These days, there is a lot of green washing in the wine industry, and it can be hard to figure out just how sustainable your wine really is. With about a dozen different labels slapped on bottles, figuring out what each means can be a little confusing when you're searching for sustainable wine. Here's the breakdown on organic, biodynamic, and more.
Sustainable Wine Certifications & Terms to Know
Wine is similar to the American egg industry with a smattering of words and phrases appearing on labels--some with clear definitions, others with loose interpretations. Here are a few key terms to be familiar with when searching the shelves at your local bottle shop for sustainably-produced wines.
Organically certified wine means no synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides are used in the vineyard. Genetically modified seeds or organisms (GMO's) and synthetic fertilizers are not permitted either. In addition to the farming practices, certified organic wines are only permitted to use organic products--so in the cellar, if they are using commercial yeast, it must also be certified organic. In the U.S., certified organic wine does not allow added sulfites at bottling. Organic farming often utilizes things like cover crops and compost, though these are not required. The process of certification can be a lengthy one and often requires years of converting the land over from its days of being conventionally farmed. In the case of small wineries, they may list some grapes as organic certified while others are converting organic, meaning they are working with numerous pieces of land, some of which are in transition to organic.
Made With Organically Grown Grapes
This classification can be found in the U.S. in the case where 100% of the grapes used are grown organically, but any other agricultural products used do not need to be organic. That means that a commercial yeast or fining agent does not need to be organic. In this certification, sulfites under 100 parts per million (ppm) can be added at bottling.
There are many wineries that opt out of the formal certification process but still operate according to the outlined philosophies and rules. Wineries who describe themselves as practicing organic are often small-scale labels who strive to tell their story through transparent communication rather than a sticker. Many times, these vineyards actually adhere to stricter rules than the government certified organic farms do. Ultimately though, its up to the consumer to do their research to ensure the practicing organic vineyard is up to their standard.
Demeter is an international biodynamic wine certification organization. Demeter certified is consistent with organic standards in terms of no synthetic chemicals or fertilizers along with many other involved additional steps. It looks at the ecosystem as a whole and approaches vineyard management, such as pruning, watering, and harvest through the direction of the Lunar calendar. Incorporating biodiversity, animals, composts and manures, and herbal sprays are all part of this wholistic style of farming.
Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)
LEED evaluates the physical winery facility to rate the building on sustainable design. It takes into consideration environmental impact through both construction and design. There are three different tiers within the LEED certification.
Additional Regional Certifications
Along with national and international certifications, there are numerous statewide and regional marks that deem a wine sustainable in a specific way.
Salmon Safe is a certification focused on states and areas in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. It looks closely at water management and how wineries are reducing run-off and employing soil conservation strategies to help protect fragile water eco-systems that pass through or near vineyards.
LIVE Certified (Low Input Viticulture and Enology)
With roots in the Pacific Northwest, LIVE is a wine specific certification that focuses on preservation of the entire eco-system along with community and social issues, such as worker health and economic vitality within small farming communities.
Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing (CCSW)
A CCSW certification is a sort of self-assessment wineries can do that account for water usage, energy consumption, nitrogen applications, and greenhouse gas emissions. The California-centric system lets wineries start off with a lower ranking, with room to improve.
Sustainability in Practice (SIP)
A California specific cert, SIP accounts for environmental stewardship along with economic and social health. They have developed a point system to account for all their sustainability measures and a winery must meet a minimum of 75% of the total points.
Beyond the Labeling
Along with formal certifications, there are a handful of other common viticultural practices that can be employed to not only mitigate the impact on the environment but also to help repair it. Dry farming is just what it sounds like--dry farmed grapes are not irrigated. With many prominent grape growing regions short on water year after year, dry farming is a critical step when it comes to agriculture. No-till farming is another action, or lack-thereof, that maintains the integrity of the soil structure and preserves microbiological health.
Another step which ties into biodynamic but can also be employed in organic farming is inter-planting and encouraging biodiversity. This may look like vines broken up by a few fruit trees or other flowering shrubs for pollinators, a wild hedge for birds to nest in, or even using the shade of the grape canopy to grow cool-loving crops like lettuces and kales. Working with indigenous grapes is another way to incorporate biodiversity into a vineyard or region in an ever-growing homogenous landscape of grape varietals.
Why to Support Sustainably-Produced Wine
All of the above certifications make strides towards preserving and repairing agricultural ecosystems while producing wine that isn't laden with chemicals. With the realities of climate change and the growing pressure on our earth, supporting and encouraging wineries to shift viticultural practices to incorporate some or all of these sustainable practices is an important part of enjoying wine. So the next time you are wine shopping, be sure to search out bottles that fall under one or more of the above certifications.