As a wine drinker, it’s important to know what goes into your vino. Like anything we eat and drink, there’s a story of how it got from soil to table. The wine you drink is a powerful instrument of change, each sip a vote for what kind of planet future generations will inherit. Thankfully, you’ve got options beyond that bottle of supermarket value wine, the same way you can choose between conventional produce that was harvested out of season and shipped from 1000 miles away. Rising concerns of climate change, oppressive social and economic systems, and the long term economic viability of the wine market has led to a resurgence in traditional winemaking processes that diverge from conventional viticulture.
Organic, biodynamic, and sustainable-certified wines are appearing on the shelves of stores worldwide. While the conventional wine industry still dominates the market, more earth-friendly production methods are gaining traction. So what are the various wine farming methods, and what impact do they have on your wine glass?
In a nutshell, conventional winemaking is all about producing the most wine as cheaply as possible, attempting to achieve the highest quality within those limits. Because of this, pesticide and chemical fertilizer use is a standard. In addition, conventional wines may use chemical additives in the production process, such as preservatives or Mega Purple. Glyphosate, also known as Roundup, is a common herbicide currently used in wine-growing regions across the globe that is starting to lose popularity with farmers and regulators in France and other regions.
Regardless, glyphosate and other common chemicals have many people concerned. Glyphosate can harm the vine if contact is made with the leaves, and the risk of damage increases as the season progresses. The chemical was listed as a likely human carcinogen by the World Health Organization in 2015, and other regulatory bodies are starting to agree. The world’s addiction to the miracle chemical glyphosate isn’t likely to end soon; glyphosate use across the worldwide agricultural sector exploded ten-fold from 1995 to 2014. Unfortunately, no conclusive studies exist for how much of the chemical is used in winemaking, but anecdotal evidence indicates that it’s a fair amount. A recent study searched for glyphosate in ten popular California wines, and found it in every bottle. Surprisingly, glyphosate was even discovered in organic wines thanks to drift carried from neighboring vineyards.
Pesticides used in grape production contain a lengthy litany of unpronounceable active ingredients, with the most common being:
- lime sulfur
- fixed copper
- potassium bicarbohydrate
These chemicals vary by toxicity, but all contain labels warning against skin and eye contact, spraying on windy days, and additional cautions about potential runoff into watersheds. The EPA is responsible for approving and controlling the use of pesticides and establishing safe levels for human consumption.
EPA standards aside, much of the wine we drink actually comes from developing nations; a quarter of which lack pesticide regulations at all, and 80 percent are without the resources to enforce the laws they have on the books. Currently, even pesticides that are banned for use in the US and EU are commonly exported from there to the nations that produce our most exotic food and drink. Organic wine expert Monty Waldin gave accounts of serious health implications of pesticide use in Chile and Portugal. But he didn’t stop there. According to Waldin, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, and Australia also bear the black spot of rampant pesticide use, which over the years he’s seen lead to polluted soils and erosion.
So what’s the verdict? We tend to drink by the adage “less is more.” So let’s dive into the clean and green world of more sustainable wine production!
Organic certification is largely becoming one of the most sought-after ad-ons that producers want to add to their bottles. Organic wines start with organic grapes. Organic grapes are cultivated without the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Organic vineyards are especially dependent on healthy soil because they can’t add chemical fertilizers, which means the farmer must pay more attention to maintaining a healthy synergy in the ecosystem.
In addition, US organic-certified wines may contain no added sulfites, while EU organic-certified wines must be below specific thresholds. In the US, wine that follows organic farming practices but contains added sulfites similar to the EU standards are labeled “made with organic grapes.” Sulfites, or sulfur dioxide, are a natural preservative produced in small quantities during the fermentation process. Adding additional sulfites to wine is a common and inexpensive way to extend shelf life, but it’s a no-no for organic-certified wine.
It was once a wacky-commie-hippy-tree-hugger indulgence. To the true believer, it always been the only way to capture the terroir and essence of wine. It’s biodynamic farming and it’s becoming more and more mainstream among all areas of agriculture.
Biodynamic wines are organic wines taken to the next level. Biodynamic farming takes a holistic view of agriculture and sees the interconnectedness between the end product, the vineyard, the soil, and everything in-between. Like organic wines, biodynamic winemakers shun the use of chemical fertilizers, but also focus on the whole health of the vineyard. They see past the monoculture-focused standards and know that a healthy soil and biodiversity within the vineyard means a better crop overall.
Biodynamic farming encourages a closed system of farming, where every part of producing wine stays within the vineyard and is used, rather than removed from the system and turned into a waste product. Grape skins and residuals are composted or commonly put back in the vineyard as a mulch. Cover crops thrive in the rows of vines and pollinators have a buffet of different plant species to visit within the vineyard. The farmers work towards healthy soils that are rich and black by adding more organic matter to it and use only the lightest of tillage, if any, so as not to disrupt the soil structure. This allows the soil organisms and the mycorrhizal fungi to release nutrients that will allow the vines and all of the other plants to thrive.
Sustainability in Winemaking
Sustainable wines are produced with long-term environmental, social, and economic sustainability in mind. Sustainability differs greatly by wine region (i.e. the Pacific Northwest will likely have a vastly different water management program than Southern California). A dizzying array of sustainable certifications exist, including;
- Environmental Management System (worldwide)
- SIP Certified (California)
- Certified Green (Lodi, California)
- Napa Green (Napa Valley, California)
- Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing (Claifornia)
- LIVE Certified (Oregon, Washington, Idaho)
- Salmon Safe (Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, California, Idaho)
- Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand (New Zealand)
- Certified Sustainable Wine of Chile (Chile)
- Sustainable Australia Winegrowing (Australia)
- Bodegas de Argentina Sustainability Protocol (Argentina)
Regardless of the certification, what all sustainable wines have in common is a winemaking process that protects and nurtures the environment, supports social responsibility, ensures long-term economic sustainability, and produces top-notch wines. As the grapes are harvested, factors unique to each region are considered and prioritized, including but not limited to:
- vineyard biodiversity
- soil health
- water conservation
- utilization of renewable energy
It’s important to note a sustainable label does not guarantee your wine is organic, and many sustainable labels allow additives like sulfites to improve shelf life.
Check out our growing list of sustainable, organic, and biodynamic wines!
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