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. “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.” It is better to depend on specific requirements, such as “Demeter Certified Biodynamic” or “made with organic grapes.”
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.
“Made with Organically Grown Grapes” and “Organic” certified wines are nearly identical, but the latter will not include sulfites.
Keep in mind: Non-organic wines can be 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, or adjust for stuck fermentation. 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: Biodynamic wine is the result of 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 cultivate their own wild yeast, which gives biodynamic wine a refreshing and unique taste and aroma. Farming techniques concentrate on creating a healthy circular system through the vineyard, avoiding the need to bring in outside materials such as compost. Rather than forcing nature to do what the wine grower wants, the land itself takes center stage and growers find techniques that resonate with their particular region.
Keep in mind: The complex processes may appeal to those interested in the deeper philosophical underpinnings of winemaking, but the rigors of biodynamic certification are too difficult for many grape growers. Some wineries will mention that they use biodynamic principles; when in doubt, ask for more details about whether pesticides are used.
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, because “sustainable” might be used for marketing purposes.
A certified 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 to get started with:
- Montinore Estate
- A to Z Wineworks
- King Estate Winery
- Benziger Family Winery
- Frey Vineyards
- Brick House Vineyard
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.