At its core, sustainable wine is wine created using eco-friendly growing practices and production processes that ensure the ongoing health of soil, waterways, wildlife, people, and the planet. In practical terms, this might encompass such things as avoiding the use of pesticides, using composting waste as fertilizer, conserving water, and both reducing energy consumption and switching to renewable, cleaner energy sources.
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Given the breadth of sustainability, it’s not all that surprising that some wines that are certified organic or even biodynamic are not actually sustainable. And, vice versa, some genuinely sustainable wines don’t boast an organic or biodynamic label.
To illustrate how confusing things can be for growers, winemakers, and consumers, here are just a few of the current organic, biodynamic, and sustainability programs and certifications available for wine:
- USDA Organic
- EU Organic
- Demeter Association Inc. biodynamic certification
- EMS Environmental Management System (ISO 14001 / ISO 14004)
- SIP Certified (Sustainability in Practice)
- Certified Green (The Lodi Rules)
- LIVE Certified (Low Input Viticulture and Enology)
- California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance
- Salmon Safe
- Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand (SWNZ)
- Certified Sustainable Wine of Chile
- Integrity & Sustainability Certified (South Africa)
- Sustainable Australia Winegrowing (SAW)
- Bodegas de Argentina Sustainability Protocol
- Sustainable Wine South Africa (SWSA)
- Sonoma County Winegrape Commission label
I’ll take a look at some of these in a moment. First, though, what’s the difference between organic and biodynamic wine?
Organic vs. biodynamic wine: what is the difference?
What is organic wine?
Organic wine is wine made with certified organic ingredients with few, if any, synthetic materials added. Depending on the organic certification, this may mean a wine contains 70%, 100%, or some other proportion of organic ingredients.
In the US, the most common organic certification is the USDA Organic label, although some vineyards and winemakers use Oregon Tilth Certified Organic (OTCO) as their certifying agent. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the body that oversees both USDA Organic and OTCO.
For a finished wine to achieve organic certification in the US, the grapes and the winemaking process must both be organic. This means that the grapes are grown without pesticides or GMOs and that anything that goes into the wine, including yeasts, sugars, etc., must also be organic.
Some winemakers balk at organic certification, claiming that non-organic additives help prevent wine from spoiling and that the quality of fully organic wine can suffer without such additives. That there are many delicious organic wines available seems to undermine such arguments, however.
In other countries, other organic certifications may be used, including Soil Association certified organic in the UK.
What is biodynamic wine?
Biodynamic wine is created in an organic, sustainable way that accounts for all the material and energy inputs and minimizes waste production. Based on a holistic farming practice originating with the Austrian philosopher and educator Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s, biodynamics is a far more comprehensive practice than just organic certification. For some, it also includes a spiritual element involving the phases of the moon.
To qualify for the Demeter Association Inc. biodynamic certification program, grapes and any other ingredients have to be grown in a healthy ecosystem that conserves and regenerates natural resources, using animal manure or other natural inputs to enhance soil fertility and natural methods to control weeds, pests, and diseases. The criteria for this certification are quite strict and include setting aside 10% of acreage for a biodiversity preserve, and entirely eliminating the use of synthetic pesticides and herbicides.
Because biodynamic wines contain no artificial additives, they offer a unique opportunity to explore the taste or a particular terroir or place of origin. A few of the additives typically used in winemaking include sugars, tannins, acidifiers, and clarifying compounds like isinglass (parts of fish), animal blood, egg, and pea protein.
Choosing biodynamic wine offers a degree of reassurance that the wine itself doesn’t contain toxic chemicals (with the exception of alcohol, of course) and that the creation of the wine may actually support the health of the environment. Look for Demeter Certified Biodynamic, Demeter, or Biodynamic on the label.
The downside of biodynamic wine is that nature is rather unpredictable, so wine from the same vineyard may vary in quality and taste from year to year. That said, some wine enthusiasts love this about biodynamic wine, because it keeps things interesting! A vintage from a cooler year may be more acidic, for instance, or a wine may have more natural tannins and taste dryer in hotter years where shade crops haven’t fared as well.
The bottom line
The bottom line for those of us dedicated to fighting climate change is that biodynamic wine is usually greener and better for the planet than wines that just achieve organic certification.