Thursday, February 9, 2012

EU decides "organic wine" can contain sulfites

While "organic wine" in the U.S. is a minor category, it's about to become big in Europe. The EU has ruled the exact opposite of the US: that "organic wine" can contain sulfites.

The EU will restrict the amount of sulfites they may contain: 100 ppm total for red wine, 150 ppm for white or rosé, as opposed to the 10 ppm allowed (and only when naturally occurring) in U.S. "organic wine." (Conventional wines in the US are allowed 350 ppm.)

This is a huge difference. In covering this issue, I have spoken to several natural wine producers -- leaders in the "green wine" field -- who said they might take the steps to be certified organic wine producers if allowed to add 50 ppm of sulfites to protect their wines from bacteriological harm. Wine doesn't get greener than the Natural Process Alliance, but the NPA adds sulfites. That should tell you something.

Until this week, there has been no such thing as "organic wine" in the EU, only "wine made from organically grown grapes," a category that also exists here. EU "organic wine" will have restrictions on winemaking -- including no addition of sorbic acid -- in addition to restrictions on viticulture. European consumers who prefer to drink wine that's closer to being a natural product, but who don't want their wine to taste spoiled, will now have the benefit of official certification.

Of course, we won't see these "organic wine" labels in the US because these wines won't meet US standards. The USDA, which simply does not understand wine the way the EU does, ruled in December that "organic wine" cannot contain sulfites. This doomed "organic wine" in the US to continue being a tiny niche product for well-meaning, uninformed consumers.

Once people learn something about wine, they move away from the "organic wine" shelf, which more than one retailer told me compares to "kosher wine" as a death knell for sales to anyone other than those who feel the obligation to buy them. This is due to the lousy taste of most US "organic wine," and that has much to do with the absence of sulfites.*

* (By the way, gentle reader: You are not allergic to sulfites.)

It's popular on both sides of the aisle in US politics these days to bash European politicians for their foolishness: the right thinks the EU gives too many entitlements; the left thinks the EU is too in love with austerity. It's hard to say whether the EU has a better or worse grip on fiscal policy than the US.

But the EU does know wine, and that was reflected in this sensible ruling. Bravo, Eurocrats, you got one right.

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Adam Lee/Siduri Wines said...


I am confused in that I thought the maximum allowed limited of sulfur was 100mg/liter in the new regulations....

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

James Hall said...

I just went to the regulations and it says:
These include: maximum sulphite content set at 100 mg per litre for red wine (150 mg/l for conventional) and 150mg/l for white/rosé (200 mg/l for conventional), with a 30mg/l differential where the residual sugar content is more than 2g per litre.

W. Blake Gray said...

Yes, a significant other point is that allowed sulfite levels for non-organic wines is much lower in the EU than the US.

Nothing I've ever read makes me think the US level for conventional wines is too high for health reasons -- you're either one of the rare people with sulfite sensitivity, in which case 150 ppm is also too high, or you're not. But it is striking that the EU thinks everybody can get by with so much less.

Adam Lee/Siduri Wines said...

James & Blake,

Do you think those number are Total or Free? I assume that's a total addition...which has very little to do with what is free and what protects the wine.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

John M. Kelly said...

I'm also unclear as to whether the regulation refers to residual amount, or total allowed to be added. The word "content" implies the former, which is sensible.

I'm beginning to question the whole idea that there must be a certain amount of free SO2 available at all times to "protect the wine." We are so anaerobic in our approach to production methods that that SO2 is not needed to protect against oxidation.

A little SO2 at the crusher to protect against Lactobacillus, good technique and a little SO2 during aging to arrest Brett, and a little at bottling doesn't add up to 350ppm residual total. That regulation is archaic.

Anonymous said...

Any idea whether the new organic import regulations will allow EU-produced organic wines to be sold as organic in the US?

That would certainly put pressure on the USDA to reverse course and make the right call.