The not-so-organic EU regulations

Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus
(The mountain laboured and gave forth a ridiculous mouse)
Horace ~ Epistle on the art of poetry
This harvest, the EU’s new regulations for Organic viticulture are to be enforced. Les Caves’s numero uno Italiano Dario Poddana kindly translated an outline of the regulations from Valerio Gualerzi on .
Here is the outline. Give it a read and then scroll down to Doug Wregg’s thoughts on the regulations:

From Valerio:

‘All ready for the first organic harvest. So far only grapes needed to be certified to obtain an organic status, rather the wine itself. From now on needs to contain lower sulphites and to avoid certain treatments. This acknowledgement was awaited since 21 years for a product that represents today 7% of the whole Italian vineyards.

From organic grapes to organic wines. The next harvest will be the first showing on shelves of supermarket and wine shops bottles certified as organic not just for the use of vineyards treated “without chemicals” (although some products like copper are actually tolerated), but also for the respect of specific types of work and vinification systems in the cellar. The news is the outcome of a new EU legislation, enforced from 1st of August 2012, which regulates organic wine production inside the Union. This result arrives after over 20 years of debates started by organic viticulturists, achieved through exhaustive negotiations. The final text of the legislation is in fact a compromise that has been hard to reach. The central issue of the new legislation covers new maximum allowances per liter in the use of sulphites, now limited to 100 milligrams per liter for reds and 150 for whites and rosés. The new rules do not allow anymore several practices in the cellar, such as partial cold concentration, de-sulphitation of juice, electrolysis, partial de-alcoholization, and the treatment of wine with “cationic exchangers”. Further practices have been limited such as: thermal treatments can’t go above 70°C and filtration will not be allowed anymore with filters carrying holes of a diameter below 0,2 microns (which means yes to microfiltration but no to ultra and nano-filtration).

Coming to ingredients and additives in the vinification process, almost everything of natural origin is allowed (vegetal, animal and microbiological, including yeasts and bacteria), with a recommendation to use the ones of organic origin when available, and a limitation of synthetic ones. Talking about yeasts, it is now a legal requirement to use organic ones only if they are of the same type/family of the appropriate ones needed for the specific vinification applied.

In every other case it is allowed to use conventional selected yeasts, as long as not genetically modified, or to carry on spontaneous fermentation or own yeast (even if purified and lyophilized). Altogether an organic producer can use up to 44 additives and adjustments, while his conventional colleague can use up to 70. “We could have been more ambitious, but even if this is the result of a compromise we can feel satisfied – comments Vice President of Italian organic farmers’ association (Aiab) Cristina Micheloni –“ it was important to discourage further delays because despite an increased interest from consumers, our extra-EU competitors have already adopted specific regulations”.”In Italy – says Micheloni – organic vineyards cover a total surface of 52,000 hectares, about 7% of the total. For all these growers the new EU regulation is a great opportunity because of the (increased) demand for organic wines arriving primarily from Northern Europe, United Kingdom and Denmark”. An organic bottle, continues the vice president of Aiab, must not necessarily be more expensive than a more conventional wine of high quality.”In some regions like Sicily and Tuscany – she explains – production costs are similar, even if it can change vintage after vintage “. Mr Enzo Vizzari  – responsible for the Espresso Wine Guide – also welcomes the introduction of the new regulation.  “Enologists”, he explains, “are a bit concerned, but I believe it is a good step forward. This will not amount to a total guarantee nor it will be a total panacea against all illegal practice, but this news is more than welcome in a leading industry in which people like indulging in dissertations and discussions as well, because too many cowboys may operate in it due to the lack of strict regulations.’

Doug’s thoughts:

This is not exactly the earth-shattering document designed to irrevocably transform the lab-coated Franken-oenologist into a happy-go-lucky natural winemaker. Rather it seems a piecemeal, pusillanimous exercise. To give proper value to the term “organic”, guidelines should be introduced to compel winemakers to seriously confront the methods they use in the winery. It seems inherently wrong that sympathetic viticultural practices can be undermined (or devalued) by the excessive use of additives during the winemaking process. The fact that the new regulations are currently targeting the most obviously abusive regimes and giving them slightly less wriggle-room is not tantamount to reforming a flawed system but simply toning it down. Instead of rowing back it is rowing in ever-decreasing circles.

The final text is in fact a classic compromise and the tinge of regret in the tone of the press release suggests an opportunity squandered (“we could have been more ambitious” is telling). Looking at the specifics of the regulations, whilst the lowering of the upper ceiling for allowable sulphites is welcome, it remains inordinately high for wines that are putatively organic and well above those prescribed by other certification bodies. What really takes the Duchy’s Original is that an organic producer may still use up to 44 (count ‘em) additives and adjustments – which is an exhaustive menu of manipulations by any standards. Does this betoken an organic approach? Not by several parasangs. In this looking glass world, organic seems to be defined as not many chemical manipulations.

The premise of reform should not be how much or little can we let producers get away with, but addressing the fundamental question of why additives have become so integral to winemaking. Despite what one might think such chemical interventions are a comparatively recent phenomenon. On another issue I am sure that customers would like (and expect) wine to be a more natural product (although I am not talking about “natural wine” as such here). Using the word organic to describe winemaking methods, however, is like trying to nail jelly; chemical winemaking is, by definition, manipulative, so regulations have to be prescriptive – telling winemakers what they should do – as well as being proscriptive – telling them what they can’t do, for the term to have any traction. But how you control the number and nature of interventions is anyone’s guess.

Organic wine can be misleading because it allows certain growers to do the bare minimum to qualify for certification, rather than encouraging them to embrace the holistic notion of chemical-free farming and low additive winemaking. Since the relativist approach moves at a speed slower than a snail – the compromises detailed below are apparently the result of twenty years of deliberation and procrastination (!) – organicshould be struck off as a winemaking term. Whilst is not beyond the wit of bureaucrats to design a kind of Reinheitsgebot for wine, it seems that you either want to make natural wine (moving towards minimal/no intervention) or you believe that chemical interventions and additions are necessary. If it is necessary to legislate about organically-made wine – and I’m not sure that it is – then do it properly.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Yes, my first reaction was also of disappointment. Those maximum sulphite levels are unnecessarily high and 44 allowable additives seems rather a lot! I suppose (cynically) that the new regulations were lobbied for and tailored to suit the interests of large corporate wineries that have an ‘organic’ line of wines that they’d like to expand! Do these new rules affect small artisan producers in any way?

    1. blog

      Fabio, I would imagine the small artisan producers are already working well within the new organic regulations anyway, so as you say, this is really for the large corporate wineries so that they can continue to work more or less the same and slap ‘organic’ on their labels.

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