If you want to drink organic wine, you will begin finding a much larger selection in Europe with the 2012 vintage. 

On August 1, new European Union “organic wine” regulations that are a sharp departure from United States regulations became effective.   Under the new regulations, wines sold in the EU that otherwise meet organic standards may now be labeled “organic wine” with sulfite levels over 10 times those of organic U.S. wines.  The differing standards are:

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The new EU regulations recognize that the common practice of adding sulfur to protect against oxidation and microbes does not make wine run afoul of “organic” standards.  However, to get the USDA Organic seal in the United States, those wines must have 1/10th the level of sulfites than are allowed by the new EU regulations. 

What sulfite levels are organic?

The new EU regulations allow sulfite amounts equal to about 1/2000th of an ounce of sulfites in a glass of wine or about the equivalent of a drop of water in a half liter bottle.  Canada has also established an “organic” standard of 100 mg/l.  For organic wines that exceed this level, EU regulations allow them to petition to use the EU’s previously approved “wine issued from organic grapes.” 

The largest total acreage of organic vineyards is in Spain.  In France, it is estimated that at least 6% of all French vineyards are producing wines organically.  Winemakers in France have embraced the organic concept and the number of French wineries going “organic” has doubled in the last three years. 

What are acceptable sulfite levels in the United States?

If you want to drink “organic wine” in the United States, those wines must meet the definition of “organic” established by the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Organics Standard Board.  Last December, the NOSB rejected requests to allow the term “organic” to apply where there are higher sulfite contents.  US wines must still adhere to a strict 10 mg/l limit to be labeled “organic.”  Wines at or below that level may display the coveted USDA Organic seal.   Commentators have complained that these levels exceed even naturally occurring levels of sulfites in the grapes.

How will this affect European wine labels in the U.S.?

This significant difference between allowable sulfite levels will mean that many EU organic wines can not obtain the USDA Organics seal and can not be marketed here as “organic wine”.  In fact, EU wines will be required to be relabeled for the US market as “wines from organic grapes”.  However, US wines can be sold in Europe meeting the new EU levels can be labeled as “organic wines” even though that is not permitted in the US. 

So, is your wine “organic”?   It depends on where you are when you are drinking it.