My favorite grocery store in Seattle offers mostly organic products but when I get to the wine section, there is a noticeable lack of organic offerings. What gives? Turns out, the answer to this question ends up being a little more complicated than one might think – for a good reason too.
How long do organic wines last?
Here’s the clincher: organic wines do not typically age well. This rule specifically applies to USDA organic wines (and not EU organic-see below). Thus, treat USDA wines as “drink now” wines and enjoy them immediately!
Why don’t USDA organic wines age well?
USDA Organic wines have several specifications, one of them includes the requirement of no added sulfur (sulfites). Now, this might sound awesome to you as the idea of any additives in wine (especially sulfites) sounds gross. However, the requirement turns out to be the reason why US wines are rarely labeled organic. You might be asking…
What do sulfites have to do with this?!
During the winemaking process, yeast eats sugars and produces alcohol and the liquid naturally heats up. This is around the time when most winemakers opt to add a little SO2 to control bacterial growth while the wine is in the “danger zone.” When the alcohol fermentation is finally completed, wines are stored in cooler temperatures and the opportunity for bacterial growth is greatly reduced. Basically, small amounts of sulfur are sometimes added during transitional times in the wine cellar (such as fermentation, transfering wine, and bottling) which are the points when wine can be exposed to yucky bacteria.
And while organic winemakers have greatly improved processes for filtering wines post-production (which help filter out the schmutz), just a few leftover bacteria can deteriorate a wine more quickly after it’s bottled. Also, bacterial growth during winemaking can cause off-flavors, which can’t really be filtered out.
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Modern Technology vs. Old School Science
A sizable amount of research has gone into developing an alternative to SO2. Thus far, nothing competes with sulfur’s natural ability to preserve and not alter the flavor of wine (when used properly). Sulfur has been used in preservation for thousands of years. Unfortunately, a small percentage of the population is sensitive to sulfites creating a need to preserve foods using different methods.
So, what do I do if I still want to drink organic wine?
You have a few options:
- Treat USDA organic wines just like other grocery items that have an expiration date with about a 3–6 month timeline. Organic wines have been lasting longer and longer, but for now, this is a safe bet.
- Seek out wines that are labeled “Made with Organic Grapes.” These words have to be approved by USDA and require that the grapes are farmed organically. Then, the wines are limited to sulfur additions of 100 ppm (conventional is up to 350 ppm, which is the same as a can of Coca-Cola).
- Seek out EU organic wines (All EU countries). The EU has more lenient restrictions on sulfur additions which are similar (slightly higher) than “made with organic grapes.”
Options 2 and 3 will get you into wines that are built (at least chemically speaking) to stand the test of time.
You can do better than organic
What you might not know is that organic farming has no restrictions based on environmental sustainability (water use, use of organic pesticides, etc). So, if you’re really looking to make a sea change with how you shop, start looking into sustainable wines. We wrote a primer article which explains many of the best sustainability programs in the US and beyond. And yes, these wines can age too!