Updated: Mar 9, 2021
In my third article on beverages & sustainability, I am focusing on wine. I was fortunate enough to attend a talk about "Sustainable Wines" led by a sommelier as a part of my MBA program's "Planet Week" in February 2020. This piqued my interest in sustainable winegrowing practices, which are gaining in both popularity and commercial availability.
Sustainability in Wine
Sustainable wine is a somewhat confusing and misleading term, as eco-friendly words on bottle labels doesn't necessarily mean that sustainable practices are used (see: greenwashing). There are a variety of different certifications for eco-conscious wines, which generally refer to the practices used in farming and winemaking. Though there is a significant amount of overlap in intentions and principles, each label means something slightly different (Well + Good). The certification categories include: sustainable, organic, and biodynamic.
Organic wines use pure ingredients; biodynamic wines are holistic for agricultural health; and sustainable wines aim to reduce waste in winemaking (Wine Folly). There are no governmental bodies that regulate sustainable or biodynamic wine practices, though organic labels are generally granted by government bodies.
Organic is a term regulated by the government (USDA in the US or ECOCERT in Europe)(Wine Spectator). This can be broken down into two categories: organic grapes or certified organic. First, wine can be made with certified organic grapes, which means winegrowers avoid pesticides and additives. Second, wine can be certified organic, which means winegrowers use organic grapes and do not add sulfites. Wine contains naturally occurring sulfites, though many vineyards add additional sulfites during the process. Many wineries claim to produce organic wines but do not pursue certification, and therefore cannot label the wines as such (the recommendation here is to research their techniques to verify practices) (Alcohol Professor).
Certain wine experts believe that it is very challenging to make good organic wines, as the quality may suffer (Well + Good).
Sustainable wine production means that a company engages in eco-friendly practices such as reducing chemical waste, pesticides, replanting crops or trees, reducing carbon footprints, increasing energy efficiency, using recycled packaging, and engaging in biodiversity and wildlife conservation (Alcohol Professor).
Sonoma County, CA is actually one of the most sustainable regions for viticulture in the world, with 97% of farming acreage in the Sonoma County Winegrowers Association certified sustainable (SIP).
Biodynamic farms are self-contained ecosystems, with no synthetic chemicals of any kind (Alcohol Professor). Ancient agricultural concepts are often utilized, such as following lunar growing cycles and using astrological charts to determine when the vines should be harvested, pruned, and watered. Only systems found in nature are to be used to grow the vines, with biodynamic farming “manifest[ing] the interconnectivity of the earth” (Alcohol Professor). These farms often have animals to eat weeds around the grape vines as well (Well + Good). Some have criticized these practices as being inconsistent and unpredictable from vintage to vintage.
Other Wine Terms
In France, wineries can be certified under the Haute Qualite Environnementale (HQE) (Alcohol Professor). This certification is different than the previous sustainability certifications as it also promotes a holistic use of varietals and rootstock, as well as other traditional sustainability measures such as water preservation and treatments. The Bordeaux Wine Trade is working towards 100% sustainability, with 60% in 2017 engaged in meaningful practices.
There is an additional category you may run into that doesn't fall into any certification category: "natural wine." Natural wine is an undefined term that generally refers to wine made without intervention. Many of the winemaking techniques are similar to those used in sustainable winegrowing and on biodynamic farms (Vox). There are no certifications or standards, but instead there is a general idea of what this type of wine is supposed to be. It is often described with the following terms: cloudy, funky, barnyard-y. This trend began in rural France and is beginning to gain steam in the US as well.
There are several different individual certifications for each category, which can get a bit messy. The following is a list (and diagram from Wine Folly) of several different certifications.
USDA Organic (US)
SIP- Sustainability in Practice (California)
CCOF Stellar Certification Operations (California)
EMS Environmental Management System (ISO 14001/ ISO 14004)
Salmon Safe (US)
Integrity & Sustainability Certified (South Africa)
Where to buy these wines?
Research your favorite vineyard: knowing where the wine came from and how grapes are produced is valuable. The certification labels are helpful guides as someone else has done the verification to help ease the buying process. Wines that cost less than $10 are likely industrialized and mass-produced, and therefore is unlikely to be sustainable (though it can't hurt to research). Just remember to recycle your wine bottle as glass can be recycled easily and infinitely!
Thanks for reading,
Katie @ Sustainably Yours, LA