As wine consumers, we have learned to ask a lot of questions about what we are drinking. What exactly is in this bottle? Are pesticides or herbicides sprayed on the grapes used to make this wine? Is anything added into the wine in the winery? Are any organisms or the environment harmed to make this? The laws that govern sustainable wine growing and processing can actually be quite tricky. We need to understand how to ask our questions before we can understand the answers.
What is sustainable farming?
Wine Spectator gives a thorough definition of sustainable as it relates to the production of wine.
“Sustainability refers to a range of practices that are not only ecologically sound, but also economically viable and socially responsible. (Sustainable farmers may farm largely organically or biodynamically but have flexibility to choose what works best for their individual property; they may also focus on energy and water conservation, use of renewable resources and other issues.) Some third-party agencies offer sustainability certifications, and many regional industry associations are working on developing clearer standards.”
The sustainable label is useful; it tells the consumer which wines are made with ecological, economical, and social principles in mind. Its limitation is that it is locally defined and therefore varies regionally.
What is organic wine?
“Organic” is a system of farming and food processing, as well as a label. In the USA, organic is regulated by the National Organic Program (NOP) of the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA). These entities ensure uniform and reliable standards.
By definition, organic farming and food processing integrates cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster the cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering are not allowed. Products from outside of the cycle are used minimally.
1 – wine made from organic grapes with the addition of sulfites during the winemaking process. Sulfites are allowed in small amounts (less than 100 mg/L (ppm)); this wine cannot be labeled as “organic” but can mention the use of organic grapes.
2 – wine made from organic grapes with no added sulfites. This wine can be labeled as “organic.”
But is 100 mg/L a lot? And does no “added” sulfites mean that there are no sulfites at all in the finished wine? To give perspective on these numbers, understand that natural yeasts, which are present on healthy grape skins, produce trace amounts of sulfites, usually around 15mg/L and often up to 20mg/L. Since 1988, in the USA, all wines containing more than 10mg/L must state, “contains sulfites” on the label. That means that just about every wine produced and imported—whether it be organic, made with organic grapes, or conventionally produced—will say this, which doesn’t help the consumer much.
If you are sulfite sensitive, or the levels are of concern to you, it is important to realize the limits behind the labels. In the USA, these apply to all wine produced, as well as imported.
By law the USA allows sulfite levels of up to 350 mg/L in any conventionally produced finished wine. Finished wine made from organically produced grapes is allowed to contain only up to 100 mg/L of sulfites. Wine labeled as organic cannot have any added sulfites, though it still may have a small amount since they occur naturally (probably 10-20 mg/L).
There are also about 70 groups of products allowed as additions (and not required to be listed on labels) in the conventional wine making process in the USA, Europe Union (EU), Australia, and Japan. But these products are restricted from organic wines according to the National List.
Two issues further complicate the organic label. For one, any foreign company who is exporting wines to the USA for selling and marketing as organic wine, must comply with the USA standards. However, the EU and other wine producing countries have different laws and standards than we have in the USA on the quantity of allowable sulfites in finished organic wines.
In the EU, allowable sulfite levels depend on the type of wine being made. In organic wine, sulfite levels must be at least 30-50 mg/L lower than their conventional equivalent. The EU allows only 150 mg/L of sulfites in finished conventional red wines, which means that red wine labeled as organic in the EU is allowed to have about 100 mg/L of sulfites in the finished product. For conventional white wines in the EU, 200 mg/L is the sulfite limit; 150 mg/L is the limit for organic white wines. For conventional sweet wines, the legal limit in the EU is a sulfite level of 450 mg/L and for organic sweet wines that level depends on the sugar levels in the finished wine.
In the USA, any wine labeled as organic is not allowed to have any added sulfites, resulting in usually less than 20 mg/L. While the USA certainly requires a lower level of sulfites in its organic wines compared to the EU, remember that we also allow a much higher level of sulfites in our conventional table wines. The EU also does not have a distinct category for wines made only from organically grown grapes like we have in the USA.
The second issue that complicates the understanding of organic wines is the non-labeling of some wines that are indeed organic, or nearly organic. Some of these are neither certified nor labeled as such because many producers—whether in the USA or abroad—do not want to deal with the bureaucracy or fees associated with the certification process. If the producer exports to the US, they may not want to be halted by the USA organic certification process when they just want to sell their wine. So they skip it.
So what about biodynamic wines?
Biodynamic wines use a form of agriculture very similar to organic farming, and winery methods similar to those required for organic winemaking, but which include various concepts from the ideas of Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925). Steiner’s farming methods treat soil fertility, plant growth, plant products, livestock care, and livestock products as ecologically interrelated. Biodynamic agriculture uses compost and manure for fertilization, natural herb and mineral supplements for field sprays, and prohibits the use of anything artificial on the farm. It treats the entire vineyard as an interrelated part of a self-sufficient farm and considers the influence of weather, air pressure, seasons, and movements of the moon and planets on the rythms of the farm. The term “biodynamic” refers to both the agricultural methods used to grow the vines, as well as winery processing.
Biodynamic wines run into similar labeling and conceptual problems as organic wines. Demeter is the brand for products labeled as biodynamic. While International Demeter ensures a comprehensive certification process and strict compliance, it is important to realize that there are different Demeter certification organizations in every country and often several within each country.
Furthermore, biodynamic farming reaches farther back in history than the Demeter certification and Steiner. Historically, before any chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and mechanizations were available, farmers had to understand the natural interconnectedness of all living things on a farm. To this day many winegrowers, especially in Europe, still practice biodynamic philosophies on their farms and see no point in spending time and money for Demeter to brand and certify them as biodynamic.
Wine.com categorizes all wines—biodynamic, organic, and sustainably farmed—into an overall “Green” category. You can rest assured that anything that we’ve put a green leaf next to has been produced in an ecologically responsible manner with the environment and our health in mind.
If you have a specific allergy or concern, our Green category is great place to start your wine search. After locating wines you are interested in, contact our recommendations team for more information or the producer to find out more on their production details.
Here are some examples of different “Green” wines we carry to help you get started.
Producers who use biodynamic practices; produce some wines organically
Producers who use sustainable practices; produce some wines organically
Organically grown grapes with minimal to zero winery intervention