Use of the term “organic” for wine, as for food, is legally defined in most countries, even if the definition varies from country to country. There is no international governing body that regulates a unified standard for what it means to be “organic,” so practices vary, but typically, organic wines must be made from grapes grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides or herbicides. There are further restrictions on allowable processing agents in the winery, most notably limits on the use of sulphur dioxide as a preservative agent, as well as permissible fining/clarifying agents.
Wines produced in Canada with an organic claim and wishing to be sold across the country must comply with the federal Canadian Organic Regime, which is regulated by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). The CFIA creates, oversees, monitors and enforces the requirements of the Canada Organic Regime using an accredited third-party auditor.
Aside from the bonus of having no pesticide residue, likely of greatest interest to consumers is the reduced sulfite levels in organic wine. Sulfites are the most effective anti-oxidant and anti-bacterial wine preservative, and have been used for centuries. Organic wine does not mean totally sulfite-free (even if no sulfites are added, they are produced naturally during fermentation), though the legal maximum of how much can be added is less than for conventional wines (which also have limits). The limits are determined by the amount of residual sugar (RS) in a particular wine – the more sugar, the higher the permitted sulfite level, mostly to prevent refermentation.
According to the Canadian Organic Regime, wines with less than 50 grams/liter RS (dry to semi-sweet) may contain up to 30 mg/L (ppm) free sulphur dioxide, up to 35 mg/L for wines between 50 and 99 g/L RS, and up to 45 mg/L for really sweet wines with more than 99 g/L RS. By contrast, the allowable SO2 limits for conventional wines in Europe, for example, is 150mg/L for red wines, 210mg/L for white and rose wines, and 400mg/L for sweet wines. In the US the legal limits top out at 350mg/L and in Australia at 250mg/L.
Ontario VQA wineries selling organic wines