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Making Green Wine (July 24, 2008)

"Contains Sulfites." Since 1988 that sinister-sounding phrase has darkened the labels of all wines sold in the United States – and if certain pressure groups had their way, it would appear on all Canadian wine labels as well.

Sulphur products have historically been used in winemaking – in the vineyard and in the cellar. Sulphur in various forms is sprayed on the vines to kill off insects and is added to wine as an anti-oxidant to keep the wine fresh and hold its colour. "Contains Sulfites" on a wine label (usually the back label) is meant as a warning because some consumers, especially asthmatics, are allergic to sulphur products and can react by getting headaches, rashes or stomach pains.

But any organic substance that ferments – cheese, sauerkraut, pickles, for example – will contain sulfites because the fermentation process creates them naturally. Most wines, particularly whites, which are more prone to spoilage than reds, will contain up to 150 parts per million of sulfites. So all wines, whether organic (made without recourse to sulphur products in the vineyard and in the cellar) or not, ought to be labeled, if truth be told, "Guaranteed to Contain Sulfites."

The United States Department of Agriculture has defined organic wine as "a wine made from organically grown grapes and without any added sulfites." But this refers only to the grapes before they are processed into wine, and these bottlings are allowed to contain up to 100 ppm of added sulfites. As more consumers develop concerns about the environment, the wine industry has to a large extent been proactive in changing the way it uses chemical fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides in the vineyard. I recall visiting E. & J. Gallo's Laguna Ranch vineyard in Sonoma some years ago and noticing bars of Ivory soap hanging from the trellising wires at intervals along the rows. When I asked why they were there I was told that they helped deter the deer from devouring the ripe fruit. The scent of this popular brand of soap apparently reminded the deer of hunters and one whiff would frighten them off.

This is one example of using an environmentally-friendly means of protecting their crop. There are others. Historically, farmers would spray their vineyards with Bordeaux mixture, a preparation of copper sulfate and hydrated lime, to kill off the spores of such vine diseases as powdery and downy mildew, black rot and botrytis. Today, most vineyardists would rather not use chemical spays but try to employ less aggressive strategies, such as spraying with liquid soap, seaweed, baking soda, hydrogen peroxide or canola oil, and introducing natural predators against the multiplicity of insects that feed on grape leaves. To give you an idea of some of the horrors the innocent grape vine is prey to, here's a short list: mildew, black measles, crown gall, little-leaf, nematodes, red spiders, Asian lady bugs, rabbits, deer, raccoons, gophers, grape-berry moth, grapevine beetle, and sundry other stuff, to say nothing of the dreaded phylloxera louse.

Then there is the use of sulphur product in all aspects of winemaking as an anti-oxidant and an anti-bacterial agent. The home winemaker is very familiar with potassium metabisulphite as a disinfecting solution to sterilize all the equipment (2 oz. dissolved in a gallon of hot water). In France they still use burning sulphur to disinfect empty barrels. Most of the vineyards that are farmed organically are in regions where there is lots of heat and low humidity. Think southern France. In damp, cool climates like Burgundy, Bordeaux and Ontario, it's necessary to spray a few times during the season to protect the grapes from mildew and black rot.

But even in our climate there is an increasing movement towards organic growing. Frogpond Farm in Niagara-on-the-Lake is the only certified organic winery in Ontario. There is a biodynamic vineyard called Feast of Fields – 20 acres in Jordan – that grows grapes in accordance with agricultural principles set out by the German philosopher Rudolph Steiner. Instead of chemicals, Steiner advocated the use of organic fertilizers and sprays. Adherents also plant and harvest according to the phases of the moon.

The new buzzwords in the wine world are sustainable agriculture, organic and biodynamic farming. The problem is that there is no legislated definition of these terms and when they are used on labels or back labels they can be more confusing than enlightening.

California has been the leading region in developing and practicing the concepts of organic winegrowing. A one-man vanguard of the movement is winemaker Paul Dolan, who worked at Fetzer Vineyards in Mendocino County for 27 years before leaving in 2003 to start the Mendocino Wine Company. Dolan is a passionate advocate for the environment and his efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of his winemaking enterprise take on an almost messianic aspect. I met him some 15 years ago when I visited Fetzer and was escorted around the organic vegetable and fruit garden on the property. The produce looked wonderful and the same precepts that governed the care and attention to the plants and fruit trees were lavished on the vineyards. If you go to Fetzer's website (, this philosophy is expressed in almost biblical terms:

  • Sustainability is the integration of environmental responsibility, social equity and economic viability in all aspects of vineyard and winery operations.
  • It makes us better stewards of the land, better winemakers, better neighbors and better members of the community.
  • By making our wines in a natural and responsible way we can continue to make them for generations to come.

"All farming is exploitive," says Paul Dolan, who had his "eureka" moment when he noticed that one portion of the Fetzer vineyards produced grapes that were much more flavourful than those of the neighbouring block. The tasty section had been farmed organically without recourse to chemicals. The wine Dolan made from those grapes, he said, had a more complex mineral quality because the vines' roots spread out seeking for nourishment rather than having to rely on a narrow radius around the bottom of the trunk where the drip feed deposited fertilized water. Today Fetzer farms 2,000 acres of vineyards, which makes it one of the largest growers of organic grapes, if not the largest, in the world.

In the same spirit of saving the planet, Fetzer has installed huge solar panels on the roof of its bottling facility in Hopland, generating over 1 million kilowatt hours of clean electricity annually and supplying 80 per cent of the electrical output required to run the company's bottling lines and lighting.

While other wine producers may not be as committed as Fetzer, there is a conscious move to sustainable agriculture. It is much easier to work vineyards without chemical products in warm, dry climates such as California, Australia, Chile and the south of France.

My experience with organic wines is that they can taste wonderful within a year or two of their bottling, but without the cosmetic protection of sulphur dioxide they begin to show their age very quickly and their colour loses its brilliance. So if your choice is organic, be sure to drink the wine soon rather than laying it down.




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