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Organic Wine

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Organic wine? What nouveau decadence will they think of next, you wonder? But oenophiles (wine lovers) could tell you that chemical-free cabernet and pesticide-free pinot aren't new concepts at all.

Organic wine? What nouveau decadence will they think of next, you wonder? But oenophiles (wine lovers) could tell you that chemical-free cabernet and pesticide-free pinot aren't new concepts at all. In fact, some of the world's top wineries have been producing organic wines for decades. They just haven't told anyone about it.

Reading the labels at a liquor store may not give you the full picture of what goes into (or what doesn't go into) producing a particular wine. Modern winemaking techniques can depend heavily on chemical agriculture. Up to 17 applications of herbicides, fungicides and pesticides can be added to vines during the growing cycle, depending on factors such as location and climate. (These synthetic chemicals not only strip the soil, destroy ecosystems, pollute the environment and contaminate waterways, but they can also be ingested as residues, accumulating in the body over time to cause numerous neurological problems, poor organ function and even cancer.) In conventional winemaking, after the grapes are picked and bottling begins, one or more additives up to 20 of them may be utilized to improve taste, colour and clarity.

Organic wine, on the other hand, is harvested and bottled using the most natural methods and ingredients possible. At its simplest, organic wine is defined as "wine made from organically grown grapes." Grape species are usually chosen for better disease resistance and character, rather than maximum yield. Using pesticides or herbicides is a big no-no; the only allowable fertilizers are mature plant manures, which are sometimes combined with vine prunings. Artificial yeasts are avoided during the fermentation process in favour of wild yeasts that form naturally on the grapes. While all wines depend on sulphur dioxide for stability, organic wines contain far less.

Some producers with an eco-conscience, such as Jean-Pierre Margin of Chateau La Canorgue in France's C? de Luberon, have gone organic to follow in the footsteps of their ancestors, who created superb wines by combining traditional techniques and the skills of their cellar masters.

"Confronting nature directly means you have to be vigilant,"said Margin in a recent interview with wine critic Gerald Asher. "You must look ahead mistakes are difficult to correct organically. You become more efficient because you have to stay on top of every detail of every vine and perhaps that's why the wine is better."

Many international wine houses have adopted organic wine philosophies. To name a few: Chateau Margaux in Medoc, France; Domaine Leroy in Burgundy; Robert Sinskey Vineyard and Frog's Leap Winery in Napa Valley, Calif.; Cooper Mountain Vineyards in Oregon; the Bonterra label for Fetzer Vineyards in Mendocino County, Calif.; Lolonis of Redwood Valley in Mendocino County; and certain Penfolds bottlings from South Australia's Claire Valley.

Canada also boasts a decent number of organic wine producers, including Summerhill Estate Winery and Bella Vista Farm Winery. More than half of the wines produced by Hainle Vineyard Estate Winery in the sunny Okanagan Valley are not only organic they're certified organic. Why? "We wanted to live on a piece of land where harmful chemicals were not used or accumulating. We wanted to minimize the environmental footprint of our agricultural and business activity. And we wanted to make good wines that were as pure as possible, without elaborate (and expensive) chemical or mechanical intervention," the Hainle Estate explains.

In the end, it's somewhat ironic that old-fashioned winemaking techniques are falling into favour again as the trend towards "natural," "healthy" and "sustainable" has consumers taking a second look at their shopping habits. Although organic wines represent only a small percentage of total wine sales, there is also a growing awareness amongst producers and retailers. Last August, the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements co-sponsored the two-day Seventh International Congress on Organic Viticulture and Wine in Victoria, BC, which was an opportunity to exchange views on consumer expectations, market opportunities and the global outlook for the organic wine sector.

As for consumers, finding organic wines may still be a challenge they're often unlabelled as such. However, more and more retailers are offering a special "organic" section, and further, sales staff may offer helpful suggestions. So when you're shopping for that perfect bottle of red, white or bubbly this holiday season, look for the wineries listed here in liquor stores and specialty wine shops, and raise your glass to the future of organic wines.

Sulphite Sense

Many wine drinkers have heard of sulphites, which are commonly added to wine as a preservative to inhibit the growth of moulds and bacteria and to stop oxidation. An estimated 0.5 percent of the population is highly allergic to sulphites, although many people are considered sulphite-sensitive. Sulphites can cause reactions such as heartburn, burning sensations, hives, cramps and flushing of the skin.

Organic wines generally contain minimal amounts of sulphites. However, even organic wines aren't sulphite-free. Sulphites are a natural byproduct of the fermentation process. On all grape skins, there are fermenting yeasts that generate naturally occurring sulphites in amounts ranging from six to 40 parts per million (ppm).

A typical wine can contain up to 350 ppm of sulphites. Most organic wines, however, contain less than 40 ppm.

Wine and Health

For a brief stint in recent history, wine has been valued for its effect on health, but around 450 BC, Hippocrates touted specific wines to treat fever, disinfect wounds and as diuretics. Up until the 18th century, wine was a safer drink than water, which was unsanitary and filled with pathogens.

Modern research has shown that this fruit of the vine when consumed in moderation may protect against heart disease and some forms of cancer. Wine contains catechins, also known as flavonoids, which act as antioxidants and prevent free radicals from damaging cells. Resveratrol and quercetin are two other substances found in red wine that have been shown to boost the immune system and block cancer formation.

People in southern France typically eat a diet high in fat, yet they suffer from lower rates of heart disease than other countries. Scientists partly attribute this so-called "French paradox" to the effect of the wine they drink. According to findings published in the January 2000 issue of European Heart Journal, wine dilates the arteries and increases blood flow, thereby lowering the risk of clots that can damage the heart muscle and cause strokes.

More research tops off the glass Wine appears to boost levels of "good" HDL cholesterol and prevent "bad" LDL cholesterol from damaging arteries. The drink's phenols may slow the growth of breast cancer cells. Red wine may help prevent oral cancer. Moderate drinkers have greater bone mineral density than non-drinkers. (No study needed to show us that a glass of wine with dinner can be a great de-stresser.)

But wine isn't a panacea. Overindulgence in any form of alcohol turns a good thing bad, and can cause or contribute to serious health problems including nutritional deficiencies, liver disease, damage to the internal organs, early menopause or menstrual irregularities, brain injury, impotence, sterility and immune depression.

Organic Wine Resources

  • Organic Wine Company, ecowine.com
  • BlueWine.com, search organic

Organic Labels to Watch For

  • Bonterra Vineyards
  • Chateau Bousquette
  • Chateau Lorane
  • Chateau Margaux
  • Cooper Mountain
  • Domaine Leroy
  • Frey Vineyards
  • Frog's Leap Winery
  • Hainle Vineyard Estate Winery
  • Lolonis
  • Robert Sinskey Vineyard
  • San Vito (Chianti)
  • Summerhill Estate Winery
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