I’m not talking about the Italian flag here. I’m talking about going green when it comes to making wine. Like many other industries, winemakers see the value of environmentally responsible production practices. Producers worldwide are moving toward, or are already growing, grapes and making wine with green principles in mind.
There is little doubt that wines produced this way are better. Green growers need to be more in tune with, and pay more attention to, their vineyards to get sufficient grape yields. There is also the social responsibility to their workers to not expose them to toxic chemicals and pesticides.
Many wineries have switched to green farming practices, but you won’t find anything on the label that says so. For some, their efforts have more to do with being responsible stewards of the land than with selling a green product.
Also, there is still a lot of confusion about certifications, various levels of certification and the various organizations that do the certifying. You already know what “natural” means on a label — nothing.
There are three main categories to consider when discussing environmentally friendly wine production: sustainable, organic and biodynamic. So what do you look for if you want to limit the chemicals you are ingesting or if you want to support producers that are good to the Earth?
Following is some information about green wine production that I hope will help you understand the differences. Please keep in mind that each wine producing country has its own set of rules and standards for sustainable and organic methods.
Vineyards and wineries that practice sustainable methods are trying to use fewer chemicals and minimize their impact on the environment. They also try to be more efficient in their use of resources like water and energy; they will use recycled and non-polluting materials wherever possible and control soil erosion in the vineyard with the use of cover crops.
While there is no single certifying body for the practice of sustainability, there are a number of organizations that have set standards for the industry. Some examples are Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing, Oregon Certified Sustainable Wine and Fish Friendly Farming.
A winery can claim that it is sustainable without any certification. Sustainable doesn’t always mean that no chemicals were used in production, but rather that the winery employed some energy or resource conservation methods.
However, some wineries that call themselves sustainable might actually be organic, but choose not to go through the lengthy and expensive process of getting certified.
An organic vineyard uses no synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides or any other non-organic chemicals, as well as anything genetically modified. Fertilizing, pest control and plant diseases are handled through the use of natural methods.
The USDA regulates the use of the term “organic,” and there are two types of organic listings on wine bottles. When you see the term “Made with Organic Grapes” on a wine label, this means that the grapes used are grown organically and production of the wine must be in accordance with standards set by the National Organic Program (NOP). No chemical pesticides or chemical herbicides are allowed, but sulfites and other processing additives approved by the NOP may be used.
When wine is labeled “Organic” by the USDA, it means that the entire production cycle from field to bottle has been handled in a way that promotes ecological balance, conserves biodiversity and uses unadulterated ingredients.
To produce wine certified organic, no sulfites are added and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) may not be used.
A vineyard certified “biodynamic” is organic and then some. Like organic, no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides or GMOs are allowed. It also involves a deep connection to, and respect for, the land; and it incorporates ideas about a vineyard as an ecosystem. It accounts for things such as performing farming processes, according to astrological influences and lunar cycles.
Animals play a major role in the process. As they graze, they trim the vegetation around the vines, while naturally fertilizing the soil.
Biodynamic farming came into prominence in the 1920s, and was modeled after the writings of Dr. Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian professor and philosopher. Demeter is the international nonprofit organization that reviews and certifies the practices of biodynamic vineyards. There are agreed-upon standards for biodynamic wine production that are recognized internationally, so that wine certified biodynamic in one country will follow the same standards as biodynamic wines from other countries.
A Few to Try
Add these to your shopping list the next time you go to the wine shop:
- 2012 Cummins Road Pinot Noir, Yamhill-Carlton, Oregon (Sustainable and Salmon Safe) 100% Pinot Noir. It offers aromas and flavors of strawberries, cherries and plums, with a hint of spice on the smooth finish. It’s priced in the mid $20s.
- 2013 Laibach Vineyards’ “The Ladybird” White, Stellenbosch, South Africa (Organic) 85% Chardonnay, 9% Chenin Blanc and 6% Viognier. It has a medium body with complex flavors and aromas of peach, papaya and a touch of almond. It’s creamy on the palate with a smooth, lingering finish. Prices run in the upper teens.
- 2012 Domaine de l’Ecu Muscadet Orthogneiss, Loire Valley, France (Biodynamic) 100% Melon de Bourgogne. Elegant aromas and flavors of citrus fruit, white flower and ginger spice with notes of flint, dried fruit and toasted almond. There’s a hint of salinity on the finish that makes this the perfect oyster wine. It’s also priced in the low $20s.
These environmentally responsible wines aren’t just gimmicks or a passing fad. Wine producers are recognizing that great wines come from healthy vineyards. Gone are the days when the organic section took up a small space in the back of the wine store.
Sam Audia is a former advertising and marketing professional with more than 20 years of experience in the wine and spirits industry. He is a wine specialist at Bay Ridge Wine & Spirits, in Annapolis, holds a Certification Diploma from the Sommelier Society of America and Intermediate and Advanced Certificates from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. He can be reached at [email protected].