Do Organic Wines Empirically Taste Better?

Do Organic Wines Empirically Taste Better?

Here at VWM we stock quite a bit of organic (both certified and uncertified but practicing) wines.  While most of our customers are more immediately interested in the agricultural impact of farming organically, it's an unspoken given that they probably believe organic wines taste better, or at the very least as good, as conventionally farmed wines. In fact, I'd have to disagree with 2006 Tony Coturri who said:

"In all honesty, 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 get in a conventional wine.  It's a stigma." - Tony Coturri

Perhaps we're a bit biased here since we're about as opposite to a big box wine retailer as it gets.  Maybe the average wine buyer thinks organic wines are all going to taste funky and gross.  This is one of those debates that is best left to the experts.  In this case the experts are both the infamous triumvirate of wine critics as well as three academic researchers who just published a really interesting analytical viewpoint on the organic debate...

The Study: In the latest issue of the Journal of Wine Economics (Vol 11, Issue 3) three researchers wrote a paper called "Does Organic Wine Taste Better? An Analysis of Experts' Ratings" looked at the three major critic scores (Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, and Wine Spectator) across almost 75,000 wines produced by over 3,800 California wineries.  If you're keeping score, that's a ton of wine.  Their mission - to understand the relationship between organic farming and perceived taste.  Whether or not you believe critic scores have anything to do with actual quality is another story.  For now just assume there is at least a significant and moderately positive correlation between aggregate critic scores and consumer taste preference.  It's not exactly the same thing but an earlier study found a correlation of 0.30 between critic score and price.  Basically about 30% of the change in price of wines can be explained by the change in critic scores.

But I digress.  Let's get back to the taste of organic wines.  Of the 3,800 wineries only 38 were certified organic - barely a large enough sample to make meaningful conclusions (see: Central Limit Theorem) but on par with the certification rate in California overall.  And for reasons that would bore you, this low incidence may pose a problem for actually putting any stock in the study's results at all.  For now let's assume we're all good and can carry on.

 The study also controlled for winery production size, the age of each wine, and how long the winery had been certified organic.

The Results: Here are the meaningful takeaways from the study...

  1. Organic certification correlates to a 4.1 point increase in rating, however this effect is higher (5.6 points) and only statistically significant for red wines.
  2. Smaller wineries score better.  An 1% increase in annual production volume results in a 0.02 point lower score.
  3. Experience isn't good.  The longer a winery has been certified, the lower their average rating, with every additional year of certification decreasing scores by 0.74 points.
  4. Critics write better tasting notes about organic wines.  The study also looked at the effect of the actual writeups and found that organic certification resulted in an average of 0.4 additional positive tasting note words.  See a sample of tasting note words below.
  5. Critics don't like older wines.  For every additional year of bottle age the critics wrote 0.06 fewer positive tasting note words and 0.03 more negative words. 

List of tasting note words used by critics

Our Conclusion

First of all, we need to take this study with a grain of salt.  Only 1.1% of the wineries in the sample were certified.  Not a deal breaker, but definitely a problem.  Also, this is only California we're talking about.  Organic certifications abroad can vary wildly from the various domestic certification bodies.  

But that said, it is quite interesting to see that all three benchmark critic rating publications award higher scores and more positive tasting notes to certified organic wines.  Even more striking is the level at which the critics increase their scores for organic wines - between 4 and 5.5 points.  The difference between a 88 point wine and a 92 point wine is huge - according to a 2005 study it's the difference between a $30 bottle of Bordeaux and a $42 bottle of wine.  Assuming the winemaker sells their wine for 33% the eventual retail price, that would equate to $100,000 of additional revenue on a production of 100,000 bottles.  Just for being certified organic!

All in all, there's a general rule of thumb to keep in mind:  

Winemakers and vineyard owners who care enough to work towards organic or biodynamic certification probably also care about other aspects of the winemaking process as well.  

The fact that organic certified wine tastes better to critics probably has more to do with the values, work ethic, and philosophy of the people farming the grapes and making the wine than it does with the rubric followed for certification.

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