More consumers are beginning to make eco-friendly decisions regarding the food they eat, the products they clean with and the products they use. But what about wine? A drink-your-values movement is gaining ground among wine lovers and winemakers alike, which means the emergence of more wines created with green principles in mind.
Wine certifications can be complex, admits Shannon Borg, wine writer and author of The Green Vine: A Guide to West Coast Sustainable, Organic, and Biodynamic Wines. But master a few key terms and you’ll be well on your way to drinking green.
What it means: While it depends who you ask, U.S. Congress has defined “sustainable agriculture” as a system that considers economic, social and ecological interests, Borg explains. Sustainable winemakers have taken a cue from this definition. Practices vary, but usually involve efforts to preserve environment, water and land for future use.
Keep in mind: Buyer, beware. When in doubt, seek more specific labeling. “There’s no certification for ‘sustainable’ as a word,” Borg says. “Anybody could use it on their label and it may or may not be true.”
What it means: An organic certification indicates grapes have been grown without chemicals, pesticides or fertilizers. According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s regulations, before wine can be labeled and sold as organic, all its grapes and other agricultural ingredients must be certified organic, non-agricultural ingredients may not exceed a combined five percent of the total product and cannot contain added sulfites. While the USDA is likely the most well-known organic certifying body for U.S. wines, a variety of regional organic certification programs are also gaining popularity.
Keep in mind: Non-organic wines can be plenty eco-friendly, Borg says. Many winemakers skip the certification because they want the freedom to address pest and weather challenges unique to their climate and region. And remember: What’s true for the vineyard might not be true for the winery that ultimately processes the grapes, so read the fine print.
What it means: Biodynamics is a holistic, step-by-step approach to grape growing. Borg says it focuses on what’s added to the process, not what’s left out. Biodynamic wineries are sustainable, pesticide-free systems whose soil is lovingly and carefully tended. Many even cultivate their own wild yeast, which gives biodynamic wines a completely unique taste and aroma.
Keep in mind: The complex processes may appeal to those interested in the deeper philosophical underpinnings of winemaking, but the rigors of biodynamic certification aren’t realistic for many grape growers.
LIVE certified wines
What it means: The LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology) Certification began in Oregon and is now gaining national popularity. This certification focuses on preserving resources by reducing the amount of raw materials (pesticides, water, fuel, etc.) used by vineyards and in wine production.
Keep in mind: LIVE permits vineyards to use an approved list of low-impact pesticides and herbicides. “It’s not quite organic,” Borg explains, “But it focuses on sustainable, natural, beneficial insects, carbon reduction, energy reduction and water reuse.”
What it means: Another West Coast certification, Salmon Safe indicates a focus on protecting salmon watersheds by controlling aspects of wine production that can affect their environment, such as water use, erosion and pesticide runoff.
Keep in mind: The Salmon Safe certification may pack less of an eco-punch than other green wine certifications. It helps to think of the long list of green certifications on a continuum, Borg says it doesn’t take a whole lot to become salmon safe. LIVE certified regulations are more strict. Organic is an even stricter certification, and biodynamic is the hardest certification of all to attain.
The bottom line on organic and sustainable wine
What does all of this mean for you as you look to buy, enjoy and share wine?
While a bottle of wine with “sustainable” on its label was crafted with an eye for protecting the surrounding environment, wine drinkers who are serious about the green mandate should seek out more specific certifications.
An organic wine costs more, but its green bona fides are vetted and guaranteed, and consumers can trust that they’re drinking a natural product with minimal additives. Biodynamic wines are crafted with an even greater emphasis on environmental stewardship, and this is reflected in the painstaking growing methods as well as the higher price.
If you’re interested in preserving resources while supporting smaller wine growers, seek out bottles with the less-stringent LIVE and salmon-safe certifications.
Eco-friendly winemakers and distributors recommended by Shannon Borg:
About the author: Erin J. Bernard is a freelance writer, editor, and photographer based in Portland, Oregon – just a short jaunt from some fantastic Pacific Northwest wine country. She’s happiest when she’s got a chilled glass of Spanish cava in one hand and a great book in the other. Follow her on Twitter at: @erinjbernard.