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VERONA, Italy (Reuters) - Italian vintners who avoid chemicals are disappointed with the new EU rules for labeling wines organic, saying the long-awaited criteria are too "lax".
After lengthy debate, the European Commission agreed in February on a set of conditions which will allow a wine made from organic grapes to be called "organic wine". Such a label is expected to lure health-conscious consumers around the world.
Reaction from Italy, Europe's second-biggest grower of organic grapes after Spain, was mixed: with cheers from the agriculture ministry and skepticism from farmers who put a lot of effort and funds into making chemicals-free wine.
"The rules are too broad. With my own rules, I am much more restrictive than Brussels," Gregorio Dell'Adami de Tarczal, owner of an organic farm in Tuscany and winemaker, told Reuters at a wine fair at the end of March.
New rules for the much-contested use of sulphites in wine are the most thorny issue.
De Tarczal, who makes 30,000 bottles of wine and 2,000 bottles of grappa a year from organic grapes he grows without chemical pesticides or fertilizers, said he already adds only 20-25 mg of sulphites per liter, way below the new EU rules.
Health-conscious consumers tend to shy away from products containing sulphites which are added as preservatives to wine, foods and cosmetics but can be an irritant which causes rashes and wheezing in people who are sensitive to them.
Under the new EU regulation which kicks in with this year's wine harvest, maximum sulphite content for organic wine will be cut by 50 mg per liter from the levels allowed for conventional dry wines and by 30 mg per liter for sweet wines.
That means newly labeled dry red organic wine will be allowed a sulphite content of up to 100 mg per liter, while up to 150 mg per liter of sulphites could be added to organic white and rose dry wines.
"We are not satisfied," Domenico Bosco, wine expert at Italy's biggest farmers' association Coldiretti, said.
"We wanted regulations to include a reduction of sulphite content by at least a half. To start with a 50 percent cut, but aiming at a complete elimination of the use of sulphites in the organic wine within three to five years," Bosco said.
In the meantime, new techniques will be developed and sharpened to allow producers to preserve wine without using sulphites, for example, injection of inert gases to protect wine from bacteria, he said.
Some winemakers rely on the old methods to prevent wine from going sour.
Claudia Carretti, who with her husband makes what they call natural wines, said they do without added sulphites and use instead an ancient long maceration process with grape skins left fermenting together with other grape materials for a long time.
"We have wine which is 7 years old and it's a proof that the ancient technique works," said Carretti whose family makes about 20,000 bottles of natural wine at their Podere Pradarolo estate near Parma in central Italy.
For Bosco, the new rules also mean a missed marketing opportunity for organic wine makers who had counted on more stringent criteria to give them a competitive advantage over conventional wines.
Makers of good conventional wine in Italy, Spain and southern France where natural conditions help farmers grow healthy grapes, keep sulphite contents close to new limits set for organic wine, he said.
Italy needs to boost production of organic wine if it wants to compete with other major winemakers in the small but rapidly growing organic wine market, especially in northern Europe where consumers are very attentive to healthy food and drinks, winemakers and experts said.
"Having an organic product is a major plus for expanding in Nordic markets," Tiziana Sarnari, wine analyst at Italian agricultural think tank ISMEA said.
About 200 million liters of wine are made from organic grapes a year in Italy, or just about 5 percent of total annual wine output in the world's second-biggest wine producer.
Organic vineyards occupied just 30,341 hectares in Italy in 2010, with another 21,931 hectares being converted into organic farming, against 670,107 hectares under all vineyards in the country, according to Italian organic farming database SINAB.
Reporting by Svetlana Kovalyova, editing by Paul Casciato