‘Organic’ wine: is it worth the label it’s printed on?

Most of us automatically think that organic wine is more natural, and in some ways it is

More organic wines are being produced than ever, but who decides what is organic and how strict are the rules? European wines are governed by legislation introduced in 2012. It includes, for the first time, practices in both vineyard and cellar. This sounds great, but many argue that the bar has been set far too low.

Maximum levels of sulphur were lowered compared with “normal” wine, but it is still permitted. Copper spray is just about the only weapon an organic grower can use against disease. Until recently they could spray up to 30kg per hectare over six years. This has now been lowered to 4kg per hectare every year.

Most of us automatically think that organic wine is more natural, and in some ways it is. But it is worth taking a quick look at the regulations (see ecocert.com). Organic producers can still add yeasts, diammonium phosphate, tannins and oak chips, as well as being allowed to acidify, de-acidify, and add (organic) sugar. If you clarify with egg whites, isinglass or gelatin, these should be organic – when available. Does this really tally with our view of what organic wine should be?

As one rather frustrated Irish importer said to me, “everyone wants a quick and handy label, and that’s what they tried to achieve. I understand that the ‘greater good’ is to try and bring big companies around to the idea of organics as they are the biggest users of chemicals. But does anybody really think that a cheap organic supermarket chicken is as good as the neighbour down the road who has them running around the field but yet has no certification?”

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Many small producers will tell you that they are organic but not certified, because it is too expensive, the paperwork too laborious, or the rules too lax. The only guarantee is their name on the bottle. Generally I believe them, if they seem genuine and show a respect for their land. One importer told me “I’d rather have my house wines certified organic, as I know they must be using less chemicals, but for the others it is all down to trusting my producers”. Biodynamic viticulture is more of a philosophy or way of living, and many of its practitioners resist any regulation. Perhaps the answer is to shop with people you trust?

Marcos Fernandez, winemaker for Argentine producer Doña Paula, told me "We are now fully certified sustainable, which to me is more than organic." He believes that certified sustainable programmes are more comprehensive, covering the entire process from start to finish.

Growers are certainly using far less herbicides and fungicides than ever before. Even if the criteria for organic certification is weak, at least producers have to start the process. Yet if we keep demanding cheap wine, it seems inevitable that producers will have to resort to higher levels of (perfectly legal) manipulation.

Jarrarte 2017 Rioja Joven, Abel Mendoza

14%, €17

Organic but not certified. A full-on full-bodied wine bursting with rounded sweet dark plum fruits and a tannin-free finish. With a rack of lamb.

Stockists: Cabot and Co, Westport, cabotandco.com; Grapevine, Dalkey, onthegrapevine.ie; PoppySeed, Clarinbridge, poppyseed.ie.

Doña Paula Estate Black Edition 2016, Luján de Cuyo, Argentina

13.6%, €16.99

Certified Sustainable. Medium-bodied with nicely balanced dark fruits and spice with well-judged tannins on the finish. With a gourmet burger.

Stockists: Tesco, tesco.ie; Dunnes Stores, dunnesstores.com; SuperValu, supervalu.ie.

Di Gino 2016, Rosso Piceno San Lorenzo

13%, €19.50-€21

Uncertified biodynamic/organic. A charming, elegant, fragrant wine, with delicious juicy dark cherry fruits and very mild tannins. Lighter pasta dishes – cacio e pepe?

Stockists: Sheridan's Cheesemongers, sheridanscheesemongers.com; Morton's, Ranelagh, mortons.ie; Green Man Wines, Terenure, greenmanwines.ie; siyps.com.

Reto 2016, Manchuela, Bodegas Ponce

13.5%, €21.50

Uncertified biodynamic/organic. Delightful floral aromas leading on to a rich but refreshing palate with clean mineral lines and subtle peach fruits. By itself or with fish; a mussel risotto?

Stockists: La Touche, Greystones, latouchewines4u.ie; Ely 64, Glasthule, ely64.com; Baggot Street Wines, Baggot Street, baggotstreetwines.com; Blackrock Cellar, Blackrock, blackrockcellar.com; Clontarf Wines, clontarfwines.ie; Green Man Wines, Terenure, greenmanwines.ie; Martin's Off Licence, Fairview, martinsofflicence.ie; Redmonds, Ranelagh; redmonds.ie; siyps.ie; The Corkscrew, Chatham Street, thecorkscrew.ie; the Wicklow Wine Co, wicklowwineco.ie.