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What You Need to Know About Sustainable Wines

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Can you support sustainable farming practices while raising a glass this holiday season?

By Nicole Price-Morin Posted Dec 15, 2016

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Have you ever wondered why people clink their glasses before drinking? While many people believe this act was started to ward off evil spirits, the traditions behind enjoying a glass of wine are far more modern. In fact, the clinking of glasses after a toast is linked to our five senses and our overall enjoyment of the wine. The glass makes a beautiful tone when struck, drawing in our sense of hearing. Additionally, bringing our glasses together symbolizes bringing people together. In effect, wishing each other well becomes a physical act. The wine, which has been divided into many glasses, is brought together for one last final moment.

With such a long history, it only makes sense that wineries would be on the forefront of sustainable agricultural practices. There is a sustainable option for just about every type of wine and flavor. But with so many choices out there, how do you know which one is right for you?

What’s in a Label: Sustainable, Organic, and Biodynamic Wine

Although the United States government regulates where and how the term ‘organic‘ appears on domestic agricultural products, other terms like ‘sustainable’ and ‘biodynamic’ are not legally defined. Wine is also an international product, and each country has its own labelling regulations. This means that it’s up to the consumer to do their homework on the practices of each individual vineyard when you’re aiming for a sustainable glass of wine. Here are some things to consider when doing your research.

Organic
In the United States, organic wine can be labelled two ways:

  1. Made from certified organic grapes: Vineyards using no pesticides or fungicides. These wines can include sulfites as an added preservative.
  2. Organic wine: Vineyards using organically grown grapes without any added sulfites or chemicals.

The important distinction here is that wine made with certified organically grown grapes has met a certain percentage of compliance, while organic wine must be totally organic. In Canada, the labelling is similar: 100% organic is totally organic, while “organic” means the product is 95% organic. In the European Union, the labelling is also similar, but it allows for some sulfites in the product.

Organic wine avoids synthetic ingredients, biodynamic wine focuses on holistic agriculture, and sustainable wine tends to reduce waste.

Because USDA Organic specifically defines organic wine as having no sulfur additions, there are very few US organic certified wines. Wines that don’t use sulfur as a preservative aren’t meant to age and don’t store well in your cellar. In the EU, organic wine may contain a certain percentage of added sulfites. For this reason, they also tend to age better.

Biodynamic
Biodynamic farming is like organic farming in many ways. The method uses no chemicals on the plants or in the soil, but it has extra practices that go along with it. The biodynamic vineyard is part of an ecosystem that is scheduled using astrology and lunar cycles. Farmers take into account the health of their land and its overall biodiversity, improving soil fertility, pest management, and crop nutrition using resources from the farm. The biodynamic winemaking process is much stricter than other methods and does not use yeast additives or other adjustments. A wine can also be “made from biodynamically-grown grapes,” but this means the fermenting process was not biodynamic. The international certifying bodies Demeter and Biodyvin oversee biodynamic wine certification.

Sustainable
The last (and possibly most common) label is ‘sustainable’. Sustainable vineyards use a conglomeration of methods based on what the farmer decides is best, instead of following a rigid set of practices. The focus of sustainable wineries is on striving for greener operations overall, often by lowering waste and emissions and/or conserving water.

Vineyard

There are now a myriad of certifying bodies in charge of regulating sustainable wines. Within California alone there are three: Certified California, SIP Certified, and Certified Green (Lodi Rules), which focus on overall sustainability strategies, each with its own unique core values. Most of these strategies include reducing greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change, and all three bodies have social equality requirements to protect workers. California is so advanced that the Sonoma wine region has committed to complete sustainability by 2019. On the flipside, some of these certifications also allow pesticides, so certification alone is not a definitive means to a completely “green” wine.

The Pacific Northwest also has its own certification for vineyards, and any farm that is in an area that supports salmon can be part of Salmon Safe, a program that protects streams and rivers from agricultural runoff and develops long-term soil conservation.

Other countries are also on board the sustainability wagon. Besides the EU, which includes some amazing French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and many other wines, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, Australia, and Argentina all have their own vineyard certifications for sustainable practices. Of course, these vary greatly: Argentina does not have a verification process, while Chile’s process is very rigorous.

Most vineyards and wineries have a website outlining their farming practices. If you’re serious about wine, this is the place to start to understand just how sustainable your wine really is. In general, organic wine avoids synthetic ingredients, biodynamic wine focuses on holistic agriculture, and sustainable wine tends to reduce waste.

What About Local Wines?

Wine geeks love to sample flavors from all over the world, and it’s possible to taste a piece of history in the process. But it can be difficult to decide whether or not to buy local when faced with so many other options. Some of us are lucky to live in our very own wine regions populated with amazing wines that are every bit as good as a French Bordeaux. Is it then better to purchase wine from your own country rather than somewhere more exotic?

A good wine has terroir: it has been uniquely affected by the climate, soil, region and the traditions of a very tiny region. A cold climate produces a more acidic wine, while a warmer climate generates higher sugar levels (and higher alcohol levels). A vineyard’s soils have been classified into around six types of soil that can affect flavor. Altitude, terrain, local flora and bodies of water can also increase or decrease acidity due to subtle temperature changes. In some areas, there are traditions that change the fermentation process. The idea that a local wine can’t have terroir doesn’t make sense: the very definition of terroir encompasses the idea of hyper-local.

Sustainable, organic, and biodynamic wineries tend to describe their growing practices on the label, knowing that there are people out there who want to know the details.

So, while it’s wonderful to try from all over the world, it really comes down to personal preference and in some ways, a break from tradition. Besides the fact that buying local is better for the local economy, and you’ve saved the planet from the environmental costs of transportation, local wines have a certain unique flavor and appeal that is worth experimenting with.

While your local distributor will have the standard offerings, and perhaps a few unusual wines to try, there is nothing more rewarding than searching out a local winery and finding something delicious and direct from the vineyard itself. In fact, it would be challenging to find an area that doesn’t have at least one local vineyard following sustainable practices. North Dakota? Absolutely. Newfoundland? You bet. There are sustainable vineyards in the most remote corners of New Zealand and in the Amazonian jungles of Ecuador. And don’t limit yourself to grapes – you might also find a berry wine that may become your favorite after-dinner dessert.

So What’s Best?

There’s a reason that wine connoisseurs save wine labels. Besides giving you the character and brand of the vineyard, the label can tell you all of the above at a glance, and if the wine is certified by an agency, it will have a logo saying so. Sustainable, organic, and biodynamic wineries also tend to describe their growing practices on the label, knowing that there are people out there who want to know the details.

But, the question remains, which type of certification is best? How can I choose a sustainable wine and feel confident in my choice? The most sustainable wine in the world may not be certified at all, and in fact, some of the most expensive sustainably grown wines aren’t certified because they are so old, certification didn’t exist! Many other vineyards are very proud of their permaculture and biodynamic practices, but haven’t bothered with certification. For example, Winzerhof-Linder is a small vineyard located in Germany that has become the showcase of a young, successful, tasty and totally sustainable vineyard that is arguably more sustainable than any certified California wine still using chemicals.

The best way to choose a wine, then, is to consider your priorities and get to know the vineyard for confirmation. Understanding the practices that go into making your glass of wine will offer you a connection to what you are drinking and a deep appreciation for the origins of those complex flavors. As you clink your glasses together when gathering with friends and family, perhaps choosing a sustainable wine will allow you to truly use this traditional Italian toast:

Per cent’anni!

Which means: “To one hundred years!”

Author photo

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Nicole Price-Morin is an urban farmer and best-selling author of books on sustainable agriculture and food policy. Originally from Montana, she now lives with her husband, four kids and giant dog on the West Coast. Find out more at http://deliberatelife.ca or connect with her on LinkedIn.
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  • Lance Green

    Excellent short summary of the myriad of factors we can consider for claiming we are “drinking our wine sustainably.” Especially appreciate your “go local” section – we can all seek and support wonderful sustainable local wine, thus supporting and creating the world we want.

  • Angela Greter Rouillard

    Great article! I just wanted to let you know that in Canada, you cannot use the label “100% organic”. You can only say “certified organic” and that assumes the product is 95%+ organic ingredients. I am an organic inspector in Canada and this is something that many companies get “caught” on.

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