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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 on where the wine is from.
What Is Certified Sustainable Wine?
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 an appropriate 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 worldwide, 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 grape growing and farming practices, such as viticulture, follow organic standards.
Then you have wines labeled “USDA organic,” which means the wine follows organic practices in viticulture and 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. Here in California, a farm can get certified CCOF or a California Certified Organic Farm if they so desire.
I first encountered biodynamic farming practices when I lived in Europe and befriended many Loire Valley producers who pioneered 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 beyond organic because it accounts for the entire growing ecosystem. Meaning it considers the viticulture and viniculture process and 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, good 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, biodynamics stays the same worldwide. In fact, most producers who are committed to biodynamics will get Demeter certified.
Before diving into what is 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. Often times this means that natural wines can have a shorter shelf life and are thus meant to be drunk young.
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 account for the entire ecosystem and aim to protect t protect the whole earth, including the soil, air, and water.
So sustainability accounts for the grape growing and winemaking process and incorporates a range of practices that help the winery make economically viable and socially responsible decisions.
Note that a sustainable wine is probably not made with 100% organically grown ingredients unless otherwise indicated. But a sustainable wine 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 Use: 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 more about how California’s wineries embrace sustainability and the various certification programs 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 and are routinely audited by an independent third party.
One of the most revered certifications here in California is the Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing certification which is administered by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA). When shopping, you can look for that label 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 keep 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 understood 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!
Have Us Plan Your California Wine Country Trip
Did you know we’re also a boutique travel agency that specializes in California vacation planning? If you’re looking to plan a trip to California wine country, our California trip planner services are here to help you plan your perfect itinerary.
Photo Credit: Opening Photo and photo of wine pouring by Jayme Burrows; photos of grapes being picked and sheep on the hill by Sara Remington