Sustainable Wine 101: Natural, Organic & Biodynamic
There are all kinds of sustainable wines out there now - but how do you know what's what? We've got the field guide!
For most widely-cultivated agricultural products, people have been more and more interested in sustainable, eco-friendly and green options. Wine is no exception! Ethical practices in farming are better for the Earth, better for the workers growing it, and better for the person consuming it. It's an everybody-wins situation - the only obstacle now is that there are so many options for what to look for in a label. We've got the lowdown on what's what!
Sustainable Wine 101
What is it? When wine is labeled as "natural," it means that nothing has been added - or taken away. This means no added yeasts, no chemicals from the vineyard to the cellar, no added sulfites... nothing! It's essentially free of all intervention, and the wine is left to do its own thing. However, this is all just a general consensus of what the label "natural wine" means: there is no regulated or official definition. Chances are, if you're seeing it being sold in a wine shop or on the menu of a restaurant, it was vetted by whoever is selling it - but it doesn't hurt to ask questions!
What to look for? Because there aren't any added preservatives, natural wine is generally a more "fragile" wine - meaning it's more prone to spoilage. It's wise to buy from more local wineries, because the less the wine had to travel, the lower the chances are that it spoiled in transport. Once you have your bottle on hand, you need to take extra care in storing it. Keep it somewhere cool, dark, and try and drink it within a year. Also note that sometimes in natural wine, you'll see something called "wine diamonds" once you uncork the bottle - they'll look like tiny crystals at the bottom of your glass, and under the cork of the bottle. These are naturally occurring when potassium and tartaric acid in wine bond to form a crystal. Essentially, it's a phenomenon that can happen in wine that was minimally processed, and can actually sometimes be seen as a sign of quality. They're completely harmless!
What is it? Organic wine, quite simply, is wine that's been made with organically grown grapes. Unlike natural wine, this definition doesn't mean that there aren't additives in your wine. There is a list of accepted non-agricultural substances that can be added, including egg whites, yeast, and more. Important to note that this means organic wine can easily not be vegan! However, this is still a much more sustainable, and even healthier purchase than a non-organic wine. Organic grapes have to be grown without any pesticides, herbicides, or artificial fertilizers. Organic winemaking also prohibits the use of any GMOs in the process, along with color and flavor additives. Because the grapes aren't manipulated with tons of additives in the growing process, the fruit ends up with a higher concentration of antioxidants - so you can feel better about a second glass!
What to look for? Some growers use organic practices, but haven't actually been certified organic. A good label to look out for is a "SIP certification" on the bottle, which is given to sustainably grown wines. It can also be wise to look at the back of the bottle and give the label a read. Some smaller vineyards that aren't certified organic might have a note explaining their growing practices, and you can always give the vineyard or winemaker a quick Google search.
Domaine Rimbert Cousin Oscar, Languedoc-Roussillon, Vin de France
What is it? According to the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, the definition of biodynamic wine is “a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, gardens, food production and nutrition." Essentially, this means it is grown somewhere under the belief that everything is an interconnected ecosystem: every part of the farm or vineyard is a self-sustaining system, beyond just the grapes. With only natural soils and composts, and absolutely no inorganic compounds and pesticides, the goal goes beyond just a good wine - it's also to improve the health and resources of the land being used.
It also means that there is generally a larger farm system rather than just a vineyard, such as farm animals to live on and fertilize the soil naturally. Every portion of the farmland serves a purpose to enrich and contribute to another part, creating a complete terroir, which is the natural environment in which a wine is produced. Biodynamic winemaking doesn't just take the land into account, but every single aspect of the environment - including the celestial! Lunar patterns, planets and stars are also taken into account. Whatever they're doing, they're doing it right: biodynamic wine is often regarded as some of the best.
What to look for? Biodynamic wine is essentially the pinnacle of sustainable farming, so there's nothing you need to worry about in terms of additives or unethical practices on a bottle of this type of wine. Like natural wine, biodynamic wine is more fragile due to those missing additives. Store it in a cool dark place, and don't be worried about those wine diamonds if you see them!
SP68 Bianco IGT Terre Siciliane (Zibbibo/Albanello)