OK, so let’s start this whole discussion once again with a massive disclaimer – I am not a food scientist or a chemist, but I know what the USDA says about wines, so let’s go with that!
As with other USDA organic products, organic wine is made without using prohibited substances or genetic engineering (see Allowed and Prohibited Substances). It undergoes the same rigorous requirements of USDA organic certification as other products throughout its lifecycle (see Five Steps to Organic Certification). And, in addition to being overseen by the USDA National Organic Program, it has to meet the requirements of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, especially for sulfite labeling requirements.
Before a wine can be sold as organic, both the growing of the grapes and their conversion to the wine must be certified. This includes making sure grapes are grown without synthetic fertilizers and in a manner that protects the environment and preserves the soil. Other agricultural ingredients that go into the wine, such as yeast, also have to be certified organic. Any non-agricultural ingredients must be specifically allowed on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (see Allowed and Prohibited Substances) and can’t exceed 5% of the total product. And, while wine naturally produces some sulfur dioxide (sulfites), they can’t be added to organic wine. Sulfites are commonly added to wines to stop the fermentation process or preserve the flavor profile.
Wines that are sold as “made with organic grapes” have different requirements than organic wine. When a wine is labeled as being made with organic grapes 100% of those grapes used must be certified organic. Yeast and any other agricultural ingredients aren’t required to be organic but have to be produced without excluded methods (like genetic engineering). As for non-agricultural ingredients, these have to be specifically allowed on the National List. Finally, sulfites may be added to wines that carry the “made with organic grapes” label—up to 100 parts per million.
So, that clears things up, scientifically, for the USA! Meaning that for you to say you have an organic wine in the USA on a US wine label, you cannot add sulfites and the grapes must have been grown organically. All good.
Let’s look at other countries – this is where things become a bit murkier. The biggest of them is Europe and they allow the “small” addition of sulfites to organic wine and those rules went into effect in 2012.
In contrast, the new EU rules for “organic wine” allow a maximum of 100 parts per million for red wine (compared to 150 for conventional reds) and 150 parts per million for whites and rosés (compared to 200 for their conventional counterparts). Sweet wines are allotted an extra 30 parts per million as more sulfites are typically needed to prevent residual sugar from fermenting in the bottle. Canada allows up to 100 parts per million in its organic wines.
In saying that, organic wine does contain half the maximum legal limit of sulphur dioxide (220) – a common preservative in wine that is used to inhibit or kill unwanted yeasts and bacteria, and the main culprit for those shocking hangovers, the next day.
The maximum allowable limit of “pres 220” in Australian wine is 300 parts per million (ppm). For Australian certified organic wine, it’s 150 ppm. To give a little context, most dry wines usually won’t exceed 200 ppm, and dried fruits can contain anywhere between 500 and 3000 ppm. If you are overly sensitive to sulphur, then drinking organic wines can be a “healthier” choice and will usually make the next day’s declarations of a sober future a lot less necessary.
I could find no real laws in regards to Israeli wine production – please send me more info – if you can find – ACTUAL Israeli laws regarding Organic wine production requirements – thanks!
Organic kosher wine options
Now that we have covered the gamut of wine rules and regulations in regards to organic and no-sulfite added wines, by definition, on a label, we can look at the kosher wine options that exist, sadly there are few.
It all started with Four Gates Winery making wine from Organic CCOF grapes, in 1997. After that, we had some wine from Yarden Odem Winery that used Organic grapes as well, but the label kept getting into trouble with the USDA – as there was no way to state “using Organic Grapes” in those days.
We had the first TRULY organic winery in the Bashan Winery until they closed and we had the lovely Harkham wines from Australia, but they are really hard to find here in the USA now, and they would not get the USDA Organic wine label, as they do throw in a sparingly small amount of sulfites. My guess is, they sell perfectly well in Australia, so why bother with shipping.
So, where does that leave us now – actively, outside of Four Gates and Yarden Odem Chardonnay that are not organic wines, but rather a wine made with organic grapes?
We have three options today:
- Herzog Wine cellar’s brand new 2019 Herzog Cabernet Sauvignon, Variation Be-leaf. It is the 1st wine made in the USA that deserves the USDA organic wine label, and widely available now.
- Elima from Or Haganuz – was the first no-sulfite added wine that was mass-produced and marketed here in the USA and it is still widely available. It is not made with organic grapes.
- Camuna Wines from Camuna Wine Cellars has wines that – though not “officially” organic wine were made in a natural manner and with minimal intervention. Like added sulfites. Sadly, it does not look like they made any new wines recently.
I would suppose the real question what is the market out there for such wines in the kosher wine world? In the non-kosher wine world, the market for natural wines is massive and Alice Feiring and others are the drivers for this change.
Maybe now with two large companies producing Organic kosher wines – the market will grow, time will tell.
Where is the USDA Organic label?
As we have described above – the USDA label requires nothing more than organic grapes and no added sulfites. So, when Herzog released their 2019 Herzog Cabernet Sauvignon Be-Leaf I was wondering why the label did not have the USDA Organic certification?
Sadly, the requirements to meet the USDA label versus actually getting the label are not in the same ballpark. While, the requirements are not complicated, getting a third party to the winery to observe and validate the requirements and then validating it with the USDA makes for such an arduous task that Herzog chose the CCOF route, the same route that Four Gates uses – for just Organic grapes. Since the CCOF route was taken and they wanted to denote the organic nature of the wine – without the USDA organic label, the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) required the label have more additions to make it all good. All in all, a classic example of what is wrong with bureaucracy. Take a simple-ish idea and complicate so horrible that the outcome – is more complicated than where we started! Bravo TTB and USDA!!
Either way, the outcome is more options for the kosher market, notwithstanding the complications and headaches for all!
2019 Herzog Cabernet Sauvignon, Variation Be-leaf (M) – Score: 88
This is not the first wine to use organic grapes, Four Gates has used CCOF grapes for as long as it has been around, 1997. As described above, an organic wine means that the wine is, of course, using Organic grapes (CCOF Organic as Herzog is a California winery) and there were no sulfites added at all. As I have posted many times when I talk about the only other no-sulfite-added wine, the Or Haganuz Elima, that all wine has sulfites. All wine has sulfites naturally. Still, Herzog added no sulfites to this wine and as such, it could have garnered the USDA Organic certification if it were not such a huge hassle.
Finally, come on guys, wines like this deserve a DIAM cork, enough already! Heck other wines with bigger price points and “theoretical” lifespans use DIAM, even Château Guiraud uses DIAM cork, for the Grand Vin – come on guys – MOVE ON!
This is the second time I have had this wine and it is finally calming down. The nose is still very fruity, not overly ripe, but the fruit is very present, with notes of blueberry, black fruit, licorice, red fruit, and more dense fruit that has not had a chance to calm down and integrate. The mouth on this medium-bodied wine is fun, it shows lovely boysenberry, dark cherry, cassis, and draping sweet tannin, with nice menthol, mineral, and pencil shavings, with an ever-present ripeness that is not going to go away. The finish is a pith attack, with loads of almond, citrus pith, and sweet/ripe fruit that lingers long with a good minerality and tannin structure that will keep this no-sulfite added wine fine for a couple of years. Drink by 2022.
2018 Or Haganuz Elima – Score: 82
This wine has no added sulfites and it is a blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Cabernet Franc. The nose on this wine is ripe and at 14% ABV, on the label, I think it is a bit higher, with heat and alcoholic aromas, sweet oak, cassis, black fruit, and red fruit in the background. The mouth on this full-bodied wine is ripe and uncontrolled, sadly, with clear leanings of overripe fruit, blackberry, candied cherry, overripe currants, and loads of oak and smoke, with nice enough tannin and more oak. The finish is long, sweet, oaky, and sweet, with sweet chewing tobacco galore and a hint of graphite. Drink until 2023.
This is not the first time I have posted about Or Haganuz and its sulfite-free Cabernet wine. They have been making this wine for many years now, I remember as early back as 2009, maybe earlier.
We have spoken before about sulfites when I posted an article, about the then ONLY Kosher Sulfite Free wine that I knew of. The Bashan Winery is a lovely small winery in the Galilee that only produces sulfite-free wine.
So what are Sulfites? They are nothing more than a preservative for wine. They were added into wine staring in the last century or so. Before then people got along fine without using them – why? Because sulfites occur naturally in wine. The extra sulfites one may add allow for the wine to stay on the shelf or in the cellar longer. So most winemakers that bottle organic wine will say that white wines should be drunk within the year and within the day of opening it. Red wines have a bit more life to them – 5 years or so, as sulfites are far more prevalent in red wines.
Many wineries have wines made from organically grown grapes – this is a trend that many wineries are trying to push, in ways as part of the whole natural wine story. Also, because organic grapes are more than just a selling point, it because organic grapes are good for the vines, the vine workers, and ultimately, the customer.
When we talk about sulfite-free wine, it does not always mean organic wine! In the USA, the rules are VERY simple, you CANNOT add any preservatives in ANY manner – as described here, (sorry the data is in a PDF) on the USDA website if you wish to put the word Organic on the wine label. An organic wine means ZERO SO2 was added to the wine at any time in the processing of the wine. The wine will still have sulfites unless they were fined out because sulfites occur naturally in the grape skins. Also, the wine must be made from organic grapes and many other requirements. The U.S. differs in what it defines as “organic” wine from the EU or other countries. In the E.U. they can call a wine organic, as long as:
- These include: maximum sulfite content set at 100 mg per liter for red wine (150 mg/l for conventional)
- 150mg/l for white/rosé (200 mg/l for conventional),
- with a 30mg/l differential where the residual sugar content is more than 2g per liter.
Please note – that this is not additive sulfite count/numbers, but rather that TOTAL amount of sulfites allowed in the wines. Again, sulfites occur naturally in grape skins, so if you macerate your wine for 2 months (or something long like that anyway), you will get a fair amount of sulfite in your wine without ever adding any actual SO2 into your wine, manually. Also, sulfite is a naturally occurring byproduct of the fermentation process.
So why all the buzz around sulfites in wine? Because some people are supposedly allergic to the sulfites. What is the percentage of people with this ailment? The USDA describes it as 1/100 as stated here, far fewer people than the percentage of folks who think Cilantro is the Devil’s spawn (I am one of them by the way, Cilantro hater, not Sulfite hater).
So, when my local Rabbi, who says he is allergic to Sulfites asked me to look at options, I told him the only kosher mass-produced “no sulfite added” option out there is the Or Haganuz Elima.
So, when I had the opportunity to taste the recent vintage, I was happy to do so, so that I could decide for myself if this wine was drinkable or not. When I tasted it I was shocked, for a couple of reasons. First of all, it was Or Haganuz, come on, their wines are undrinkable by default. They are classically built Israeli wines, oak monsters, with unbearable tannin structure, and date juice drove. So, when I tasted the Elima, I was shocked that it was a well-balanced wine, with good fruit focus, and to boot, it had no added sulfites. Now, from the structure of the wine, I can tell they macerated this wine for a good amount of time. How long, I have no idea, but they “added” sulfites by extracting all the sulfites they could from the grape skins as they could. Now, I am no doctor or professor, but well before reading the back label of the bottle, I could tell you this wine was macerated for a long period of time. Sure, enough the back label says exactly what I had surmised from my palate, that they had used a method of winemaking developed by Dr. Arkady Papikian (a consulting winemaker in Israel), which used a long maceration process and then a long and cold fermentation. Both of which, as stated above create natural sulfites. I have no idea if naturally occurring sulfites cause people with allergies, fewer issues, but my Rabbi, who says he is allergic to sulfites has no issues with this particular wine.
Please NOTE – this is NOT an organic wine, it does not use the word organic, nor does it advertise as such. It simply states that they did not add in sulfites to this wine, at least in an unnatural manner anyway.
The wine notes follow below – the explanation of my “scores” can be found here:
2016 Or Haganuz Elima – Score: 90 (no added sulfites)
This wine is a blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Cabernet Franc.
The wine is a classical new world wine, very ripe, and concentrated, still the lack of sulfites do not affect it to me. This wine has no added sulfites – but a sulfite-free red wine does not exist, as all red wines have naturally occurring sulfites.
The nose on this wine is ripe, with nice green notes, garrigue, and good notes of earth and spice, with anise galore, menthol, some black fruit, and hints of red berries. The mouth on this full bodied wine is rich and layered, a wine that will sell well for those that like wine like this, it is well balanced with good acidity, tobacco galore, with rich smokey meats, blackberry, cassis, and ripe juicy dark plums, all wrapped in good tannin and a nice fruit structure. The finish is long and green, with foliage, sweet dill, and nice green and red fruit on the long linger. Nice! As the wine opens the chocolate emerges.