encouraged, leading to a greater conversion of the soil nutrients into forms which the vines can utilise.
Preservatives are used in wines made from organically grown grapes, but in significantly lower quantities. The legal maximum for sulphur dioxide in conventional wines is 400ppm, but only 125ppm in organic wine.
Organic grape growing is all about long-term sustainability. Wherever possible, only naturally occurring products are used and the emphasis is on using renewable resources.
There is currently no sticker or seal to indicate a wine is organic, so it can take some careful inspection of a label to decipher its status. If you find you have an adverse reaction to wine (other than a hangover from over-indulging), you may well be intolerant to the added sulphites. So when checking wine labels, look out for preservative 220, the numerical identification of sulphites. Organic wines have at least 75% less sulphites than non-organic wine.
Organic vs Preservative-Free
Organic growers are quick to point out that ‘organic’ and ‘preservative-free’ wines are not the same. According to Sam Statham of Rosnay Organic Farms in Canowindra NSW, this is what causes much of the confusion about quality. ‘There is a widely held view that organic wine is inferior, even a bit feral,’ he says, ‘but because some sulphur is allowed, the shelf life is actually quite good. Many organic wines can cellar for 10 years or more.”
Organic wines are made from certified organic grapes and use a small amount of preservatives to enhance cellar life. Preservative-free wines are usually made from grapes grown conventionally, but simply don’t use preservatives in the winemaking process. Preservative-free wines usually need to be drunk within a short period of bottling. Preservative-free does not mean chemical-free!
Australian organic winegrowers are at the forefront of innovative farming methods, and their wines are held in high esteem overseas.
Glenara in the Adelaide Hills was among the first to produce organic wines using animal fertilisers and applications of canola oil to prevent mildew. Their range of wines is still amongst the most respected in the industry.
Sam Statham from Rosnay sprays his vineyard with a mixture of fish emulsion, seaweed, canola and tea tree oil.
Robinvale Wines on the Murray River in Victoria is a family business which employs biodynamic methods, using special preparations made from plants, animal manure and natural rock materials to enrich and nurture the soil. Their internationally recognised wines have won many industry medals.
Many other Australian labels, such as the award winning Temple Bruer, Mount Adam, Settler’s Ridge, Billabong and Cassegrains are also producing excellent quality wines using natural organic methods.
This quality is not restricted to grapes. For those feeling adventurous, Petchey’s Bay vineyard in Tasmania make port and table wine from certified organic blueberries, while New Zealand’s Purangi Estate make a sublime wine from certified organic kiwi fruit!
The Next Step
According to some industry experts, all wineries—and organic wineries in particular—need to address the packaging issue. According to Sam Statham, this means recycled paper labels, non-toxic glues and inks, and using natural cork rather than cheaper but non-degradable plastic corks. Bottle return and box re-use (such as Liquorland’s re-useable 6-pack box) is the next step.
Where to Find Organic Wines
You’re keen to swap your regular tipple for something closer to nature, but where do you look? The best place to start is your local large, retail bottleshop. If they don’t have any, ask why not. The only way to get a larger distribution is if there is obvious demand.
National chain Dan Murphy’s have led the way by stocking organic wines in many of their outlets. Some stores, like the one in Carnegie in Melbourne, have held organic wine tastings and made it a marketing attraction. Safeway and Woolworths have plans to open organic sections in their liquor outlets and many other big stores are feeling the pressure.
‘It’s the way of the future,’ says Statham. ‘In America and Europe, organic wines are huge.’
For online sales, the virtual bottleshop at http://www.organicwine.com.au/ has a fantastic selection of organically grown product, and most individual vineyards now also have their own web sites.
As many as 240 chemical compounds from spray residues can be found in wine, yet most wine labels do not tell you this. The average person has no way of knowing what, or how much, chemical residue may be left in their wine.