True or false? Organic wines tastes better. I suspect most drinkers would say "false," including many who go out of their way to buy certified-organic brands. If the many questions I receive on this topic from readers are a fair indication, consumers generally choose pesticide-free wine not for flavour but almost purely out of concern for health. Most often they expect to spare themselves the headaches and allergic reactions widely – and often spuriously – held to be associated with artificial chemicals. Many people in fact expect organic wines to taste worse.
But get this: They actually taste better. At least they do if you go by the assessments of a few top critics of wines produced in California.
A joint American-French study by three business-school professors reveals that wines made with grapes grown on eco-certified vineyards are more likely to garner higher numerical ratings from experts. It's not a huge gap, to be fair, on average just 0.46 percentage points higher. But in this case that's what statisticians call significant.
It's also what I would call ironic given that a mere one-third of wineries that go through the tedious eco-certification process choose to market their wines as such. "You do all this paperwork and you wait three years before you get that [certification] and then you don't talk about it, it's just bizarre," says Magali Delmas, a professor of management at the University of California, Los Angeles, who conducted the study with UCLA colleague Jinghui Lim and economics professor Olivier Gergaud at the Bordeaux campus of Kedge Business School. Not yet peer reviewed, the study was submitted as a working paper to the American Association of Wine Economists under the title "Does Organic Wine Taste Better? An Analysis of Experts' Ratings."
The researchers combed through a mountain of reviews – 74,148, covering vintages from 1998 to 2009 – from three leading American consumer publications, Wine Advocate (a newsletter founded by the influential Robert M. Parker Jr.), Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, all of which rank wines on a 100-point scale. While those publications employ many correspondents, the main tasters of Californian wine during the study period were, respectively, Robert Parker, James Laube and Steve Heimoff.
The reviews were then cross-referenced with organic-certification data. It was no small chore given the tendency of organic producers to shy away from eco-labelling. Delmas says she had to dispatch various undergraduate students to source data from a variety of organic-registration repositories, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Demeter Biodynamic Trade Association.
The researchers note that their results might surprise many people who see organic wine as a trade-off between health and environmental responsibility on one hand and, on the other, pure hedonism. To put it in the words of winemaker Tony Coturri of H. Coturri & Sons, a certified-organic estate in Sonoma, who is quoted in the paper: "Wine consumers have not embraced quality and organic in the same line yet. They still have the attitude that organic wine is a lower quality than what you can get in a conventional wine. It's a stigma."
Much of that stigma, Delmas tells me, may have to do with the confusion in many consumers' eyes between wines labelled "organic" versus those "made from organic grapes." The former is a stricter legal standard in many countries that prohibits not just the use of vineyard pesticides but also the addition in the winery of sulphur, an antioxidant and microbial agent considered vital by most producers for maintaining freshness and guarding against bacterial invasion. (It's also a natural byproduct of fermentation and is contained in virtually all wines and many other foods to a generally harmless degree.) A wine made from organically grown grapes, by contrast, is permitted to include added sulphur but no artificial pesticides.
Delmas adds that, while the organic movement is growing, many drinkers may be suffering from the decades old hangover of poorly crafted "green" cuvées. "Wine consumers might have little knowledge about the wine process and might be influenced by the bad rep of the early organic hippie wines," she says.
Her findings should come as no surprise to many of the world's most celebrated producers that have been farming organically for decades without dreaming of putting an ecocertification label on the bottle. They include Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy, which produces $2,000-a-bottle wines and is, in the minds of many well-heeled collectors, the greatest estate in the world, and Chateau de Beaucastel, the great maker of $90-a-bottle Chateauneuf-du-Pape in France's Rhône Valley.
They also include newer wineries with more explicit devotion to the organic movement, many of them in Canada, such as Southbrook and Tawse in Niagara, Summerhill Pyramid in British Columbia and l'Acadie Vineyards and Lightfoot & Wolfville in Nova Scotia.
Delmas conceded that there are limitations to her study. For one thing, it was confined to California and essentially to just three critics. So, we don't know whether geography or culture played a significant role in the ratings. She also was unable to glean much about the reviewers' tasting practices. It's possible, for example, that, in the manner of many effete wine critics, they may harbour a bias for "natural" wines. Specifically, we'll simply never know if the experts in question were sampling blindly or in fact knew that they were tasting organic wines. Why won't we know? Because the reviewers, she says, refused to elaborate on their methodology: "Surprisingly, we didn't get any help from the wine-rating agencies."