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Does organic wine taste better?

organic wineDoes eco-friendly wine — organic wine, wine made with organic grapes, or made with grapes farmed sustainably — taste better than conventional wine? Apparently so, says a recent study, and those results are quite surprising given the history of green wine.

Magali Delmas, an environmental scientist at UCLA who has studied eco-friendly wine over the past decade, was almost surprised at the answer. Her most recent study — “Does organic wine taste better?” (written with Olivier Gergaud of the KEDGE Business School in Bordeaux and UCLA’s Jinghui Lim) comes to the conclusion that it does.

That’s news to many of us, myself included, who see green wine as costing more without necessarily tasting any better. Yes, we understand that the extra cost is a good thing, in the way that green production methods are usually a good thing. But few see the extra cost as better quality, in the way that a more expensive organic tomato tastes better. In fact, says Delmas, that perception is so common in wine that two-thirds of producers who do eco-friendly wine don’t label it as such on the bottle.

Nevertheless, she says, there does seem to be a quality difference that can be measured statistically (and allowing for the fact that scores are the only way to measure quality statistically). Delmas and her colleagues used ratings from the Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, and Wine Spectator for 74,148 California wines made between 1998 and 2009; the result, after using sophisticated math to allow for vintage differences, the age of the wines, and critical bias (actually one of the most interesting parts of the study): “eco-certification is associated with a statistically significant increase in wine quality rating” by about one-half point.

So why hasn’t anyone figured this out? Delmas cites the confusion inherent in green wine, where an organic wine is different from a wine made with organic grapes, and which isn’t the case for organic tomatoes. In addition, does sustainably farmed really mean anything? And where does biodynamic fit? In addition, growing an organic tomato is straightforward compared to making a green wine, which further confuses the issue.

My guess? That most green wines are made with better quality grapes by better winemakers, and would likely score higher even if they weren’t green. Generally, cheap wine isn’t green, and the added cost of going green works against the process in which cheap wine is made to hit a certain price and not to taste a certain way.

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