• Fri, Jun 1 2012

Organic Wine: Healthier, Or Just A Marketing Ploy?

My local health food store has started carrying organic wines. At first, the idea sounded appealing: Wine made from grapes that were grown without any pesticides—it had to be better for you, right? Then I looked at the price tag. Better, maybe. More expensive? Definitely. So I was curious, are organic wines really worth it? Are they better for your health?

The employee at the store seemed to think so. She told me that they would prevent hangover headaches–not to mention the fact that they tasted better. To find out for sure, I talked with international wine and spirits judge and overall wine guru, Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan (with a glass of vino, of course!):

How does organic wine differ from other wines?

The largest category is those wines “made from organically grown grapes.” In order for a wine in the US to be considered at this level of organic and bear the USDA organic seal, it must be made from organically grown grapes and give information about who the certifying agency is. Organically grown grapes means there are no artificial fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides or herbicides used. Sulfites, however, are allowed to be added.

There are very few stats on organic wines, but just to give you some perspective, California has over 500,000 acres of land devoted to vineyards and only 2-3% are certified organic. “Organic wine” is different where the wine is made from organically grown grapes and it has no added sulfites. Not that it has no sulfites, but it has no added sulfites.

Does it taste any different?

I have yet to meet anyone (winemakers, Master Sommeliers and other Masters of Wine around the world included) who can accurately pick a wine blind out of a line-up that has been made with organically grown grapes versus conventional.

Having said that, some organic wines with no sulfites (aka “natural” wines) taste different. One of the reasons winemakers use sulfur is as an antimicrobial which prevents nasty microbes from creating awful flavors or turning the wine into vinegar. True some of these microbes may create beneficial aromas and add complexity and they are intellectually interesting. However, the risk of getting a bottle that is “off” is much higher than conventional and I have tasted a fair share of “natural” wines that taste too close to the vinegar end of the scale than I’d like.

Why is organic wine more expensive than other comparable wines?

It is not unanimous that organic wines are always more expensive when compared to conventional wines. When organic wines are more expensive than conventional, some say it’s because of the additional labor involved. Others say organic wineries pass on the cost of certification to the consumer. There can be some truth to this. Also, some brands add on an additional premium for being an organic winery that has more to do with marketing than it does with cost.

Is it really any healthier for you?

No, not really. Claims have been made that residue from artificial pesticides are found in wine. Many pesticides are fat soluble (they want them to stick and not dilute with water). In some studies chemical residues were detected in the juice before fermentation, but strangely not afterwards. This means microbes during fermentation were either metabolizing them, or the pesticide residue binded to yeast cells and were being taken away with the lees/filtering. So it’s not really proven any chemical residues from conventional viticulture makes conventional wine unhealthy versus organic.

For people who are sensitive to sulfites (which is a small group of people who wheeze or have asthma attacks as a result of an allergy to sulfites) then low sulfite or no added sulfite wines will be healthier for just those people.

Will someone be able to physically tell the difference when they drink organic wine? Like, will they feel better the next morning, not have headaches, etc.?

Possible reasons people get headaches from wine are because 1) some people are dehydrated and wine is a diuretic which dehydrates the body further, 2) histamines in the skins (this is why people get headaches with red wines), or 3) they have unbalanced blood sugar level. Wine has lots of sugar and if you are drinking it without a meal/protein it’s like having candy with nothing to eat. Your blood sugar will drop which can cause headaches.

These reasons are the same whether you’re drinking an organic wine or conventional wine. Again, if you have a sulfite allergy (and those are very few!), you may benefit from having low/no added sulfite wines because you won’t have an allergy attack. However, for most of the population this is not the case and there is no difference.

How else does organic wine affect our bodies vs. regular wine?

There really is no proven health difference between organic versus conventional wine.

How is organic wine better for the environment?

Artificial chemicals impact the nutrients and the tiny microcosm of microbes and organisms in the soil. The monoculture that is a vineyard depletes the soil incredibly, making it poorer. With organic practices you are creating a sustainable environment for future generations.

The thought process is similar to how we feed our bodies. If we get good rest at night, exercise right, eat our fruits and vegetables, and do all the healthy things, our bodies operate on peak performance. When we’re stressed, and we’re living off caffeine to wake us up, sleeping pills to go to sleep, no time for exercise, eat junk food cause it’s there, we run on empty. Same thing with grape vines. The concept is, if you feed the vine the right stuff, it will provide the right stuff and protect the earth for future generations.

Do you drink organic wine? Why or why not?

Yes, I drink organic and conventional wine. However, I don’t make it a specific point to go out and buy only organic wines.

Bottom line, is organic wine really any better for our bodies, or is it just a marketing ploy? Is it really worth the extra price?

Organic wines may not be any healthier for our bodies than conventional wine and some organic brands may have a premium over conventional wines. The issue though is what you like to drink, what you believe and how what you buy makes you feel.

It’s like people who feel better buying eggs from producers who have cage free hens. It makes them feel better to patron producers who are treating animals better. It’s a similar concept with buying wine. Buying organic wine may make some people feel better about contributing to a more sustainable environment of vineyards for generations to come.

Photo: shutterstock.com

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  • Dr. Baxter

    Very nice perspective but I would like to add a few additional points that I think will be helpful: Though there is little published evidence to suuport the possible benefits of organic wine, the theory relates to how and why wine grapes produce the antioxidant polyphenols in the skins. These are natural antifungal and antibiotic compounds that the grapes make for their own protection; so without artificial pesticides they are inclined to produce more of them, making the wines potentially healthier. Also, dry red wines have very little sugar, and sulfites are unlikely to contribute to hangovers. More in my book “Age Gets Better with Wine: New Science for a Healthier, Longer, and Better Life.”

  • Legreesmith
  • Peter Work

    It is not correct that you cant use pesticides when farming organic. Here is a a list of what you may use:
    http://law.justia.com/cfr/title07/7-3.1.1.9.31.7.344.2.html

    As an organic farmed vineyard we do use some of these fungicides to protect against mildew but we select material that is efficient yet of low impact to the environment.

  • Karien O’Kennedy

    Good post except for the “Wine has lots of sugar” part. Only sweet wines do. Normal dry white and dry red wines are…. dryish, i.e. below 5 g/L sugar, which is considered a very low sugar concentration. It is definitely not comparable with candy.

  • HLTGRP

    People with sulfite sensitivities dont just have asthma attacks. They get headaches from red wine for that reason as well. Comparing avoiding wine pesticides to someone who prefers “cage free chicken” because it had a happier life, is a bad analogy. Compare it to not eating meat that has hormones, or fish that’s raised in toxic atlantic waters. Toxins are different than “good mood chickens” :)