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Effects of the EU organic wine regulation

by Wolfgang Hubert

Effects of the EU organic wine regulation photo: Deutsches Weininstitut

It’s amazing how quickly laws adapt to reality. For decades millions of consumers have been drinking organic wines, although officially they didn’t exist. This was because according to EU law the use of the term “organic wine” was not permitted until the 2012 vintage. Instead “wine made from organic grapes” was, and still is, on the labels.

New organic logo or still to come

It’s an awkward formulation but one that we’ll still come across for a number of years, because only wine growers who produced wine before 31.7.2012 that complied with the current EU regulations are allowed to dispense with this description. These growers can replace it with the new EU organic logo, even if their wine has been maturing for years in barrels or bottles and is only now coming onto the market. Wine producers are permitted to use the new logo under the strict condition that they go further than the use of organic grapes and adhere to specific wine-making practices. In the case of organic wines oenological practices like partial freeze concentration or desulphurization and dealcoholization are forbidden.

Some other measures are still allowed but they are to be reviewed by 2015. These include certain heat treatments, the use of ion exchange resins or reverse osmosis. Similarly retained for the present are heating wine up to 70°C and filtration, although the filter pores must not be too fine.

Different opinions in the wine-growing countries

Not all representatives of the wine industry are really happy with the new regulations. Dr. Vito Russo, Head of Quality Assurance at Bioagricert srl. in Italy, is of the opinion that the restrictions on oenological practice will certainly make the production of organic wine more difficult. “The difficulties have been exacerbated by the limits imposed on the production of rectified must concentrates that are used to enrich musts that do not have sufficient sugar content.” Especially problematic in his view is the fact that the use of ion exchange resins is allowed only up to 2015 and that physical desulphurization of other products used in wine making is banned. His proposal: “These issues ought to be revised.”

In Germany on the other hand there is broad agreement with the new regulations, although some producers find the reduction in sulphur difficult to swallow, because the maximum sulphur content, imposed with immediate effect, is generally 50 mg/l lower than for conventional wines. In practice, this means 100 mg/l for red wine and 150 mg/l for white wine. But there’s an exception to every rule – in this case more than one exception, because it is permitted to add up to 20 mg/l of sulphite to all wines with a residual sugar content of more than 2 g/l. Moreover, official permission may be sought to raise the level of sulphur if exceptional weather conditions give rise to serious bacterial or fungal damage to the health of grapes.

This doesn’t go far enough for the Italian Dr. Russo. In his opinion, a far lower level of sulphur dioxide used in the production of wine would have been better – at least 50% less than the amount used in conventional wines in order to clearly differentiate organic wines. “The beneficiaries of high sulphur dioxide levels are the wine-growing countries of Central Europe, and the producers in Southern Europe are the losers, especially Italy and Spain,” is his strongly held view. Organic vintners think in terms of competition too.

The beneficiaries are the organic wine drinkers

© Deutsches Weininstitut
“Wines with less than two grams of residual sugar will lose out, because the level will be raised in the future to over five grams, in order to have a bigger margin for SO2,” is the criticism of Hartmut Heintz from the Zwölberich winery in the Nahe region. At the national association Ecovin they incline to the view that producers of high-quality red wines aged in barriques might find themselves in difficulty. Peter Riegel from the wine import company that bears his name in Orsingen is also not enthusiastic about every aspect of the legislation. “Basically, less sulphur is an incentive to think about the work that goes on in the cellar, and that’s a good thing. But the threshold values are a problem for wines that age slowly in the cellar, including barrel aged wines.”

“You only need high SO2 levels in the case of late harvesting and high pH values, grapes with botrytis, that are bad, rotting or under attack by bacteria producing acetic acid, or if the people concerned don’t know enough about wine making,” is the contrary view of the Austrian vintner Peter Veyder-Malberg. “It’s the consumers who benefit because less SO2 is good for everybody. The only ones to lose out are the sulphur industry.” The Franconian wine grower Manfred Rothe includes in the losers all the EU organic wine growers who in the past have shirked adhering to the directives prescribing proper vinification practices.

By common consent of German wine producers and retailers, growers in the red wine regions in the south benefit the most because the more body, tannin and alcohol a red wine has the less sulphur it needs. So it’s easy to see why Dr. Russo would prefer lower threshold values.

“I believe it’s in the interest of all producers to create wines that have as little sulphur as possible, because the higher the level of sulphur, the more it spoils the pleasure of drinking wine,” says the young Austrian vintner Martin Diwald from the Diwald organic winery. But in his opinion much more could have been changed in the production process itself. He is critical of the fact that “you’re still allowed to add a thousand little processing aids, from yeast aromas, metatartaric acid as a stabilizer and enzymes to tannins in a host of variations.”

However, one worry unites all wine growers and merchants. “Organic wine growers in particular find themselves increasingly confronted by a mass of regulations, controls and register-keeping. Especially for small family-run vineyards, this means sooner or later they’ll quit if they have to spend more time sitting at a desk than working in the fields and the cellar,” says the German organic pioneer and wine merchant Fritz Croissant.

Whichever way you look at it, Dr. Vito Russo sees at least one positive aspect: “The sale of organic wines will benefit from us now being able to label wines as organic and not just as “made from organic grapes”, and a further benefit is that they can now carry the EU organic logo on the label. This will make it easier for consumers to recognize these products.”


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