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What went wrong with the EU organic wine certification?

Posted Jul 12 2010 7:38am

We are back to square one with regards to a European organic wine certification. While it was hoped that this year organic winemakers will be able to label their wines organic, the negotiations over the acceptable levels of sulphur dioxide (SO2) use fell through, and the draft legislation was withdrawn. The reason behind it is the EU Commissions insistence on enforcing the same SO2 reduction (50 mg/l vs current country-specific limits) across all wine-producing countries, in spite of continuous resistance from the northern-most producers.

While it was recognized that SO2 restriction may be lifted in bad vintages, the commission kept pushing for a geographically uniform regulation. Why this obsessions with a single rule for all geographical regions? If it can be accepted that higher SO2 levels may be needed when the weather is not favorable, why not accept that in certain geographical areas the weather is not favorable most of the time?

This insistence on uniformity is surprising, considering that the problems the new legislation would pose to northern organic winemakers were flagged from the very beginning of the research and negotiation process. Already in the research report by ORWINE, submitted to the EU Commission, it was noted that all organic wine producers in Germany were against any limitation of SO2. The fear was that limiting SO2 in absence of alternatives could lead to a deterioration of sensorial qualities of organic wines, and a further loss of consumer confidence. Furthermore, ORWINE noted that reducing SO2 levels would have to result in trade-offs with other oenological practices for some winemakers; for example some may be constrained to use selected yeast strains, or control fermentation temperatures.

As shown by ORWINE tastings, using such techniques resulted in wines which tasted different to those obtained following usual protocols of organic winemakers which participated in the experiment. In other words, while SO2 limiting was found to be possible in organic wines, it could a) change their sensorial characteristics, as it would have to be coupled with a change in winemaking practices and b) was not accepted by organic winemakers in all countries, specifically those who practice organic viticulture in harsher climatic conditions, and whose grapes are therefore more prone to fungal and bacterial contaminations which can be counter-acted successfully only using SO2. These objections were, however, downplayed.

Further worries were clearly communicated by the members of IFOAM (International Foundation for Organic Agriculture). Throughout the legislation drafting processes the EU Commission was in correspondence with IFOAM, which in turn conducted internal consultations with its members and internal wine experts as well as the IFOAM EU Group board. From the outset the issue of SO2 reduction was the most controversial one for IFOAM members. In the position on the organic wine processing from 25th September 2009 IFOAM stated:

“The issue of sulfite reduction remains the most controversial for the organic sector and the discussion needs more time (some countries favors strong reduction of up to 50% while other countries are in favor of no reduction at all). We urge the EU Commission to recognize the sensitivity of the issue and to carefully consider the different options.”

IFOAM stressed that the proposed 50% reduction in SO2 levels (vs current country-specific levels) was not acceptable, as it would not allow organic wine production in all EU wine regions. In the IFOAM EU position paper of 28th October 2009 they reiterated this point, expressing a concern that “this [proposed reduction] would force organic wine producers out of business.” In a revised draft the EU Commission reduced the proposed SO2 limit to current country-specific limit minus 50 mg/l. This, however, continued to be unacceptable to German, Austrian and Dutch organic wine producers. In spite of this, the EU commission draft from April 2010 continued to require a 50 mg/l reduction, and suggested those producers who could not meet this standard continued using the ‘wine from organically made grapes’ label for the time being. This solution proved unacceptable to the IFOAM members, and finally on June 16th the EU Commissioner for Agriculture & Rural Development Dacian Ciolos withdrew the draft proposal to introduce rules for the production of organic wine.

The negotiations have now re-started, and organic winemakers still hope that in 2011 their wines will be able to carry the ‘Organic Wine’ label. It seems, however, that unless geographical differences between organic winemaking areas are seriously taken into consideration, 2011 will see a replay of the current scenario.

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