Organic Wine FAQ

What is Organic Wine?

In order for a wine in the U.S. to be labeled as “Organic Wine,” the wine must meet a two-part test:  (1) the wine must be made with organic grapes and (2) the winemaker may not add sulfites to the wine at any stage.  Therefore, only wines with “No Added Sulfites” can be labeled as “Organic Wine” in the U.S.   Wines that are made using certified organic grapes, but which do contain added sulfites, cannot be labeled as “Organic Wine”, and instead can only be labeled as “Wine made from organic grapes.”

Under the USDA National Organic Program (“NOP”), enforced in October 2002, sulfites (i.e., sulfur dioxide) are treated as a synthetic food additive, and are not allowed to be added to organic wine or any other organic certified food products (i.e., dried fruits, jams, salad dressings, juices or composite products).

Sulfur is present in all life forms and takes many forms in living organisms. Small amounts of naturally occurring (de-ionized) sulfites are present in wine grapes and many other foods. Synthetic sulfites are added to wine as an antioxidant preservative and stabilizer. These sulfites are added in the forms of sulfur salts or sulfur dioxide solutions. They can be added at crushing, right when the grapes enter the production stream, after primary fermentation and again just before bottling to adjust final SO2 levels.

When synthetic sulfites are added to wine, many of these sulfites bond with other compounds in the wine, becoming bound sulfites. Once bound, sulfites cannot be tasted or smelled except in high levels. Any leftover sulfites that do not bind to other compounds in the wine, remain “free” sulfites. It is these “free” sulfite molecules that can be harmful: not only can they be smelled and tasted affecting the quality of the wine, they can also react with sinus tissues and cause an allergic reaction in the body once ingested.

Sulfites are measured in wine in Parts Per Million (“ppm”), and the following is the maximum allowed levels in the different labeling classes of wine:

  • USDA Certified (100%) Organic Wine : Under 10ppm of naturally occurring sulfites; no added sulfites
  • Biodynamic wine: under 100ppm of added sulfites
  • Wine labeled as “Made with Organic Grapes”: Under 150ppm of sulfites
  • Conventional wine: Under 350ppm of sulfites

All Stellar Organic wines analyze at under 5ppm with most (including all the reds) showing less than 1ppm or “None Detectable” in independent laboratory testing.  About the same amount of naturally occurring sulfites as a natural egg.

How long can I keep my bottle of NSA wine? This depends on how it is stored. In ideal conditions, about 5 years for reds and 3 years for white wines. Under normal conditions we recommend about 3 years for reds and 2 years for whites. Generally, heavy reds will last longer due to the increased amount of natural tannins. Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Merlot will have a longer shelf life than Pinotage.

What is the best way to store organic wines? Ideally, keep the wines below room temperature (70° F) at as stable temperature as possible and away from sunlight or vibrations. Keep the bottles on their sides if possible.

After opening the wine, how long will it last? Organic wines will last just as long as most conventional wines. Contact with oxygen (the enemy) will change the taste of any wine within 24 hours. To prolong the wine at optimum condition once opened either use a vacuum pump with a one way stopper to remove as much ambient air as possible and store in the refrigerator; or, use a harmless inert gas (such as nitrogen) to replace the missing wine in the bottle and replace the screw cap and store in a cool place.  Many of these wine preserving tools are on the market at local wine retailers.

How is organic wine different from normal wine? Wine making is a two part process. As with any organic food product, the initial crop (grapes) is grown to USDA organic standards. No GMO seeds, synthetic fertilizers, synthetic fungicides, synthetic herbicides or growth hormones are allowed. Testing is done on the farms to a depth of 12 ft. at random un-specified intervals. Once you have secured organic grapes from the farm, you then have to make wine from the organic grapes and this process is another organic certifying step. Everything in the cellar is again certified under USDA organic standards and no chemicals are allowed in the wine making, equipment, bottle or tank cleaning process.

Why drink organic wine? Most organic wine drinkers do so for one of the following reasons:  (1) the consumers are allergic to sulfites or suffer unpleasant side effects from their ingestion and therefore have no other option if they want to drink wine; (2) the wine drinker is trying to avoid toxic chemicals or unknown additives in their food and beverages (and beverages are far more important than food solids based on the fact that the body will absorb much more compounds from liquids than it can from solids, 95 % of compounds from liquids absorbed compared to less than 15% from solids); or, (3) it is a matter of personal choice for the consumer who is looking for ways to support goods that do not pollute the environment.