Jane Says: There's More to Sustainable Wine Than an Organic Label

From biodynamics to natural wine, there's a lot to choose from in the world of "green" wines.

what is natural wine organic wine biodynamic wine

(Photo: Nicolas Wayne/Getty Images)

Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

“I entertain a lot during the holidays, and because I eat organic as much as possible, I’d like to follow through with organic wines. But what are the differences among organic, biodynamic, sustainable, and so-called ‘natural’ wines?”

—Janet Finnegan

Buying organic is a simpler choice at the farmers market or grocery store than it is at a wineshop. Before I try to make sense of all the different “green” types of wine available, let’s step back and look at the bigger picture for a moment. Viniculture, which embraces both viticulture (vine cultivation) and winemaking, has always been sustainable in a far larger sense of the word: It’s thought to have its roots in the Near East some 9,000 years ago, and the earliest evidence for wine, found in northern Iran, dates from 5400 to 5000 B.C. The history of civilization and the history of wine are inseparable.

You may also be interested to know that a recent analysis of 2,500-year-old amphoras, from the ancient French port of Lattara, by a team led by molecular archaeologist Patrick McGovern and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that French winemaking began as far back as 500 B.C. Lattara was where the Etruscans traded with the Celtic Gauls, and that first French wine was basically an Italian white, albeit flavored with rosemary and possibly thyme or basil.

These days, the industrial end of the wine import-export biz uses 20-foot ocean shipping containers holding 25,000 liters of bulk wine in a “flexitank” bag. You may find that to be a turnoff, but The Wine Economist points out more than one green reason for the rise of (really big) boxed wine.

And before I forget, there’s a nice international roundup of sustainable, organic, and biodynamic wines—as well as a useful explanation (and photo IDs) of sustainability and organic certification labels—at winewarehouse.com.

Organic wines

Just like other certified-organic products, organic wines are overseen by the USDA’s National Organic Program. They must be made with grapes cultivated without synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, or fertilizers; agricultural products such as commercially available yeasts must be organic; and the label must state the certifying agent. They also have to meet the standards of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau—in particular, for sulfite labeling requirements.

Sulfites (sulfur dioxide in various forms) are naturally found in grape skins and are a byproduct of fermentation, but winemakers the world over have long added tiny amounts of them to wine, primarily to give it stability (so it doesn’t turn into vinegar) and prevent oxidation and unwanted bacterial and yeast growth. Conventional wines in the U.S. may contain up to 350 parts per million (ppm).

While certified-organic wines contain naturally occurring sulfites, the level must be less than 10 ppm, and no extra sulfites may be added. If an organic wine is labeled “Sulfite Free,” that means it has no detectable sulfites—that is, present-day analysis isn’t sensitive enough to pick up sulfites at such low levels.

Another category of organic wines states “Made With Organic Grapes” or “Made With Organically Grown Grapes” on the label. They can’t be certified organic because they may contain up to 100 ppm of added sulfites, and any agricultural ingredients such as yeast aren’t required to be organic but must still be produced without genetic engineering or other excluded methods.

The National Organic Standards Board's vote in December 2011 to continue to prohibit the adding of sulfite to certified-organic wine was controversial in wine circles. Most winemakers feel the preservative is critical in a product that must be shipped and then may sit unopened for years. The European Union, for its part, restricts sulfites in its organic wine to 100 ppm for red wine and 150 for white and rosé. The wine preservatives in the ancient world, by the way, were tree resins, according to Patrick McGovern, who writes about the history of winemaking in Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture. They included terebinth, pine, cedar, frankincense, and myrrh, which gives me a whole new slant on the Three Wise Men. Modern wines like Greek retsina are made in this ancient tradition.

You should also know that sulfites aren’t the sole prerogative of vintners; a two-ounce serving of dried apricots can have 10 times the amount of sulfites in a glass of conventional wine. Although they’re safe for most of us, they can be hazardous to asthmatics and others with an allergy or sensitivity to them. I can’t go into a longer discussion of sulfites in this column (so much else to cover!), but here’s one of many online sources that can help sort out sulfite facts from fiction. And Wall Street Journal wine columnists Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher (and a few medical experts) have thoroughly addressed the purported connection between sulfites and headaches.

Biodynamic wines

Like organic practices, the intense, holistic (and trademarked) approach to agriculture called Biodynamics is free of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, etc. One thing that differentiates a Demeter-certified Biodynamic farm, however, is that the farm is considered as an organism in which plants, animals, and human beings are integrated. I’m not sure what carefully managed farm isn’t, but anyhoo, “the significant difference,” the Demeter website explains, “is that the Biodynamic method attempts to work with the dynamic energies in nature and not solely with its material needs.”

The spiritual-ethical-ecological principles of Biodynamics were developed by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner after a series of lectures he delivered to a group of German farmers in 1924. The eye-rolling among skeptics starts once the discussion turns to what it takes to bring cultivated land more closely in harmony with nature. Herb-based compost preparations made in accordance with celestial rhythms are key; the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association explains that even the method of stirring a field spray is specific, “repeatedly creating a vortex in one direction, followed by a vortex in the other direction.” 

“But focusing on the mystical aspects of biodynamics risks missing the point, as well as one of the main reasons winemakers are so attracted to it,” James Rodewald, drinks editor at Gourmet, wrote in January 2005. “It is the ultimate hands-on approach.... Serious attention must be paid to the vines. Winemakers are by nature extremely detail oriented, so it’s not surprising that this kind of agricultural micro-management might appeal to them.” 

As far as sulfites go, biodynamic wines can contain up to 100 ppm (150 ppm for sweet wines).

Sustainable wines

Sustainable growers generally minimize energy and water use and inputs of synthetic chemicals. They may even farm organically or biodynamically but choose not to get certified; they want the freedom, for instance, to tinker with the amount of sulfites they use or wipe out a devastating pest with a synthetic if all else fails.

Sustainable farmers stress flexibility; the practices that work in one area or even microclimate may not work in another. There are no federal standards for sustainability, but regional wine-industry associations, such as the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance and LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology), based in the Pacific Northwest, have developed programs for third-party certification of vineyards and wineries.

Natural wines

This newest counterculture niche is based on a deceptively simple non-interventionist theory of winemaking. One hallmark is the use of the indigenous yeasts that are present on grape skins and in the air for fermentation (instead of always consistent commercial yeasts), which can lead to unexpected flavors ranging from funky to sublime.

The only additive may be—you got it—sulfites, in very small amounts, if used at all. In fact, natural winemakers don’t even like to refine or filter their product, and they’re far stricter in the cellar than organic or biodynamic producers; there is no correction of sugars or acidity, for instance. You’ll find a more detailed explanation of what constitutes a natural wine at Jamie Goode’s wine blog; the British wine columnist (and biologist) is also the author, with Sam Harrop, of the excellent Authentic Wine: Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking. American wine writer Alice Feiring, author of Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally, is a big proponent on this side of the pond.

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