It’s never been easier to buy organic wine. We’ve never had such a wide selection of varieties and styles from so many places at our fingertips—and it’s never been more confusing.
All you have to do is walk into your local wine shop and ask the seemingly simple question, “Where’s your organic wine?” and you’re guaranteed a much longer answer than you’d bargained for. Because the truth of the matter is this: there’s more than just one shade of green.
There are three major words that get thrown around most often when it comes to talking about “green” wine: sustainable, organic, and biodynamic. In the most pain-free way possible, we’ll break down what these terms mean so you can be a smart, green-savvy shopper who knows what’s really behind those labels.
Certified Sustainable Wines
The most important piece of information to know about Sustainable wines is this: there’s no official rule stating exactly what it means. To put it bluntly, you can have a recycling bin in your tasting room and call your winery “Sustainable.” For too many wineries, this is a catch-all phrase that many times has little to do with the growing or production of wine. One could argue that any sustainability is better than no sustainability, but the point is that it’s smart to do your research about what any given winery’s “sustainability practices” really are before you go singing their praises.
That being said, there are a few nationally and internationally recognized organizations that are really good at holding farmers and wineries accountable to various sustainable farming and/or winemaking standards. LIVE, a popular organization in the Northwest states, is a feel-good group that partners with farms and wineries to work toward a “whole farm/winery” approach and supports minimalist impact on the environment. Their website quotes, “It is the personal commitment of principled Northwest people to ‘do the right thing’ for the environment and society.” Organizations like these require wineries to go through a yearly checklist to make sure they’re keeping up with sustainable practices and standards. They’re not as strict as all-out organic standards, but generally they’re better than nothing.
Other sustainable organizations to check out are SalmonSafe, Oregon Tilth, SIP, and CCSW/CSWA.
Certified Organic Wines
Take a deep breath, pour yourself a glass of natural/petnat/orange/no-sulfites/hippy-dippy/whatever-you-feel-like wine and sharpen your pencils: things are about to get complicated.
In the U.S., there are a couple major organizations that need mentioning: the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) and CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers).
Before we get into the differences between these two groups, here’s a phrase you need to memorize and look for on every organic-claiming wine label: Made With Organic Grapes. It sounds pretty legit, but there’s a serious catch: if the label states this, it means that organic farming techniques were used, but it doesn’t necessarily extend to the winemaking techniques. Most of the time, this just means that sulfur dioxide was used in order to prevent premature oxidation and bacterial infection in the wine. Remember what we talked about in the previous “Wine Lies” post? Sulfites are not the devil incarnate (for most people). But this phrase doesn’t prevent winemakers from manipulating/correcting the wines in other ways, including adding things like sugar, citric acid, tannin powder, wood chips, MegaPurple, or other additives. If the grapes have been certified organic but the wine cellar has not, the winery can use the CCOF label but not the USDA label.
The USDA has much stricter requirements for organic wines. Under USDA stipulations, winemakers cannot add sulfites or any other synthetic additive to their wines. Both the grape growing and the conversion of those grapes to wine have to be certified organic by the USDA. If you’re looking for domestic wines that are as clean and pure as they come, USDA organic wines are a great option. Only you can vouch for their quality of taste and enjoyment, but you can be assured that there’s nothing added—even if the additives are meant to be helpful—to these wines.
Europe has a different set of rules and regulations for organic wines. For internationally-recognized organizations like Agriculture Biologique (AB from France and regulated by the European Union) or EcoCert (also from France), a minimum of 95% of what’s in the bottle must be certified organic. The requirements about sulfites are more relaxed in Europe, because they didn’t suffer from the same scare tactics the U.S. did in the 1970s.
Certified Biodynamic Wines
Turn your clock back to the 1920s for a minute. Industrialism is taking over small, sleepy European villages and pastoral countryside at a breakneck pace, and farmers are noticing a distinct difference in how their fields are producing crops. Concerned, they start raising some questions about what should be done to get their farmland back to the way it was. A German scientist and philosopher named Rudolph Steiner delivered a series of lectures to the distraught farmers, championing the idea that “farms should be thought of as living organisms, not factories.” He campaigned for farms that were self-sustaining and self-contained, “responsible for creating and maintaining their own individual health and vitality.” The principles of Biodynamics follow the patterns and cycles of nature, and forbid the use of any synthetic or imported chemical inputs.
Biodynamic wines and organic wines are made in a similar fashion. The main difference, though, is that Biodynamics takes on a more spiritual and holistic approach—one where the rhythms of nature are to be followed first and foremost. Europe’s Demeter and the U.S.’s Demeter USA (also called Stellar) are the two sister organizations to look into if you’re intrigued by these “natural” wines.
At the end of the day, most everyone wants to be thought of as Earth-friendly—tiny farmers and mega corporations alike. They all have good intentions, but as we’ve learned, those intentions get complicated and mussed up pretty quickly—and every winery’s situation is different. Some wine regions are better suited to organic farming than others. Some micro wineries simply can’t afford to go through the certification process to get the “organic” stamp on their labels. Some don’t understand why they should even have to put an extra stamp on their label because they’ve been using the same techniques for the last 300 years.
By now, you’ve most likely sensed a trend in learning about wine: the more you know, the less you realize you know. It’s a big world, and a messy one too. But the more knowledge you gain, the more personal and enjoyable experience you’ll have with whatever you put in your glass next—whether it’s red, white, green, or blue.
Resources for this article and extra reading material for you:
Organic Wine 101 (USDA)
Biodynamic Practices (Demeter USA)