When is an organic wine really an organic wine?

by Julie Gibbons on May 3, 2010

wine

Two glasses of wine and I’m anybody’s! Seriously, these days I’m not at all a drinker. When Martin brought back a bottle or two of this Argentinian organic wine, he told me he’d only bought them so I would write a review – “You’ll be doing your readers a service” he insisted. Easy for him to say – he doesn’t drink it!

I’m no wine expert, it’s true. But I can pick out a fairly decent bottle of French. Argentina certainly isn’t my area of expertise, and I’ve never heard of Bonarda grapes before, so if this hadn’t been labelled organic, I don’t think I’d have given it a second look.

We had guests for dinner, and opened a bottle of Terra Organica Chardonnay with our appetisers and saved the Bonarda for the main course. Mild and inoffensive, the pair of them were fairly decent. The Bonarda is quite fruity, I guess you’d say – it’s uplifting rather than earthy. But what I’m particularly interested in was the organic labelling.

Over dinner, we’d had quite a conversation around the impact and ethics of false labelling and certification – and it was obvious we were dealing with some pretty sceptical guests. I’d brought up the article in Which magazine about “greenwashing”, which was just fuelling their scepticism.

My initial response on seeing that article was that big companies with big bucks are always hoodwinking consumers about everything – especially trying to convince us about the ‘naturalness’ of the product (like the Fresh Prepared Salad Producers Group initiative I mentioned in What’s in your salad). Well, that and the distressing thought that all those years I used the Ecover laundry powder, and suffered relatively poor cleaning results, I may not have been making any difference at all…

But really what I think is that yes, there are questionable ethics about most brands – especially supermarket brands – but that investigations like that reported in Which magazine can often bring about even more confusion and scepticism amongst the consumers they’re trying to serve – like our dinner guests. The bottom line is,  unless you grow it yourself, make it yourself or know the folks that did, you’re running the risk of misleading labelling in every instance.

So when is an organic wine, really an organic wine?

This wine was bought in our local Co-op, and is imported by Thierry’s. It states on the label that the organic certification by Letis SA. So who is Letis SA, and can we trust them to certify legitimately and to what standards?

The International Organic Accreditation Service tells us that “LETIS stands for loyalty, ethics, transparency, independence and solutions”. I like the sound of that. On the Letis website, they qualify their organic principles as

HEALTH, ECOLOGY, EQUAL RULES FOR ALL, PRECAUTION AND RESPONSABILITY

We understand “organic”, “ecological” & “biological”, as any agricultural product that comes from a sustainable production system , that through rational Management of natural resources and without the use of chemically synthesized products, yields healthy, abundant foods, maintains or improves soil fertility and its biotic activity, and allows consumers the clear identification of an organic product via a certification system that guarantees the quality.

I like the sound of that too. But what about the certification standards and procedure? Well, I don’t know much about that. I think this page tells me that it costs $450 for an inspection by Letis, a further $400 annual fee and a 1% fee on any certified produce sold. That doesn’t seem like a lot of money. But what does that mean?

And what does that certification relate to anyway? Morethanorganic.com makes the point that most wine labelled as organic, is actually mass-produced in the conventional manner, and that for those reasons (such as the addition of sulphites, which the Terra Organica brand does contain) they are not actually ‘natural’.

Morethanorganic.com goes on to say

Current EU law contains no definition of organic wine and does not allow the term to appear on any wine label. Legally speaking, organic wine does not exist.

Labels. Certification. Is it pointless? Are we simply helpless consumers at the mercy of marketers who spend mega bucks to make us buy their products?

None of us are helpless. We can all make choices. Perhaps we should start to make more informed choices and take informed action. As consumers, we carry the most power of all.

More reading?

Some further reading on organic farming in Argentina. I loved this excerpt “An example of a small-scale organic farmer can be given in the following anecdotal story. An organic certifier was informed by one of the members that he ‘had destroyed’ all the bugs which were attacking his crop. The certifier was shocked and asked what product he had used to combat the plague, and asked if that product was allowed. The farmer, producing on an area smaller than 0.5 ha, said: “Well, I pinched them all between my fingers”.

The European Ecolabel: a voluntary scheme introduced in 1992 and part of the EU Commission’s action plan on Sustainable Consumption and Production and Sustainable Industrial Policy

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