Hello there! I'm Dr. Vinifera, but you can call me Vinny. Ask me your toughest wine questions, from the fine points of etiquette to the science of winemaking. And don't worry, I'm no wine snob—you can also ask me those "dumb questions" you're too embarrased to ask your wine geek friends! I hope you find my answers educational, empowering and even amusing. And don't forget to check out my most asked questions and my full archives for all my Q&A classics.
Dear Dr. Vinny,
What’s the difference between organically grown and organically made wine?
—Amy, Bismarck, N.D.
When it comes to wine, there are a couple categories of organic labeling, but all such claims must be certified by a third party.
In the United States, under USDA regulations, some wines are labeled "made from organic grapes," meaning all of the grapes were grown under certified organic conditions (without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides), just like the organic produce at the grocery store. But this term doesn't address how the wine was made, and non-organic materials, including yeast, could also be used in the winemaking process. (However, no genetically modified ingredients are permitted.) A key distinction is that often wines "made from organic grapes" contain added sulfites, up to 100 parts per million. The name of the organic certifying agency should appear on the label.
If a wine is labeled "organic," that means all the grapes were certified grown organically and the wine was made under certain restrictions, including that any added yeast must also be organic and that no sulfites be added. You'll still see a sulfite warning, but it may say "Contains only naturally occurring sulfites," a claim that requires a lab analysis, and the limit is less than 10 parts per million of sulfites. The USDA Organic label, or an authorized foreign equivalent, can appear on the wine label along with the certifier's name.
Sulfites are legal and natural byproducts of wine production (and are present in other products, from molasses to dried fruit), and many winemakers add additional sulfites to help stabilize and preserve wines. Except for a small percentage of the population that is sensitive to sulfites, these chemical compounds are harmless and are not responsible for headaches. That said, there has been more of a movement toward transparency in wine labels, just as there has been in other products we consume, so more people are paying attention to how wines are being made.