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Organic Wines - The Truth is on the Label

There is a regular parade of health conscious consumers coming into the wine store where I work part time asking for “organic wines”.  The reasons that people are looking for organic wines vary, but the most common are a desire to dodge added chemicals, avoid sulfite induced headaches (more on that in a later article), or just a general commitment to be earth friendly.  Before any of these reasons can be realized, consumers need to be armed with a few facts.  I tell my customers regularly, the word “organic” appearing on a wine label can mean many different things depending on exactly what is stated, where the term appears on the label, and even the presence of overzealous marketing.

Let's begin with a review of the regulations (at least in the United States) governing use of the term organic as it applies to the production and handling of fruits and vegetables.  The US Department of Agriculture operates the National Organic Program (NOP), which is responsible for establishing regulations governing the National List (7 CFR 205.600) of allowed and prohibited substances used in organic farming, as well as the guidelines for the labeling of organic wines.  Compliance with these regulations is determined by what in business would be termed an audit, by one of over 100 certifying agencies in the US or abroad.

Clear so far?  Well here's where it gets complicated.  The labeling guidelines issued by the USDA allow for multiple meanings and uses of the word organic on a wine label.  Here is where an educated consumer has to be on the lookout for subtle differences to know what they are really buying.

The USDA specifies four levels of organic wine designations:

USDA Certified Organic Seal
USDA Certified Organic Seal

100% Organic – This is the highest standard for organic wine in the United States.  The regulations provides that wine labeled as 100% Organic, “. . . must contain (by weight or fluid volume, excluding water and salt) 100 percent organically produced ingredients.”  Wine labeled as 100% Organic cannot contain any added sulfites.  The key here is the term added.  All wines, even those that have not had sulfites added, contain small amounts of sulfites as a byproduct of fermentation.  Further confirmation of low sulfite is assured by the absence of a sulfite statement which, as of January 9, 1987, is required on all wines that contain more than 10 parts per million of sulfur dioxide.

Organic – Wines labeled as Organic, “. . . must contain (by weight or fluid volume, excluding water and salt) not less than 95 percent organically produced raw or processed agricultural products”. The prohibition on added sulfites also holds for Organic wines.  The only required information on the label for both 100% Organic and Organic wines is the certification statement that will read, “Certified Organic by”, with the name and address of the bottler or importer.  Wine makers can use the term Organic as a part of their brand name or place it on elsewhere on their label.  They may choose to place a USDA logo (see image) or the logo of the certifying agent however neither is required.

Made with Organic [Ingredients]" – Wines labeled in this manner, “. . . must contain (by weight or fluid volume, excluding water and salt) at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients”.  At this level sulfites can once again be introduced however, if present in quantities greater than 10 ppm, the label must contain the sulfite statement.  Wording such as “Made with Organic Grapes” or “Made with Organic Ingredients” are allowed and the certification statement is also required.  What is not allowed is the use of the USDA Organic seal.

Wines that are produced using less than 70% organic ingredients and products that are not processed by a certified organic handling operation may still use the term organic on their label.  The use of the term however, is restricted to a “non-conspicuous ingredients statement”.  For example the back label of the wine might state under ingredients, “Organic Cabernet Sauvignon Grapes”.  Once again, the extent of the use of organic production and handling methods is indicated by the absence of the USDA Seal, certifying agent seal, certification statement, and the term organic anywhere on the label except under ingredients.

The bottom line is that by law, all organic claims must be stated on the label but as you can see in order to understand the labeling of organic wine, it is as important to look for what is contained on the label as well as what is not!  Also, watch for clever marketing introduced by your local wine shop.  The organic section may not be as rigorous in their selection process as what is indicated on the label.

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