I get a lot of questions about natural and organic wines. Many people are concerned with sulfites, and are looking for information on wines that may deliver an experience with less additives. This post breaks down the definitions of organic, biodynamic, and natural – what is all means, and how sulfites are related.
Let’s start with organic – what does “organic” mean when it comes to wine? In the U.S., organic wine falls into two categories: wine that’s organic, and wine made with organically grown grapes.
Organic wines certified by the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) have the most strict regulations. The grapes are grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers, and all ingredients going into these wines must be certified organic. No sulfites may be added to these wines, although some that occur naturally are permitted. Only these wines may display the USDA organic seal, so that is what you’ll want to look out for.
The second option I mentioned, “Made with organically grown grapes” means the wine must be made entirely from certified organic grapes. Additional ingredients used in the winemaking process do not need to be organic, but they cannot be produced with the use of pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. Wines must be produced and bottled in an organic facility, and sulfites must be limited to 100 parts per million or less. Although these wines can state on their labels to have been made with organic grapes, these will not be able to display the USDA’s organic seal.
The Europe, things are slightly different. The winemaking union in Europe allows winemakers to use “organic wine” on their labels. But, the most notable difference between organic American and organic European wines is the amount of sulfites permitted in the final product. While USDA-certified organic wines can contain virtually no sulfites at all, their the European counterparts can contain up to 100 parts per million (ppm) of sulfites – the same as non-USDA-certified organic wines in the U.S.
The commonly agreed definition of low-intervention or natural wine is one that is fermented spontaneously with native yeast. These wines are largely unmanipulated and contain only trace amounts of added sulfites.
These wines are neither filtered nor fined, which means they may contain particulates or appear cloudy, since there may be dissolved solids that remain in suspension. The steps involved in filtering and fining require additional products like collagen and egg whites, which are not commonly accepted for use in natural wines.
This category is meant to define wines that have gone through the bare minimum in terms of chemical or winemaker intervention. These wines are often not aged in oak. With their lack of sulfites and other non-interventionist factors, these wines may have limited stability and are typically produced in smaller quantities.
If you are comparing natural and organic wine, the organic labeling is more rigorous than natural, so look out for that.
Not to confuse matters, but there’s also biodynamic winemaking. This is a governing practice that goes back nearly a century. Biodynamic wines are wines made employing the biodynamic methods both to grow the fruit and during the post-harvest processing. Biodynamic wine production uses organic farming methods (e.g. employing compost as fertilizer and avoiding most pesticides) while also employing soil supplements prepared according to Rudolf Steiner’s formulas, following a planting calendar that depends upon astrological configurations. Each day coincides with one of the elements: earth, fire, air and water. Days are organized by fruit days (preferable for grape harvesting), root days (pruning), leaf days (watering) and flower days, where the vineyard should be untouched.
The majority of biodynamic wines are, therefore, also organic in practice. However, Certified biodynamic wines are permitted to contain up to 100 parts per million of sulfites – again, the same as non-USDA-certified organic wines in the U.S. and as European wines.
There are two types of sulfites (sulfur dioxide) – natural sulfites and added sulfites. Natural sulfites are totally natural compounds produced during fermentation, and you cannot escape them. Wine is fermented using yeast, which produces sulfites, so this is why all wine contains sulfites. Added sulfites preserve freshness and protect wine from oxidation, and unwanted bacteria and yeasts. Given the notes shared already in this article, added sulfites are something you can avoid based on the type of wine you select.
Sulfites are also in many other foods – everything from dried fruit to pickles to guacamole contains sulfites. In fact, that order of French fries you had last week most likely has more sulfites than an entire bottle of wine! The debate between sulfites and their correlation with wine headaches continues but there is no proof that sulfites cause headaches. Many industry opinions would point to histamines, tannins, and of course, alcohol as the real culprit!
Here are a few numbers to look out for: current FDA regulations in the U.S. require that all wines, both domestic and imports, that contain 10+ ppm of sulfur dioxide must state “contains sulfites” on the label. The legal maximum sulfite level for U.S. wines is 350 ppm, with most wines averaging about 125 ppm, and non-certified organic wines and certified biodynamic wines being slightly lower. Naturally occurring levels of sulfur dioxide in a glass of wine, without chemical additives, would weigh in at around 10-20 ppm, so this is a good goal to have when you are avoiding sulfites.
The Bottom Line
Because of the technology available to today’s winemakers, the amount of sulfites needed to inhibit oxidation, prevent further fermentation and stabilize the wine is at an all-time low. If you don’t experience headaches from eating things like dried fruit, pickled foods, or canned and frozen fruits and vegetables, then you are likely not allergic to sulfites. That being said, there are many who select organic, natural and biodynamic wines for other reasons, and there are certainly other benefits to drinking “clean”.
So, whatever you decide to put in your glass – cheers!