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frequently asked questions
Does wine from organic grapes taste better? top
The short answer to whether an organic wine tastes any better is that some definitely do but many don't. Our 'strike-rate' of finding a good organic wine is much lower than for conventional wines.
This is basically because the lack of chemicals can result in an added risk of rot and if you let rotten grapes ferment you get off-flavours in the wine. However once weaned off chemicals, the vines can gradually become more disease resistant. And when the growers select out any unhealthy fruit the wine has a greater sense of place and individual character as the yeasts are often natural rather than artificial and the roots are forced to delve deep into the soil.
The most expensive wine in the world (Romanee-Conti) is organic and biodynamic and there are many top growers who prove the case. So these are the wines we seek out and why you can trust our organic wines to be of good quality.
What is the difference between organic wine and wine made from organically grown grapes? top
Strictly speaking 'organic wine' is wine made from grapes grown organically (ie. without man-made compounds such as fertilizers, fungicides and pesticides) AND without the addition of sulfur dioxide during winemaking. In the European Union the directive only covers organic viticulture not the wine production side, whereas in the USA and Australia a distinction is made. However in practice, only a very, very few wines are made without the addition of sulfur dioxide during winemaking as this makes them more susceptible to bacterial spoilage. Organic certification bodies forbid chemical additives but do allow sulfur dioxide but at levels that are two-thirds that used in conventional winemaking. In other words, if you buy wine made from organically grown grapes, less sulfur dioxide has been used.
What is sulfur/sulfur dioxide/sulfites and why is it added during the winemaking process? top
Sulfur is a naturally occurring substance, making up 0.5% of the earth's crust. At room temperature it is a yellow, brittle, solid substance and when burnt in air, creates sulfur dioxide gas which has been used as a preservative and disinfectant since ancient times. Sulfites are also produced by micro-organisms and are present at low levels in many foods even where none has been added eg. bread. All wine contains some sulfites as a natural by-product of fermentation.
During winemaking sulfur dioxide is added to inhibit oxidation and bacterial spoilage. Those winemakers who use none at all put their wines at risk of spoilage during bottling, shipment and ageing. Within the EU maximum permitted levels of total sulfur dioxide in the finished wine are 160 mg/l for dry red wines, 210 mg/l for dry white and rosé and sweet red wines, and 260 mg/l for sweet white and rosé wines. Certain very sweet wines can contain up to 400 mg/l (more sulfur is needed when there is residual sugar present to prevent it from fermenting). To put this into context maximum levels for fruit juice made from concentrate are higher than this. Levels of sulfur additions have been reduced over the centuries and nowadays, quality winemakers use only the minimum necessary.
How much sulfur dioxide does wine contain compared to other foods? top
Many foods naturally contain or have sulfur added, such as fruit juices, sausages, jams and processed foods. Studies have shown that on average a glass of red wine contains 10 mg of sulfur dioxide. 56g (two ounces) of dried apricots typically contain 112 mg of sulfur dioxide. Did you also know that the human body produces around 1000 mg of sulfur dioxide a day?!
I have heard sulfur dioxide in wine causes problems for asthma sufferers. Is this true? top
High doses of sulfur dioxide are said to affect a small proportion of very sensitive asthma sufferers and this is why we are now seeing 'Contains sulphites' or 'Preservative 220' on wine labels as part of allergen labelling. If you suffer from asthma and are affected by sulfur dioxide in foods like dried apricots and fruit juices, then you may be affected by some wines. Dry red wines have less sulfur than white and sweet wines. Wines certified as organic will have lower sulfur levels as well. So your best bet is to find an organic dry red wine that you like.
Is it true that (red) wine causes headaches or allergic reactions? top
Obviously, you will get a headache if you drink too much alcohol full stop! So quality not quantity is our motto. Unlike white wines, red wines have been fermented on the grapeskins and therefore contain a wider range of constituents. However this area is under-researched and although there are low levels of histamines and sulfur dioxide in all wines, generally they are not enough to provoke an allergic reaction unless you are particularly sensitive (see above for sulfur dioxide). Organic wines have lower levels of sulfur dioxide and this may help some people. However, there is no denying that some people cannot drink any alcohol or certain types of wines. The only advice we can give is to find wines that you can enjoy by trial or error.
Is biodynamic wine also organic? top
Yes. The whole biodynamic philosophy is founded on the premise that chemical additions are not used. Biodynamics is really organics "with knobs on" ie. not just using natural means but looking at Nature in a wider context and taking into account the gravitational forces at play as the moon orbits the earth and the earth orbits the sun.
When we think we are completely still in our beds, how fast are we actually moving? top
An interesting question!! We are actually moving incredibly fast. The earth spins round on its axis every day. If you were at the north or south poles, you would be turning on the spot, but at the earth's widest point on the equator, you would be moving at 1,038 km/hr (over 1,000 miles an hour). Not only that, but the earth is orbiting the sun at 108,000 km/hr, our solar system is moving round the Milky Way at 900,000 km/hr and the Milky Way is moving through the rest of the universe at over a million km/hr! So we are constantly whizzing and wheeling around space and yet we don't feel a thing thanks to gravity. A sobering thought ...
Is there a difference between biodynamic wine and wine made from biodynamically grown grapes? top
Yes. As with the organic wine, strictly speaking the difference depends on what happens during the winemaking process and what additions are allowed to be made and when. Biodynamic winemaking aims to be as natural as possible, minimising any additions and using the lunar calendar to dictate when to rack wine off its lees for example. In practice, it is difficult to have hard and fast rules which work for all wines in all regions. In our view, what is important is that the winegrower produces the best quality wine that he or she can given the soil, microclimate and vintage conditions, and in as natural a way as possible. Biodynamics can definitely enhance quality, for example the most expensive burgundy in the world, Romanée-Conti, uses biodynamic principles, but we must let each winegrower decide what is best for his or her own situation and what is sustainable long term.
Why aren't there more wines made from organic or biodynamic grapes? top
Wine has some catching up to do compared to the organic food market. In the past the number of organic wines has been few and not all have been great quality. But gradually the penny is dropping that well-made organic and biodynamic wines can be a good thing. The wines possess a greater sense of place and typicity than conventionally-made wines. Consumer demand is growing for wines produced without pesticides, and for wines with character and individuality in a world of reliable but relatively boring brands. The percentage of the world's vineyards that are organically farmed may be very low (somewhere around 5%) but it is growing fast and soon there will be a great many more to choose from.
Why are some wines certified organic or biodynamic and others not? top
Good question. There are several reasons why a winegrower may decide not to go for certification. For one thing there are costs involved with any certification body to cover audit charges and licence fees to use their logo. Some growers do not want to be labelled as organic for fear of alienating the vast majority of regular wine drinkers who don't know or don't care about organics. There are also some who are farming organically or biodynamically simply because they believe it is the right and best way and they want the quality of the wine in the bottle to speak for itself.
What are vegetarian and vegan wines? top
Most wines need to be 'fined' in order to clarify and stabilize them, to prevent hazes or cloudiness developing later on. Fining agents are added and then removed - they do not stay in the wine. However because some fining agents are animal-derived products they may therefore be unacceptable to vegetarians and vegans. Wines fined with bentonite (a clay) are suitable for both vegetarians and vegans. Wines fined with egg-white are acceptable to most vegetarians. Wines fined with isinglass (fish bladder) or gelatine would not be acceptable to most vegetarians and vegans. We ask our wine producers what fining agents they use and make this clear for our customers whenever we can. However, as a point of interest, please be aware that we cannot tell which adhesive has been used to affix labels and this could be animal-based.
What is a corked wine? top
Wines affected by cork taint smell of musty damp cardboard, undergrowth and (unpleasant) green leaves and the fruit aroma is very subdued. There are varying degrees of cork taint from just a whiff which seems to dissipate after a few minutes, to out-and-out corkiness. True cork taint comes from a chemical compound called TCA (trichloroanisole) which is perceptible at very low concentrations and some people pick it up more than others. It can be down to the quality of the cork itself, it could be a problem with a wooden barrel, it could even be introduced by wood preservatives in the structure of the winery itself. There are also other wine faults that are frequently blamed on cork. So it's not as clear-cut as you think. Some say as many as one in twenty bottles are corked to some extent. The industry as a whole is working hard to eradicate this problem and one of the solutions has been the introduction of the screwcap. Screwcaps work well for aromatic, dry white wines for early drinking (and are very handy for picnics!). The jury is still out on oaked whites and reds which improve with age and we think these are still better with a cork closure. Cork is also a totally natural and renewable resource.
How can a wine be termed 'ethical'? top
We use the term ethical to mean environmentally and socially responsible. Each wine we list ticks at least one of our ethical criteria. Ultimately what we want are wines that abide by both these sets of principles. It is a complex area which involves a lot of shades of grey rather than black and white. There are questions about how fair is Fairtrade (see below), questions around the permitted use of copper sulphate in organic vineyards, food miles, carbon footprints etc. In the end we make our own value judgement about each wine. What we are looking for are the growers' best endeavours to do the right things for the soil, the quality of the wine, and the people who work the land. We look for people who care about how they do things and we find that this translates into the quality of the wine they produce.
How fair is Fairtrade? top
We have visited two of South Africa's Fairtrade wine projects. There is no question that some great things being done for the workers and the community and most importantly they are ensured a living wage. However there are also questions about the cost incurred by audit and licence fees and how much of the Fairtrade premium gets through to where it is needed. Again, it's a complex issue. Our conclusion is that it is better to buy Fairtrade than not buy Fairtrade, but that we should not ignore the other estates who are also paying their workers fairly and looking after their welfare.
Isn't drinking alcohol unethical? top
Some people may feel strongly that this is the case. Indeed, alcohol and tobacco companies can be positively screened out of ethical fund portfolios if you see them as harmful to health. However there is a wealth of evidence that, in small daily amounts, alcohol (whether wine or spirits) can be beneficial to your health. It sounds like a little of what you fancy can do you good, but we are talking a glass or two of wine a day, not a bottle!
For more information please see the Drinking & You website.
Am I paying a premium for organic wine? top
The short answer is: not necessarily, but if you are it's probably less than 50p a bottle.
If you are a winegrower and you are converting your vineyards from conventional to organic, you will be paying more for manual labour than you did before because you have to pass through the vines more times deleafing, mowing etc.
A small to medium-sized vineyard may need an extra two workers. On the other hand you save money by not having to purchase chemicals. The biggest consequence is the effect on the yield which can intially drop until the vines regain their natural balance. In certain wines (the ones we look for) being organic/biodynamic can actually deliver added quality, so that you are still getting good value for money.
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