Study of 74,000 bottles looks into whether organic wines taste better

Britain’s Daily Telegraph says a new study of wines shows it really is worth going natural.

The researchers from the University of California trawled through the expert reviews for more than 74,000 wines which appeared in the three of the world’s best wine-rating magazines, the newspaper reports.

They discovered that organic wines – which are labelled as ‘ecocertified’ in the US – scored an average of 4.1 points higher than their non-organic counterparts, our of a score of 100.

The academics speculate that adopting organic practices and banishing pesticides allows microbes in the soil to flourish, which enhances the flavour of grapes and give a truer representation of the ‘terroir’ or the natural environment of the vine.

Growing grapes without fertilisers also reduces yield, which may improve quality because the vine needs to ripen a smaller amount of fruit, and so the juice becomes more concentrated, and tastier.

To determine the quality of organic versus non-organic wines, the team studied 74,148 wines from California, which were of vintages between 1998 and 2004, from 3,482 vineyards.

They examined reviews from three respected publications; the Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator.

The study looked at more than 30 grape varieties including Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Semillon and Zinfandel.

The Daily Telegraph headline says “Study of 74,000 bottles shows organic wine really does taste better”.

The study and the title of the report – “Does Organic Wine Taste Better? An Analysis of Experts’ Ratings” – are somewhat less emphatic.

The abstract says:

Our results indicate that ecocertification is associated with a statistically significant increase in wine quality rating. Being ecocertified increases the scaled score of the wine by 4.1 points on average.

The researchers acknowledges their study “is not without limitations”.

First, they focused on the California wine industry. Perceptions about ecocertification may vary according to the institutional context in which they are implemented and the specific standards of ecocertification.

Second, although they were able to gather a comprehensive database of wine ratings from the major wine experts, there is still some uncertainty about the evaluation process and how much the wine experts actually know about the wine before tasting it. Further research involving blind wine tasting to better isolate the effect of organic certification is suggested.

Third, because of the limited number of ecocertified wines, the researchers classified all types of ecocertified wines together. There might be quality differences among the three different types they did not account for, and future research could investigate such differences.

The Daily Telegraph quotes lead author Professor Magali Delmas, of the UCLA Institute of the Environment.

She said there is littler consensus as to whether ecocertified (or organic) wines are associated with worse, similar or better quality than their traditional counterparts.

“Our results indicated that the adoption of wine ecocertification has a significant and positive effect on wine ratings.

“The results are interesting because they contradict a general sentiment that ecolabeled wines are of lower quality.”

Susy Atkins, the wine columnist for the Sunday Telegraph’s Stella magazine said drinkers should consider looking out for the organic label.

“There will always be good and bad organic wines, but generally it implies good use of the land and a viticulturist who really cares about their vines,” she said.

“The problem can be that it often pushes the price up because organic growing is quite labour intensive.

“But it is very good for the land. You visit an organic vineyard and there are insects flying around, and birds singing and it feels like an entirely different experience.”

Several recent reviews suggest organic food is neither tastier nor more nutritious than traditionally farmed produce.

In 2012 Stanford University’s Centre for Health Policy did the biggest comparison of organic and conventional foods and found no robust evidence for organics being healthier.

A follow-up review by The Norwegian Scientific Committee for Food Safety similarly reported that organic food was not more nutritious.

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