Do French organic wines taste better than other, non-organic French wines of the same price? According to a recent study, they do. And a 2016 research effort showed similar results for California wines.
Does this mean wine drinkers should make searching out organic wines a priority?
As with everything, it depends.
How accurate are the studies?
According to the French study, a joint research project of the University of California, Los Angeles and the KEDGE Business School in Bordeaux, expert tasters ranked the certified organic wines as an average of 6.2% better in quality than those made from conventionally grown grapes. Biodynamic wines did even better, scoring 11.8% higher than conventional wines. The numbers in the study weren’t small — they came from an analysis of the scores handed out by French wine critics in France’s top three wine publications. Altogether, 128,182 wines were tasted and rated, from vintages between 1995 to 2015.
The 2016 California study, based on 74,000 wines rated by top American critics, also had organic wines achieving higher scores. Which, as the study put it, “is a statistically significant increase in wine quality.”
In one respect, this isn’t surprising, given that organic products like tomatoes and milk are often considered of higher quality by health-conscious consumers. But organic wine definitions and certifications vary — so what does this mean for the quality rankings, when less strict, but eco-friendly designations like California’s sustainable wine and France’s ‘reasoned’ agriculture are considered?
There are two U.S. definitions for organic wine. The federal government recognizes organic wine, which is made with organic grapes that doesn’t include added sulfites. They also recognize wines with added sulfites, but made with organic grapes, labeled as wine made with organic grapes. The latter is closer to the French definition of organic. Biodynamic wine is not recognized by most governments; rather it is a specific set of farming practices certified by Demeter, a non-profit organization that awards biodynamic certifications. It’s what’s known as a third-party certification, which, like the U.S. organic labels, requires a third party to attest to the organic standards.
Then there’s the fact that the study used scores and ratings from wine critics to determine quality. For France, it was scores from the Gault Millau, Gilbert Gaillard, and the Bettane and Desseauve guides. For Californian wine, it was scores from the Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, and Wine Spectator magazines.
Given the human element in wine scores and the long-time controversy over the accuracy of scores and ratings, that doesn’t seem to be the most scientific method. To complicate the ratings question, it’s not clear if all of the wines were tasted blind by the reviewers. This could prejudice the score depending on the critic’s point of view, with pro-organic reviewers marking the wine up and vice versa.
“It’s difficult to make claims like this because it’s so difficult to know how to find a methodology that works,” says Michael DeLoach, a California wine consultant, wine broker, and one-time winery owner. “The minute there are ratings where wines aren’t tasted blind, it’s not easy to look at the ratings and not question them.”
But study co-author Magali Delmas, an environmental scientist at UCLA, says she and co-author Olivier Gergaud, of the KEDGE Business School in Bordeaux, took those difficulties into consideration, and the data was analyzed using accepted mathematical techniques to lessen the bias.
She is confident of the results, which is that organic viticultural and enological practices make better wine. “After the California study, it was always the question of whether this was true elsewhere,” she says.
But the results come with one important caveat: the organic and biodynamic practices must be certified by a third party. Those wines where the winery self-labelled itself as organic, didn’t show up as being better in quality.
“The French study makes the case even more for distinguishing between biodynamic, organic, and other standards,” says Delmas.
Is it the attention to detail?
One key to the results, says Delmas, is that the French study compared like-to-like wines whenever possible. Hence, a $20 Chardonnay was compared to a $20 certified organic Chardonnay and $20 biodynamic Chardonnay. It was important to put similarly priced wines together, because expensive wines usually command higher prices for a reason. Organic and biodynamic wines tend to use better grapes farmed on more valuable land, and vinified with more time-consuming winemaking, all of which can lead to higher quality, regardless of whether the wine is certified organic. And this is the conundrum at the heart of the study — do organic wines perform better because they’re organic, or because of all the winemaking attention to detail?
“Yes, this is super hard to tease out,” says Jason Haas, the general manager at Paso Robles’ Tablas Creek Vineyard, where the vineyards are farmed organically and some are biodynamic. “When you’re going from farming to scores, you’re not sure what you’re going to get.”
But, he says, he’s convinced the studies recognize something he has seen at Tablas Creek. Organic farming has resulted in better soil health, which has led to healthier vines, better vineyard quality, and more of a sense of terroir. Tablas Creek, says Haas, has not needed to replant vines as often as its neighbors, who use conventional farming techniques.
Do organic wines perform better because they’re organic, or because of all the winemaking attention to detail?
The price matters
It’s important to note that the average price of the wines the study authors had pricing information for was €11, the equivalent of $20 in the U.S., once exchange rates, importer, and other costs are taken into account. That’s about twice the price of the average bottle of wine sold in the U.S. Quality costs.
Roberta Backlund, a Denver wine consultant, wine retailer, and wine broker, is convinced that price matters in organic wine quality, just as it does in conventional wine.
“Cheap organic wines just don’t taste good,” she says. “They’re thin, without any longevity. There’s a can of worms there, with all the parameters involved — the quality of the grapes, the vines, the soil, was it aged in concrete or barrels?”
But do they taste better than cheap conventional wines? That’s a subject for a different study. For the moment, the evidence suggests that higher-priced organic and biodynamic wines that have third-party certification taste better than their conventional counterparts.
Five Certified Organic Wines to Try:
This pink Argentine sparkler is three-quarters Pinot Noir and one-quarter Chardonnay, and isn’t too sweet. It’s also surprisingly fruity, offering the taste of fresh red berries, and features tight, fizzy bubbles. This offers a quality not usually seen with sparkling wine made with the less expensive Charmat method. Chill and sip on the back porch during summer.
Girasole somehow makes affordable, quality organic wines in California — something that the state’s costly production environment makes difficult. This pink, 51% Pinot Noir and 49% Zinfandel wine features strawberry and raspberry fruit, with backbone supplied by the Zinfandel. Enjoy by itself or with a plate of charcuterie.
Gruner, an Austrian white grape, has been fashionable for years with sommeliers and wine geeks, and this wine shows why. It’s not a Riesling knockoff, as too many are, but a truly varietal Grüner, with lots of fresh tart fruit, an almost spicy quality, and a clean, minerally finish. Pair with summer salads and vegetable plates.
This Spanish red, made with Tempranillo, uses carbonic maceration, where the grapes begin to ferment from the inside, instead of traditional fermentation. The result is a fruitier wine that offers more strawberry characters than the traditional cherry, with fewer tannins. A summer barbecue wine.
This classic white Bordeaux is half Sauvingon Blanc and half Semillon, produced by a well-regarded small producer. It’s a mouth puckering white, that’s crisp and almost salty. Bring on the seafood.