There comes a moment in every wine lover's life when they’ve been to enough tastings, uncorked enough bottles, and sipped enough bubbly that they start to ask questions.
It could be as straightforward as “Wait, how do you properly hold a wine glass?” as common as “So what's the best way to learn to describe what I'm tasting?” or as complicated as “How do I read a wine label?”
The answers in case you’re wondering are: hold the stem, not the bowl! Practice smelling and tasting lots and lots! And, well, it depends where the wine is from.
But, of the many questions that arise, arguably the most common for those making a concerted effort to go “green” is “What is sustainable wine?”
It’s California Wine Month, which marks the height of harvest here in the Golden State and, since we produce over 80% of the nation’s wine and are the world's 4th largest wine producer, it seems a fitting time to dive into this very question.
Defining Organic, Biodynamic, and Sustainable Wines
The place to start is with another question; namely, “What is the difference between organic, biodynamic, and sustainable wine?”
We could fill a book with the nuanced regulations surrounding these terms around the world but let’s start with what they mean here in California.
Of the three terms, “organic” is the most defined because it's a government-regulated term. In the United States, for a wine to be called “organic” it must adhere to the standards of the USDA's National Organic Program, which aims to protect natural resources and promote biodiversity.
There are two main types of organic wine you'll come across. The first is a wine "made with organic grapes" meaning that all the grape growing practices -- aka the viticulture -- are following organic standards.
Then you have wines labeled "USDA organic" which means the wine not only follows organic practices in viticulture but also in the viniculture (or in the winemaking) process.
Translation: a wine labeled "USDA organic" has been made with 100% organically grown grapes and does not have added sulfites. The downside is that the absence of sulfites (a natural preservative) means the wine won't have a long shelf life.
I first encountered biodynamics when I lived in Europe and befriended many Loire Valley producers who were pioneering the practice in the wine world. Still today the majority of biodynamic wines are produced in Europe, which is fitting since biodynamics was created nearly a century ago by an Austrian philosopher named Rudolf Steiner.
Biodynamics is an alternative form of agriculture that is a step beyond organic because it accounts for the entire growing ecosystem. Meaning it not only takes into account the viticulture and viniculture process but also accounts for nature's elements and the lunar phases.
Think of biodynamics as organics with added spirituality. If organic were your fit marathoner friend and sustainability were your friend who lives a holistically green life, biodynamics would be your crystal-wielding, sound bathing, yogi friend.
Similar to organics, biodynamic wines are usually made without sulfites and therefore limited in their ability to age. And while the definition of organic changes from country to country, biodynamic stays the same worldwide.
Before we dive into sustainable wine, allow us to detour for a hot second to address the newer kid on the block: natural wine. This term is not regulated but it's widely agreed to mean that the wine is low-intervention. In other words, the wines undergo spontaneous fermentation with native yeast, are minimally manipulated, have trace amounts of sulfates, and usually are not filtered or fined. Natural wine can be certified organic or biodynamic or even sustainable if the winemaker adheres to those respective strategies.
Here in California sustainability has been part of the conversation for decades. We're all about it because sustainable winegrowing practices protect the whole earth including the soil, air, and water.
So sustainability not only accounts for the grape growing and winemaking process but also incorporates a range of practices that help the winery make economically viable and socially responsible decisions.
Note that unless otherwise indicated, a sustainable wine is probably not made with 100% organically grown ingredients. But a wine that is sustainable can be natural, biodynamic, or organic so look at the label to learn more.
Here in California, the eight key areas wineries focus on in their sustainability practices are water efficiency, energy efficiency, pest management, soil health, waste management, wildlife habitat, community contributions, and the supply chain. Examples of this include:
- Water Conservation: Opting for drip irrigation or even dry farming
- Energy Conservation: Harvesting at night so grapes (and vineyard workers) stay cooler
- Pest Management: Using beneficial insects and birds of prey (like falcons!) to help manage insects and rodents
- Green Building: Opting for reclaimed or recycled construction materials
- Land Conservancy: Leaving part of a winery's property undeveloped to provide a wildlife habitat
- Quality Of Life: Committing long-term to the health of their communities
You can learn much much more about the ways California's wineries are embracing sustainability by heading to the California Wine Institute's section on sustainable winemaking.
How To Shop For Sustainable Wine
There are multiple certifications for sustainable wine and each has a slightly different emphasis. However, the majority are self-assessed are routinely audited by an independent third party.
Here in California one of the most revered certifications is the Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing (CERTIFIED SUSTAINABLE) which is administered by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA). You can look for that label when you're shopping to know that the winery you're purchasing from has embraced a sustainable mindset.
The bottom line is that wines with a sustainability certification mean the winery is trying to tell you that they are keeping the environment, social responsibility, economic viability, and quality in mind. And remember that the wine label is your friend because it's the winery's way to help you find the wine that suits your lifestyle!
Now that you’ve got a grasp on the different terms and what they mean, you can go hunt down the best wine for you. Let us know in the comments below the wine you’re loving now and how you plan to celebrate California Wine Month!
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