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Organic Wines (March 31, 2005)

If you leaf through the LCBO's Vintages catalogue, you may come across a wine with a green symbol printed underneath the product code number. The image looks like an oak leaf or maybe a fern. Do not be alarmed. The wine in question was probably made from grapes. This symbol denotes that it's an organic wine and the description will tell you that it contains so many parts per million (ppm) of free sulphur.

This may sound like an oxymoron. How can an organic wine that purports to be made without recourse to chemicals contain free sulphur? Well, the act of fermentation that transforms grape sugars into alcohol actually causes sulphites in wine – as it does in anything else that ferments, be it cheese, sauerkraut or olives. In wines the action of the yeast may create up to as much as 15 ppm of sulphites, which will, over time, be absorbed into the wine as sulphuric acid.

Did he say sulphuric acid! Again, no cause for alarm. It's in such a small amount that it's virtually negligible. And besides, the acids in your stomach that help you break down and digest the food you eat could double as battery acid.

In Canada there are no standards as yet for organic wines (these are still in committee, as it were). In Ontario, George Soleas, vice president of the LCBO's quality assurance, tells me that the board accepts the organic certificate of the country of origin. Under US regulations, a wine can contain up to 350 ppm of sulphites. (At this high level you can smell the sulphur as a burnt match head aroma.) That's why you see on American wine labels the ominous warning: "Contains Sulphites." Actually, these labels should read "Guaranteed To Contain Sulphites" because of the fermentation. For a wine to be certified as organic in the US, the upper limit of sulphites is 90 ppm for red wines and 100 ppm for whites and sparkling wines. Most organic wines that find their way onto LCBO shelves, however, are 30 ppm or below.

There are two aspects to organic wines. First there is the vineyard; the grapes have to be organically grown – that is, without the use of chemical herbicides (to kill weeds), pesticides (to obliterate all manner of creepy-crawling flying things that love to feed on grapes vines) or industrial fertilizers (to "enrich" the soil). Vineyards provide an al fresco smorgasbord for a litany of animals, birds, insects, fungal diseases and rots. To give you an idea of some of the horrors the innocent grape vine is prey to, there is 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. To combat these plagues, grape growers spray their vines with a sulphate spray. Organic growers, eschewing the use of chemicals, have to use other strategies. In Australia, one winery uses a seaweed spray, another Canola oil; and E. & J. Gallo at their Laguna Ranch in Sonoma used to hang bars of a popular brand of soap from the trellis wires in the vineyard. The deer, scenting the soap, were fooled into thinking there were hunters in the area and gave the grapes a wide berth.

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 their equipment (2 oz. dissolved in a gallon of hot water). In France they still use burning sulphur to disinfect empty barrels. And sulphur is added to wine as an anti-oxidant to keep the wine fresh and stop its colour from turning brown. Think of an apple that is cut in two: when the flesh is exposed to air, it begins to turn brown. The same thing happens to grape juice and finished wine that is exposed to air. The addition of sulphur to wine can also stop unwanted fermentations (if a winemaker does not want to put his wine through a malolactic fermentation that converts sharp malic acid into softer lactic acid).

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. Laura Sabourin has been certified as organic and biodynamic since 1996. She sells 95 per cent of her grapes to a winery in the United States. The other 5 per cent she sells to home winemakers.

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.




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