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Green grapes

(article, Anu Karwa)

p(blue). Editor's note: Anu Karwa wrote the Culinate wine column, titled Swirl, from July 2009 through December 2010.

Do wine-grape growers use a lot of pesticides? I eat organic food much of the time; should I be drinking organic wines, too?

We think of wine as something that comes straight from the soil and vines, a somewhat more natural beverage than, say, soda. But it’s surprising to learn how tampered with wine can be.

Sadly, wine grapes are one of the most heavily sprayed crops, as the grapes' thin skins are susceptible to pests. This makes me very grateful to the “green” wine movement, for trying to reduce or eliminate pesticide use in the wine industry. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Is your wine natural?"]But all the eco-wine terminology — "organic," "sustainable," "biodynamic," "natural" — tends toward overlap and befuddlement. Let’s clear up some of the confusion.

Sustainable. There’s no legal definition for this term, which has unfortunately been abused by marketers, so beware. But true sustainable farmers and winemakers try to create a product that’s made in a way that isn't harmful for future generations and production. This philosophy minimizes soil erosion, depletion of soil nutrients, water pollution, etc. It’s a holistic approach. 
Wine recommendation: Newton, Unfiltered Merlot, Napa, California.

Organic. A wine that is labeled organic and has the USDA organic seal is made without chemical pesticides and artificial fertilizers.

Biodynamic. I think of this as extreme organic. Biodynamic winemakers follow the same principles as organic winemaking but add a whole other layer. As with sustainable winemaking, it’s a holistic approach. Biodynamic farmers view the vineyard as a part of an entire system including animals and other crops, with an emphasis on balance between all the elements. The entire farm or vineyard should be self-sustaining, so there's a lot of composting and not using chemicals. It also involves farming according to a lunar calendar. 
Wine recommendations: J. de Palacios, Petalos, Bierzo, Spain, and Montinore, Parsons Ridge Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon.

Natural. Again, this is a philosophy that suggests, “Don’t tamper with the wine!” But what it entails is not adding sulfites or additives. The shocker here is what other things might be added: wood chips, colorants, acidifiers, de-acidifiers, de-alcoholization, commercial yeasts, enzymes, tannin powders, heavy fining, or filtration that is hardly sustainable. Even when a wine is labeled organic, it doesn’t mean that all of this other stuff can’t happen.

So no added sulfites. But what’s the deal with sulfites anyway?

Sulfites. Yeasts produce sulfites during the fermentation process, making sulfites a natural byproduct of winemaking. Sulfites act as a preservative for wine, allowing it a longer shelf life. Most winemakers add more sulfites as a preservative, but some say some winemakers abuse the use of sulfites to keep a wine intact instead of having better winemaking facilities and conditions. 

Some people are severely allergic to sulfites, while others are sensitive to them (although if you can handle dried fruit, you shouldn't be sensitive to sulfites in wine; there are more present in the fruit). Wine headaches are often wrongly attributed to sulfites; often, a headache is due to a sensitivity to histamines present in wine — or, more simply, to overindulging and/or dehydration!

There are sulfites in all wines, but wines that enter the U.S. require labeling saying so. Conventional wines are allowed to have 350 parts per million of sulfites. Organic wines have fewer, with a maximum of 100 parts per million.

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