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Organic Spanish Wines Fight the Sulfite Battle

 

“Get out your un-bleached, hypoallergenic, 100% soy, macrobiotic light-sabers!”, said the organic wine, “we’re going into battle”.

No, it’s not what you think. If you live in Boulder, Colorado, home of everything organic, you probably don’t even bat an eyelash at the growing proliferation of organic wines in the market today. I, in fact, was not surprised in the least during a recent trip to Boulder to be invited to have dinner with a successful organic wine importer. What did knock my socks off, however, was the fact that one of the wines that he brought along to dinner was Spanish, and not only that, but it was from the well-known Catalan winery Albet i Noya, and not only that but I had sold it in my restaurant for years without ever suspecting that it was organic!

In the United States, it really seems that you can’t shake a stick without hitting a label that touts the description “organic”. From beef jerky to cottage cheese to heel cream, so much so that while I secretly prefer to buy organic meats and dairy, for example, I publicly scoff at it, and have my doubts about how much of these “organic” labels really mean what they say, and if they do, what does THAT mean anyway. Therefore, I have never been surprised to see American wines with the word “organic” on their label, I just thought it was the thing to do. Finding out, via an Italian importer that one of my preferred wines from the Penedés region is actually an organic wine, got me to thinking. What does this all mean?

First of all, I really thought that all wines were organic. They are made from grapes, it is a naturally occurring fermentation process, it has been around for 4000 years etc. what can be more “organic” than that? One of the keys to classifying a wine as organic is the quantity of sulfites in the wine. As explained in my last article about sulfites, all wines contain sulfites, and one of the myths about organic wines is that they don’t contain any sulfites at all. However, aside from being a naturally occurring substance in the wine (and in the human body), sulfites are still permitted in organic wines because they are needed to protect the growing grapes from disease and to preserve and stabilize the wines. The difference is therefore in the quantity. In the United States, organic wines are permitted up to 100 g/ml of sulfites (regular wines up to 350 mg/l) although the majority contain much less. With a quantity any higher than 10 mg/l, the wines are still required to have that pesky “contains sulfites” label even though they are also considered “organic”. In Spain, organic wines are known as “vinos ecologicos” and they are allowed varying sulfite quantities depending on the region as long as it doesn’t interfere with the virtually impossible to find European Union standards.

Aside from the sulfite levels in the wines, there are many other factors that lead a wine to be considered organic or “ecologico”. This has to do with the treatments that the vines receive in the vineyard as far as pesticides and the use of chemicals is concerned. According to Albet i Noya for example, “The principal characteristics of organically grown grapes are the lack of chemical residues and ideal sanitary conditions.” Organic regulations, therefore, prohibit any kind of treatment with synthetic chemical products (herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers).” Organic wine laws limit the kind of treatment that a vineyard may receive, the products used, and even the time of year that the treatment is carried out.

It is interesting to note that all of these factors: low sulfite levels, restricted use of pesticides, good farming techniques, lack of chemical additives, etc. are common practices in most wineries that produce high-quality wines. As I pointed out in the previous article, the better the grapes are cared for in a vineyard, the smaller the amount of added sulfites that are needed. The same is true for other practices. Vineyards that produce fine wines tend to have lower grape yields, for example, and again according to Albet i Noya, “low yields in the vineyards not only improve the quality of the grapes but also improve the sustainability of the vineyards as the vines are naturally more resistant to plagues”, therefore leading to a decreased need for pesticides.

So then why is it that I had no idea that Albet i Noya’s wines were organic? Did I not carry their wines in my restaurant for four years? The reason seems to be that the organic craze just hasn’t made it to Spain yet. The organic supermarket trend is just catching on here while in other countries such as Germany, and France (the largest organic wine producer in the world) it has been around forever. For me at least, the fact that I buy almost all of my meat and produce at the farmer’s market, a typical practice in Spain, makes it all seem pretty organic without it necessarily being so. In fact, organic products still seem almost subversive here, only to be found in “special” health food stores, where products like vegetables and meats are scarce and cost-prohibitive. Therefore, while wineries might use all ecological practices, they seldom advertise their products in Spain based on their ecological status, although it seems that this practice is growing on a daily basis, which explains why we might be jumping on the organic bus to Boulder, without even having bought a ticket.

If you’re interested to learn more about organic, natural and biodynamic wines, join us for a tasting at Catavino’s theLab!

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