Happy Earth Day!
The source of all known life in the universe may only get one day a year of official recognition, but judging from the questions we field every day at the wine shops, Earth is on everybody’s mind anyway. You want to know more about organic, biodynamic and sustainable wines, and you’re not quite sure what these terms mean, which is understandable. With all the products, information and certifications out there, it can be difficult to discern the difference between organic and biodynamic, or figure out what exactly constitutes sustainable. So, in honor of our #1 favorite planet, we are offering the following primer on the basics of environmentally responsible viticulture. Hope this makes it easier for you to drink green!
Organic: To put it very simply (before it gets complicated): All organic wine in the United States - whether USDA or EU certified, “organically farmed” or “practicing organic” is made with organically farmed grapes. No pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, or synthetic fertilizers - no chemicals - may be used on the vines. The USDA certification for this is “Wine Made From Organic Grapes” and you will see it displayed on bottles occasionally (though there are many wineries with this certification who choose not to display it for a variety of reasons.) The “Made with Organic Grapes” standard limits sulfite use to no more than 100 ppm.
This is different from "Organic Wine", which is a much rarer USDA certification that requires the wine be vinified, as well as farmed, organically. Nothing inorganic can be added to the wine in the cellar including - and this is key - sulfur dioxide (better known as sulfites.) Although sulfites are a naturally occurring by-product of fermentation (there is no such thing as “sulfite-free” wine), almost all vintners add some amount of sulfites during production to stabilize, protect and preserve the wine in the bottle. Wines without added sulfites are consequently few and far between (though they do exist - and we have some!) and need to be drunk young.
Biodynamic: On one level, Biodynamic farming is just a more demanding species of organic agriculture. Biodynamic wines are made with biodynamically grown grapes, which means they are almost always organically farmed as well. It is also, as conceived by its creator, Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, a holistic agricultural and spiritual system premised on cosmic interconnection and meant to sync all aspects of farming up with the shared internal rhythm of the earth and planets. Which sounds pretty grandiose, but the goal is relatively straightforward: the creation of a self-sustaining ecosystem where material on the farm will feed the animals, whose manure in turn will feed the crops and so on. Or, as California biodynamic wine pioneer Mike Bezinger puts it: “At its core, Biodynamics is an energy management system.”
Unlike with Organic wine, the primary biodynamic certification entity, Demeter, operates internationally, in over 50 countries. And though standards differ, common requirements include: a few specific soil preparations (including #500, described thusly, “Manure from a lactating cow placed inside a cowhorn and buried during winter. Made into tea and sprayed onto soil in late spring”); strictly organic farming materials, and a requirement that the entire property in question be farmed biodynamically, rather than just a plot, with 10% of the land set as for a natural habit.
Look out for Demeter stickers on wine bottles, but be aware that, as with other certifications, there are many wines that farm biodynamically that are uncertified or don’t display the label. For Biodynamic producers, the standards for certified wines are similar to organic, but with some significant differences. Producers with certified vineyards and wineries may choose from two standards: “Made with Biodynamic Grapes” or “Biodynamic Wine.” Both of these standards limit the addition of sulfites to 100 ppm.
Sustainable: This is the broadest category of practice and certification, and also the one that overlaps the least (though it still does) with the other two. Sustainable winemaking practices focus on reducing a winery’s carbon footprint and negative impact on its surrounding communities in the vineyard, the cellar and anywhere else each business operates. This can cover everything from water conservation and energy efficiency to fair labor practices; quite often sustainability goals coincide with organic practices, but not always -- the use of copper as a natural fungicide, permitted in organic farming for instance, is not a sustainable practice.
There are a ton of different sustainable certification organizations, every wine producing country generally has more than a few, and the standards and practices of each reflect differences in local conditions. (South Africa, for instance, is a world leader in sustainable winemaking practices; 85% of its wineries are certified by the national sustainability body.) One California organization to know about is SIP (Sustainability in Practice), which has a pretty comprehensive approach to certification, encompassing the three E’s - economic viability, environmental stewardship, and social equity - and requires annual third party verification for all its adherents. Participating wineries do not tend to carry the label on their bottles, so check here for a list: https://www.sipcertified.org/find-wines/