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By Sabine Petzoldt, Team Leader, GWS

When the first organic wines appeared on the market in the 1980s, they were not considered comparable to traditional wines at similar price points and attracted few consumers beyond a small niche of people concerned about health-related issues.

Part of the problem with the first organic wines was that no sulphur dioxide was added. Sulphite or sulphur dioxide is used as a preservative in wines. It has strong antimicrobial and some antioxidant properties, which help to inhibit the growth of moulds and bacteria, stop oxidation (browning) and preserve the wine's natural flavour.
Many consumers still believe that organic wines are "sulphite-free," but this is inaccurate.

Nowadays, there are only a few winemakers who add no sulphites at all and some doubts as to whether it is even possible to produce a wine without sulphites. Most winemakers and enology experts agree that a certain amount of sulphites must be added to prevent oxidation and bacterial spoilage, as well as to create a stable wine. However, technical developments in recent decades have made it possible to reduce the amount of extra sulphites added to the chemically inactive sulphites already present in wine as a natural by-product of the fermentation process.

So what is the big deal about sulphites?
Sulphite is a widely used preservative found in a diverse range of products such as dried fruits, bacon, orange juice concentrate, seafood, processed potatoes, cornstarch, caramel coloring and wine. For years now, sulphites have been criticized and regulated for their excessive use and latent health consequences. About 4% of the American population is considered to be highly allergic to sulphites, and many more people around the world have a low tolerance to sulphites. For example, products with the sulphite level of a typical commercial wine can cause headaches, cramps, skin flushing or heartburn in individuals who are sensitive.

However, when handled properly and kept to reasonable levels, sulphite agents are not intrinsically toxic to humans or to the environment. Therefore, American and European organic winemaking standards allow for the addition of strictly regulated amounts of SO2. Since organic wines contain only minimal amounts of sulphites, they are a wise choice for anyone with a sulphite sensitivity.

What are organic wines?
Illogical, contradictory and often confusing international certification standards and regulations have created confusion about what constitutes an organic wine. Simply put, organic wines are produced exclusively with organically grown grapes. Organic farming is a method for growing and protecting grapes without the introduction of foreign substances such as pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, chemical fertilizers or synthetic chemicals. The use of chemicals in organic farming is strictly controlled by law and limited to a few harmless substances. Almost none of what is available to the conventional grower is permitted. Only mined minerals, natural extracts and derivatives can be applied to the soil or to the grapes. The organic grower concentrates more on trying to grow a healthy vine, able to withstand pests and feed itself naturally, than on sheltering the vine from anything that might harm it. This means developing a healthy soil and a balanced ecosystem within the vineyard. It also means a lot of hard work, since, for example, grapes are handpicked in many organic vineyards rather than harvested with mechanical pickers. This ensures that only the ripest and healthiest bunches are picked with minimum stress and damage to the vine, fruit and soil.

What about the quality of organic wines?
There are more good organic wines being produced today than ever before. In fact, a large percentage of the organic and biodynamic wines on the market are in the premium category. One theory for the outstanding quality of these wines is that organic vineyards have greater natural resistance to poor weather and diseases and therefore tend to perform better in poor vintages than do non-organic vineyards. Furthermore, organic methods yield the strongest, richest grapes possible with the fewest detrimental effects on the environment, and the resulting wines reflect the organic commitment to quality.

The future of organic wines
As consumers become increasingly discriminating about what they choose to drink, the demand for organic wines continues to grow. While this growth can be seen worldwide, it is especially significant in Germany, England, Switzerland, New Zealand, Japan and the United States. Just as the growing demand by consumers for organic foods has led grocery stores to expand their sections for organic fruits, vegetables, meats and other products in the past few years, the rising interest in organic wines is driving wine and liquor stores to respond similarly.

Proof that organic wines are capturing market share is confirmed by the tremendous success of the Wine Hall at "BioFach," the world's leading exhibition for organic products, including organic wines, held in Nüremberg. Altogether, 318 BioFach exhibitors presented the fruit of their organic winemaking expertise in February 2009. The largest representation was from Italy with 94 exhibitors, followed by Germany (81), Spain (53), France (42) and Austria (16).

Wine industry experts predict continued growth for organic wines despite tough economic times. Although it is unlikely that sales will continue to experience double-digit growth, experts believe that the sector will continue to expand because we are living in an increasingly health-conscious society. This point of view was confirmed by a research survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association in the United States, which identifies organic wine as one of the "hottest drink trends for 2009."