What's the Difference Between Sustainable, Organic and Biodynamic Wine?
Every day is Earth Day when you sip these earth-friendly wines
Consumers have become increasingly more eco-savvy in the way they shop, and for many, those lifestyle choices stretch far beyond remembering to bring their NPR tote bag to carry home the goods from the farmer’s market. They’re making conscientious efforts to support brands that offer “clean” products and operate under “green” conditions. In keeping with these habits, there is growing emphasis on supporting earth-friendly liquor brands, particularly wine, with global efforts to overhaul the way it’s produced in order to protect the earth. Alcohol will always be a toxin by definition, but at least it can be actualized in ways that cut down on excess contaminants both in the bottle and the land where it’s made. However, there is confusion about key eco buzz words and what to look for on a wine label. What are you drinking when you opt for sustainable vs. organic vs. biodynamic wine?
Here’s a breakdown of those terms, and green-friendly wines to look for in each category from all over the world.
This is a word that’s been tossed around quite a bit. It does not mean that a business is necessarily certified organic or biodynamic, (many indeed have pursued this certification in addition, but always do further research to make sure, more on that below). What it does mean is that the company engages in eco-friendly practices such as limiting/eliminating chemical waste and the use of pesticides, replanting crops or trees to replace those harvested for production, carbon footprint reduction, energy efficiency initiatives, recycled packaging, biodiversity programs, wildlife conservation and other green initiatives. The basic concept of sustainability is to do business while leaving as little negative impact on the earth as possible.
Sonoma County, CA is one of the most sustainable viticultural areas as a whole. An impressive 97% of farming acreage represented by the Sonoma County Winegrowers Association is certified sustainable through SIP-Sustainability in Practice, with a goal for 100% sustainability for all wineries in the area within close range. To showcase this achievement, SCWA recently launched a “living wine label” app which reads certain labels from a number of Sonoma County wineries including Cline Cellars and Lynmar Estate. Use a mobile device to read the label, and an animated projection plays on the device’s screen, telling the wine’s story from the farm all the way to the bottle shop. ““At Lynmar Estate, we saw the Augmented Reality Program as a new way to connect with our consumers,” says Anisya Fritz of Lynmar. “It’s also a new way for our tasting room staff to introduce our commitment to sustainability during a tasting experience.” Click here to download the app. To read more about SCWA, their wines, earth-friendly policies, places to visit and events taking place throughout the year, please click here.
In France, wineries are certified under the Haute Qualité Environnementale (HQE), which promotes a holistic approach to diversity of varietals and rootstock (biodiversity), vine treatments, water preservation, and fertilizer management through regulation of the type and quantity used. In recent years, many wineries, including Champagne Palmer, have overhauled their production to adhere to these guidelines. Palmer is now operating with 80% of its viticulture under these guidelines, providing sustainability training to staff and partners each year with details such as tips on reducing energy consumption and how to purify standing water using plant roots.
In addition, the Bordeaux Wine Trade is working to make 100% of its vineyards sustainable, with more than 60% of it already reported as engaged in meaningful environmental processes in 2017, according to the Vins de Bordeaux. Some of these programs include bat colony protections (which also helps preserve the vines without using pesticides), changes in cultivation practices such as less grass mowing to allow helpful pollinating insects to thrive, and a call to overhaul AOC rules to include the integration of agri-environmental measures as a requirement for the quality designation.
Few realize there is a major difference between organic grapes and organic wine, and one of the best explanations comes from vineyardbrands.com: “Either the wine has ‘certified organically grown grapes’, which is exactly what it sounds like—no synthetic pesticides, etc. Or the wine is ‘organic wine,’ which means the wine is not only made from organic grapes, but there are also no added sulfites during production.” (Incidentally, every wine, organic or not, contains naturally occurring sulfites, so it is incorrect to say that one is drinking an entirely sulfite-free wine. You’re welcome, eye-rolling sommeliers and retailers!) To label wines as organically grown or certified organic, a winery must fulfill all the requirements stated by its home country’s governing body of agriculture, for instance the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) or ECOCERT in Europe. To make things confusing, either because of the required extra costs or there are so many hoops to jump through, some wineries claim to abide by fully organic practices without pursuing the certification. By law, they can’t make those claims on a label, but for those who value organic wine practices, it’s worth looking up a winery’s information to learn more about their farming and vinification techniques.
Think of biodynamic as the practice that takes extra, jolly green giant-sized steps beyond the organic. Biodynamic farms are, in effect, their own ecosystem. No synthetic chemical interference of any kind is used to farm biodynamically. The practice has gained a “hippy-dippy-trippy” reputation because of its association with ancient agricultural concepts such as following lunar growing cycles and astrological charts, with systems only found in nature allowed to be used to protect and nourish the vines. Biodynamic wine farming is the manifestation of the interconnectivity of the earth, the vines and the solar system, with a fairly strict calendar identifying which days are best for harvesting, pruning and watering, as well as which ones to just let nature take its course.
Sustainable wines to try
Palmer & Co. Brut Reserve NV ($60): It is important to note that the liquid in the bottle on shelves now was produced before the winery shifted to a more sustainable focus. However, by popping open this fine bubbly, one is supporting a company committed to making positive change.
Domaine Carneros Blanc de Blancs 2014 ($60): This dry and slightly floral Napa bubbly made from 26% pinot gris and 74% chardonnay is from a winery that was recently awarded the 2019 California Green Medal Business Award for their achievements in sustainable practices.
Mohua Pinot Noir 2016 ($24): This fresh-tasting, light-bodied pinot from Central Otago, New Zealand is SWNZ certified and perfect for warm weather sipping.
Rutherford Hill Winery Winemaker’s Blend 2014 ($56): This Napa, CA winery, owned by the Terlato family, uses 100% solar powered energy in its main buildings, owl boxes in its vineyards and other green farming practices. They are the winners of the Napa Red Blend of the Year in the 2018 NY International Wine Competition.
Lynmar Estate Old Wente Chardonnay ($55): With grapes from the winery’s Quail Hill and Susannah’s Estate vineyards, this wine showcases a sustainably grown version of what is considered the “grandfather clone” of chardonnay in Sonoma County.
One Woman Gruner Veltliner ($28): Italian-born winemaker Claudia Purita runs this certified sustainable winery on the North Fork of Long Island, NY. This zippy white won Silver in the 2017 NY International Wine Competition.
Organic Wines to try
Famille Perrin Nature Côtes du Rhône 2017 ($15) : This label owned by the prestigious Beaucastel family—famous for their exceptional Chateauneuf du Pape ($94) and now also their commitment to the earth—is ECOCERT certified.
Ch. Mercier Côtes de Bourg Bordeaux Rosé (current vintage out soon) ($25): This 80% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc, 5% Malbec in the pink style is from a 17th century estate that has been farming certified organic and sustainable since 1984.
Umani Ronchi Villa Bionchi Verdicchio dei castelli di Jesi 2016 DOC Classico ($13): This delightful, versatile, dry and slightly earthy white wine made with 100% verdicchio from the Marche is from a winery that has chosen to farm organically for the best possible expressions of its grapes.
Biodynamic Wines to try
Frey Organic Carignane 2016 ($15): I have a soft-spot for this juicy wine, the first biodynamic I ever tasted and truly fell for while in wine school, produced from a grape rarely seen as a single varietal in the states. Frey, located in the Redwood Valley, Mendocino has been organic and biodynamic certified since 1980—the first in the country! They are also winners of the California Biodynamic Wine of the Year in the 2018 NYIWC.
Bodega Chacra Barda 2017 ($30): This elegant 100% pinot noir from the Rio Negro Valley in Patagonia, Argentina is produced from Demeter-certified biodynamic and Argencert-certified fruit.
Hedges Family Estate Red Mountain Red Blend 2015 ($28): This luscious red wine is made from Demeter-certified grown 54% Cabernet Sauvignon 16% Merlot 14% Syrah 6% Cabernet Franc 4% Malbec 3% Petit Verdot 1% Touriga Nacional 1% Tinta Cao 1% Souzao all grown within a 2 mile radius of this elegant winery in the Red Mountain AVA of Washington State.
Reyneke Vinehugger Organic White (Chenin Blanc) 2018 ($15): Not only is Reyeneke certified biodynamic by Demeter, it is also certified sustainable by IPW and certified organic by CERES. According to vineyardbrands.com, Reyeneke is the first and only biodynamic farm in South Africa. Hopefully more to come!