This article is Part II of a two part series by Céline Guillou. Part I, "Green Wine: What Does "Green" Mean? Does it Taste Better?", can be viewed here.
For many years, the simple mention of “organic wine” inspired a less than enthusiastic reaction from wine consumers, who generally viewed purveyors of organic wine as “tree-huggers”.
In the last few years, however, this negative perception has begun to diminish as new farming and winemaking techniques have dramatically improved the quality of those wines. This improvement also coincides with the much-needed attention that is now being paid to environmental issues. As a result, the once derided organic wines are increasingly appealing to consumers and critics alike, whether initially motivated by their palates or social consciences.
The biggest problem today is that the term “organic wine” is actually often misused, at least in the United States where the USDA’s standards for organic certification differ from those in other wine-producing countries. Like in other countries, to be certified organic a wine must be made with grapes that were grown in a vineyard that uses organic farming techniques. This essentially means that no chemical or artificial fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or other treatments were used on the grapes.
However, unlike its foreign counterparts, the USDA also states that in order to achieve certification as an “organic wine,” a wine may not contain added sulfites. I use (and stress) the word “added” because all wine contains sulfites that occur naturally during fermentation. In other words, the USDA standards prohibit the use of any additives at the winemaking stage.
While many winemakers have embraced organically-grown grapes (due to higher quality crop, healthier vines and a safer environment for workers), “organic wine” as per the USDA’s standards has drawn much less interest due to the prohibition against added sulfites, which are known to enhance a wine’s shelf life, among other things. As a result, U.S. wineries are often unable or unwilling to receive certification for the wine as “Organic Wine” and instead choosing to produce wines that are labeled “Made With Certified Organic Grapes” and contain a small percentage of added sulfites. California wineries, for instance, have increasingly sought certification of their vineyards by the CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers), which warrants three years of chemical-free farming as a prerequisite. Thus, vineyard certification (or purchasing grapes from other certified organic vineyards) appears to be winemakers’ preferred alternative when it comes to organics and wine. Just to be clear, however, most of the winemakers that farm organically add very few sulfites – usually just enough to enable a better shelf life – because adding anything more than a small amount pretty much defeats the purpose of farming organically.
Likewise, although this sulfite prohibition generally does not exist in other countries, imported wines are bound by the same prohibition in order receive the USDA’s “Organic Wine” seal here in the United States. As a result, there are fewer imported “Organic Wines” than wines “Made With Organic Grapes”. To complicate matters further – this would otherwise be too easy an exercise – many wineries are skipping certification altogether for several reasons: costs, administrative burden and, finally, this enduring “tree-hugger” stigma that some winemakers still fear will turn consumers away in certain markets.
What does this all mean for wine consumers? When shopping for “green” wines and reading labels, the above distinction is what consumers should keep this in mind insofar as organics are concerned. In either case, the wines are made in an environmentally sound and chemical-free manner, and that’s what truly counts. And if the winery is not certified and does not advertise its organic practices, then there really is no way of knowing if it’s “green” unless, well, unless you already know…
Another “green” viticulture technique is derived from principles of “biodynamic” agriculture. Like biodynamic agriculture in general, biodynamic grape growing stems from the work of philosopher and scientist Rudolf Steiner in the 1920’s. In short, the concept behind biodynamics is based on Steiner’s philosophy (known as anthroposophy), which observes the ecological, “energetic” and spiritual aspects of nature. In other words, his is a truly holisitic approach.
Practically speaking, biodynamic wine is made from grapes grown on property where the environment as a whole (and not just the vines) plays a role in the process. For instance, other crops and even animals are used in the mix to make the land healthier and more fertile. A central aspect of biodynamics is that the farm itself is seen as a living organism, with each farm activity affecting all others. It should therefore be a closed, self-nourishing system in order to maintain this delicate balance. At the very least, a vineyard that is certified biodynamic meets the standards and regulations for organic certified farming, but also surpasses them. Biodynamic farming requires considerable effort and expense to create (or transition to) a biodynamic vineyard. The certifying entity for biodynamic agriculture is known as “Demeter”.
Biodynamic winemaking has become increasingly popular, especially in Europe (and particularly in Spain and France), but also in the “New World” — California and Oregon, Australia, Chile and South Africa. In fact, many grape growers who have turned to biodynamic methods have noted immediate improvements in both the quality of their wines and the health of their vineyards. As with organics, there are two types of Demeter-certified wines: “Biodynamic Wine” and “Wine Made with Biodynamic Grapes.” For a “Biodynamic Wine” certification, Demeter guidelines proscribe any additives designed to manipulate the wine at the winemaking level. For “Wine Made with Biodynamic Grapes”, a winemaker may add certain Demeter-approved processing agents. In either case, biodynamic winemakers are held to higher standards than those producing organic vintages.
Does “green” wine taste better?
Together with organic wine and wine made from organic grapes (whether or not certified), biodynamic wine comprises what we (and many others) consider “green” wine.
However, the most important question still remains: does it taste better?
“You are what you eat,” or so the saying goes. In my opinion, you are also what you drink. Taste of wine is also a matter of personal preference. That said, in this day and age, there is little argument that an organic heirloom tomato, for instance, is healthier and tastes better than one oozing with chemicals. It should come as no surprise that the same goes for wine.
Grapes that are sprayed with artificial chemicals lose their natural flavor and purity; they lose the ability to reveal the unique characteristics of the land on which they are grown. This is what is known in French as terroir, an abstract term that essentially embraces the history, geography, flavors and smells of a piece of property. Only unadulterated grapes can be a full expression of individual terroir, soaking up the natural essence of the land and its various elements, whether they be pine, fruit, rosemary, smoke or minerals, just to name a few. The result is that “green” wines are more interesting, unique and flavorful than their conventional counterparts. The proof is in the pudding: for those interested in rankings and ratings, many “green” wines often achieve the highest scores from top wine critics.
All in all, there are only benefits to drinking “green” wine: it tastes better and it’s better for you and the environment. The one and only potential drawback is that someone out there might accuse you of being a “tree hugger” – not only is it unlikely, but it’s fast becoming very démodé.
In the end, wines that are natural are in synch with nature. In the words of Montaigne, “let Nature have her way; she understands her business better than we do.” Without nearly the same eloquence, I would add that if I’m going to take the time to shop “green” and purchase organic food, I don’t see much point in washing it down with a bottle of wine that is loaded with chemicals.
“Green” Winery Suggestions:
Coturri – Organic Wine (i.e., no sulfites added)
Benziger, Quivira, Beckman, Porter Creek – Biodynamic
Turley, Green & Red, Robert Sinskey – Organically Farmed*
Note that not all of the wines produced by the aforementioned wineries meet these standards, so check with the winery.