When it comes to eating organic, most of us are pretty clued-in and know what to look for at the grocery store. But when it comes to drinking organic, most of us have a lot to learn.
David Stansfield knows more than most about organic wine. After an eight-year stint learning from the ground up at Summerhill Pyramid Winery in Kelowna, BC, Stansfield now works as a consulting sommelier and hosts the Sunday School series of wine classes at Vancouver Urban Winery. An authority on wine, he has some simple rules when it comes to making sure what’s in your glass is as organic as what’s on your plate.
It’s not just grapes
“People tend to think all wine is somewhat organic, but there is a huge difference in how wines are made, and just as we make choices about the food we eat, we should be informed about the wine we drink too.”
You may think you’re bagging a wine bargain when you put that cut-price bottle in your basket, but according to Stansfield, many of these cheap wines can essentially be made in a lab.
“There’s a misconception that all wine is natural; that it just grows and somehow happens, but just like any other foodstuff, the list of things that could be in your wine is long and shocking: from food dyes to refined sugar. Those are fine to put in your body if you want, but most people don’t know, and there are people who eat organic and then drink the wine equivalent of junk food.”
Then is it the sulphites?
Many people worry about sulphites in wine, blaming them for everything from headaches to rashes, but for Stansfield, that’s something of a red herring: “There is a misconception about sulphites in the consumer market. It’s like the ‘gluten’ of the wine world!
“Absolutely, there are celiacs, and for them gluten is a serious issue. It’s the same for some people with genuine sulphur intolerances, but for the amount of people who say they have issues, that’s over-reported.”
Stansfield believes most “sulphite reactions” are most likely a histamine reaction: “Wine is food; the reaction people get is most likely coming from the skin of the grapes.”
Sulphur has long been used as a preservative in the winemaking process: it kills microbes and prevents oxidation. Many winemakers feel it’s a necessary part of the process to keep the wine fresh.
But it’s not the only thing that’s added to your wine. “When you make wine, it has solids,” explains Stansfield. “It’s not clear and pretty! We have to make it become that, and we use fining agents to do so, mostly bentonite (clay), isinglass (sturgeon’s bladders), and albumen (egg whites).
“People are always so shocked when they find out that wine isn’t vegan, but if you want your wine with absolutely nothing added, you want to drink natural wine.”
It’s how the grapes are grown
For Stansfield, the most important thing about wine is how the grapes are grown and what impact that process has on the earth: “It’s all about the agriculture; we sometimes forget that connection, but wine is about growing fruit and the stewardship of the land. Growing organic means getting the best possible fruit for the wine.”
And it looks like science supports Stansfield’s theory. A 2016 study by the University of California, Los Angeles, which looked at the results of more than 74,000 wines, found that on the whole, eco-certified wines tasted “better” than regular wines, on average scoring higher points for them in blind tasting.
“The way I’d rationalize it is that a lot of the world’s best wines are organic and sustainably grown,” says Stansfield. “It’s about the care that organic or sustainable viticulture requires to grow the grapes, so the best wines are the wines that are grown the best— not made the best—and they come from the best fruit, which will be of a better quality if the viticulturist cares and puts in that labour.”
Organic. Biodynamic. Natural. What’s the difference?!
Using all-organic agricultural methods, organic vineyards fertilize grapevines using compost, green manure, and cover crops. They also use organic herbicides and mechanical weeding, mowing around the vines, mulching, and companion planting to keep the vines healthy. Rather than insecticides to control cutworms, they use grazing chickens under the vines or pick cutworms off the leaves by hand.
The next level, biodynamic wine uses the holistic farming system created by Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s. Further than organic, this method creates a vineyard that self-regulates like a self-contained ecosystem, creating biodiversity by using other plants, by having animals in the vineyard, and by using their byproducts and composts as natural solutions to solve natural problems.
Grown and made without adding anything at all, natural wines won’t taste like you think wine tastes! They’re said to be at least organic, and possibly biodynamic, but no official or legal certification exists for so-called “natural” wines. Natural wines are controversial and challenging because they are so different from what our modern understanding of what wine should be: a bit funky and cloudy, possibly with some volatile acidity—which is the smell of nail varnish remover. For some folks, that’s exciting, but others think the wine is “off.”
Coast-to-coast Canadian organic wine
Summerhill Pyramid Winery: Organic pioneers in Canada, Summerhill Pyramid Winery began their transition to organic in 1988 and their vineyard was first certified organic in 1995. In 2007, Canada released official organic standards for wine production and Summerhill was certified under this new regime in 2007. Five years later they received Demeter Biodynamic certification for its Kelowna vineyard. The wines are also vegan friendly. Summerhill makes incredible sparkling wines that have won international awards, as well as superb Alive organic red and white blends, with the latter proving the perfect spring/summer sipper—a happy burst of tropical and stone fruit notes—and the red blend a gloriously jammy, cherry-berry drinker. summerhill.bc.ca; organicokanagan.com
Haywire: Made at the Okanagan Crush Pad in Summerland, Haywire and Narrative wines are organically grown, harvested, inoculated with naturally occurring yeasts, and then made with no intervention. Try Narrative’s sparkling XC, a bright toasty sparkler with fine bubbles, or Haywire’s superb crisp and savoury Sauvignon Blanc. haywirewinery.com
L’Acadie: Yes! Nova Scotia does make wine, and L’Acadie is currently its only organic certified winery. Try the gold medal-winning traditional method Prestige Brut sparkling wine that the Globe and Mail’s Beppi Crosariol swooned over: “Crisp apple and lemonade-like citrus are carried on a vigorous froth … ” lacadievineyards.ca
Southbrook Vineyards: Organic and Demeter Biodynamic-certified, Southbrook is based in Niagara-on-the-Lake and makes some of the region’s most exciting wines, which are suitable for vegans and vegetarians. Try the Orange Wine, made from Vidal grapes with no additives of any kind. Cloudy with a sweet scent of hard apple cider and bergamot, it’s deliciously bone-dry and pleasingly fruity on the palate. southbrook.com