The foodie movement has brought us many things: dinner companions obsessed with Instagramming their dishes, preschoolers who demand chanterelles, and a chic-to-go-green push for more eco-friendly wines. Tree-hugging oenophiles, rejoice!
According to the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), an organic certification agency and trade association, the number of organic-wine products produced in the state (a.k.a. the fourth-largest wine producer in the world) grew 17% between 2010 and 2011. And, Wine Institute findings show that a third of wine buyers consider environmental factors when making their purchases. Which means we’re going to see even more eco-produced vintages in the future.
But, knowing how green a rosé might be requires more intel than spotting a “Certified Organic” sticker on the bottle. Here’s a breakdown of different types of eco-wines produced in the U.S., how they’re labeled, and what they mean for your health:
There are two major categories in the organic wine family: “organic” and “made with organic grapes.” What’s the difference? Mostly, sulfites, which have proven to be a factor for some people who experience headaches and allergies from wine consumption.
Both organic wines and wines made with organic grapes start with 100% organic grapes and are processed in organic-certified facilities. But, here’s where the road splits: While there are naturally occurring sulfites in all wine, many winemakers choose to add more to extend the shelf life, preserving the flavor as it goes from winemaker to merchant to the consumer.
According to USDA National Organic Program (NOP) standards, wine labeled “organic” cannot contain any added sulfites. When they are added (up to 100 parts per million), then the labeling regulations require the “made with organic grapes” designation. (These wines will sometimes also bear the logo of a third-party organic certifier to show that the stuff inside was made from pesticide-free fruit.) So, for these imbibers, certified organic selections, with about 10 parts per million sulfites vs. 100 parts per million for non-organic options, may be the best way to enjoy a little juice without the aches and pains.
Sustainable These wines are not so easy to identify, but they are likely more common in the marketplace than certified organics. Sustainable winemakers blend the environmental practices of organic farming (like covered crops and natural pest control) with other considerations — mainly, doing what makes sense economically (i.e. conserving power, water, implementing green-building design) and providing healthy work environments to create a balanced system.
“It’s a much broader practice book than organic,” says Gladys Horiuchi, Director of Media Relations at the Wine Institute's Sustainable Winegrowing Program (SWP). “With the sustainable approach, you’re looking at everything — not just what’s happening in the vineyard, but energy conservation, water conservation, soil erosion, preserving wildlife habitats, taking care of employees, and communicating with the communities, among other things.” But, as of now, there’s little in the way of labeling to let the consumer know they’re buying wine from a sustainable operation.
There are a few outfits that label wine as “sustainable” and the SWP may start labeling in the future, something Horiuchi says the market — from consumers to restaurants to the trade — is starting to demand. For now, look on shelf signage, case cards, and QR codes to delineate sustainably grown varietals and blends. A full list of SWP participants can also be found on the institute’s site.
Biodynamic This breed of winemaking combines innovative farming techniques (chemical-free, organic practices) and ancient methods (factoring in phases of the moon) with the goal of creating a self-contained ecosystem in which animals, pests, plants, natural elements, and farmer nourish one another, thriving without outside factors, like imported soil. Biodynamic winemakers don't engage in the typical manipulations, like adding yeast or adjusting acidity. The concept, like total sustainability, is somewhat idealistic — something can always be improved.
“Biodynamic looks at the farm as a living organism. It’s self contained and able to create its own health and vitality, and it continues to evolve toward the ideal,” explains Elizabeth Candelario, co-director of Demeter USA, an arm of Demeter International, the world's largest certifier of biodynamic agriculture.
Since both the grapes and the final wine product can be certified as biodynamic, there are two distinctions in wine labeling. Much like with organic labeling, a biodynamic wine earns the label when it’s made from 100% certified biodynamic grapes and is processed in a certified biodynamic facility. A wine labeled “made with biodynamic grapes” is produced with 100% biodynamic grapes only.
Are organic, sustainable, or biodynamic wines any better than those made with traditional grapes? Health wise, it’s hard to say. While studies have clearly shown that organically grown food can have higher nutritional values, more research is needed to determine whether the same is true for wine.
In 2010, President Obama’s Cancer Panel recommended food grown without pesticides and chemical fertilizers as a way to decrease risk of cancer-causing toxins. And, while studies have shown that red-wine antioxidants, like resveratrol, can be a great part of a heart-healthy diet, the research as to whether organic, sustainable, or biodynamically produced varietals boast more bountiful antioxidant levels, from grape to glass, has produced mixed results.
There are also several environmental, economic, and agricultural benefits that come with choosing a so-called “green” wine. By ditching conventional fertilizers, farmers buck the overseas oil burden a bit, as synthetic concoctions are often petroleum based. (CCOF cites estimates that indicate if 10% of the national food supply were grown organically, we would cut our dependence on foreign oil by 2.9 million barrels every year). When soil is farmed organically, it also absorbs more carbon dioxide from the air and environment, which in turn can help slow global warming, according to research by the Rodale Institute. By avoiding ecosystem-disrupting GMOs, animal and indigenous plant populations are spared. And, farmers benefit from the consumers’ choice to go eco as well, since organic farms turn out higher profits than conventional farms.
As for the taste — many palates can discern between an organic, heirloom tomato, and a conventional hothouse; it’s also possible for drinkers to taste the difference between wine made with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and those that are not.
Further, for many wine aficionados, terroir (the expression of the soil or particular grape-growing site in the flavor of the wine) is perhaps the driving force behind great taste. Considering this, biodynamic wines may be your best bet, since the roots of the vine have to go very deep in the soil to extract nutrients. "From a quality standpoint, some of the very best wineries in the world are biodynamic,” notes Candelario. “Because when a winemaker is interested in biodynamic, they’re often interested expressing terroir in their wines.”
Whether you're going for the taste of terroir or not, the benefits of greener wines run the gamut. Eco-seals stamped on labels aren’t always the clearest indicators of how green a wine may be. But, with every sip, a little informed purchasing can go a long way in supporting American agriculture, our environment, and possibly your health.