The Consumer’s Guide to Sustainable Wine

Dating back to the Ancient World, wine has been valued by varied civilizations as an elixir of health, trade and ceremony.

wine glass on counter, vineyard

To treat ailments, Chinese dynasties depended on medicinal wine made from grain and herbs. As Phoenician, Greek and Roman empires expanded, so did the grapevine, a crop that took on new forms, colors and tastes as it adapted to the different climates and pockets of earth it was cultivated in.

Ancient Grecian relics and pottery — such as the kylix, dubbed the Dionysus Cup, on display in a Munich museum — depict the Greek god of wine on a ship whose mast is made of grapevines. It was believed that those who drank from this decorative kylix were also drinking Dionysus, bringing them closer to the god.

While some of wine’s earliest sightings appear in antiquated artwork or Greek mythology, its history can be traced back some 8,000 years ago to the New Stone Age. This discovery only surfaced in 2017 when archaeologists on site in Georgia were able to excavate earthenware laced with residual wine compounds, according to the BBC.

Over the annals of its historical lineage, wine has evolved in both form and practice. As consumers continue to become more conscientious about sustainability, so have their choices in wine.

The world of wine contains a vast vocabulary that can seem dizzying and esoteric. To help you navigate through this article, here is a helpful glossary of terms.

Basic Structure of Wine: sugar, alcohol, tannins, acidity, sulfites.

Pectins: a naturally occurring gel that binds the fibers of cell walls in plants, twigs, and fruits such as berries, apples and grapes. Pectins also boast several health benefits. When grapes ripen, this jelly-like “glue” gets broken down by enzymes, and releases both body and color when the grapes get crushed for wine. Depending on the winemaking process, a milky haze commonly referred to as a “pectin haze” may sully the wine’s clarity, making way for synthetic chemicals such as Pectic Enzyme.

Natural Sulfites: sulphur-based compounds that naturally occur in wine as a byproduct of fermentation. No bottle of wine, for this reason, is free of sulfites. This natural preservative terminates unwanted bacteria and yeasts in the winemaking process, ultimately keeping wine from spoiling or turning to vinegar, but the yield from fermentation is scant. This is where additives may be needed.

Sulfite Additives: an inexpensive and versatile way to either preserve or enhance wine. Additives prevent bottled wine from refermenting, spoiling or oxidizing in color. Wines with low levels of acidity or high levels of sugar, for example, resort to sulfite additives to stabilize or conserve the product. Whites and sweeter wines typically contain more sulfite additives than their red, dry counterparts.

Sulphur Dioxide (SO2): a synthetic sulphiting agent or additive used by winemakers as a preventative against spoilage and oxidation. Fruit leather and canned soup contain more amounts of SO2 than that of wine, but even small amounts of this additive can trigger adverse reactions in certain individuals, particularly asthmatics, as one medical journal reported.

Tannins: bitter-tasting organic compound that grows in grapes seeds and skins, is an excellent source of antioxidants and is a natural preservative. Tannins are found most often in red wines (white wine is made from skinned grapes) and are characteristic of the tart note that makes mouths pucker.

Vintner: winemaker.

Viticulture: cultivation of grapevine.

Yeast: this eukaryotic microorganism is responsible for converting sugar into alcohol.

USDA Certified Organic Wine

Years ago, there would be but one shelf for organic wines, the owner of the liquor store in my neighborhood told me. Now there are wine stores devoted entirely to organic bottles. The Natural Wine Company in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is one example.

Organic wine is made from grapes that follow a certain criteria of organic farming regulations, and is free of pesticides, fungicides, manufactured fertilizers, genetically modified organisms [GMOs] and sulfite additives. Organic wine only allows under 10 parts per million [ppm] of naturally occurring sulfites to be added.

Once these organic-certified grapes are plump, they are plucked off the vine and placed in a giant grinder. The grapes get crushed, put in oak barrels where they sit and ferment in their own juice for about a week. The grape skins, at this point, have released their own natural tannins, an antioxidant, into the fermented grape juice.

After a week’s time, the juice gets pressed then poured into a sealed oak barrel where it will sit and age for five or six months. The oak barrels, too, serve a purpose in the aging process by releasing the sweet compound vanillin into the wine. This sweet note can be found in both white (Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay) and red wines (Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir).

Circumventing the need for herbicides, organic viticulture (or grape growing) opts for free-range animals such as sheep and cows to munch on overgrown crops. These animals are never fed synthetic foods or byproducts, encouraging natural waste matter — high in nitrogen — to enrich the soil the crops grow in. To evade pesticides, organic winemakers manifest specific diversity of life around their vineyards. Lavender, goldenrod and sunflower, for instance, are typically planted on vineyards to attract bees and other predatory insects that in turn eat notorious vineyard pests: mites, aphids, beetles, cicadas and butterflies.

Organic wine producers must apply for certification and pass annual certified inspections from third-party certifying agents to boast the organic label on their wine bottles.

Yet some winemakers avoid the organic certification altogether — either because of cost, or a rejection of ideologies. Some do not want outside forces telling them how to control their farms. For this reason, a bottle of wine may in fact follow organic practices to a certain extent, but does not bear the United States Department of Agriculture [USDA] organic seal.

One unique obstacle to obtaining organic certification may be contingent on where a vineyard is located and who its neighbors are. A family of winemakers could grow plump, organic grapes free of chemicals on their vineyard. But if their neighbor sprays pesticides on his vegetable crop, for instance, the grapes may no longer qualify as organic. Winds gusts are capable of migrating pesticides, inadvertently tarnishing what was intended to be an organic crop.

Wine Made with Organic Grapes

Wines that are made with organically-grown grapes and follow the National Organic Program [NOP] guidelines will have a label that reads “made with organic grapes.” Similar to organic wines, this type of wine is free of pesticides and herbicides, but allows sulfites (up to 100 ppm) to be added to help stabilize and preserve the wine. Other acceptable additives may include oak chips or tannins to add flavor and mouthfeel.

Native yeasts can be used but are not mandatory, as noted by the Organic Vineyard Alliance. Although GMO yeast is not acceptable, GMOs “may have been present in the growing medium used to cultivate the yeast.”

According to the Organic Vineyard Alliance, “wine that is made with organically-grown grapes may include small amounts of additives, such as sulfites, that are used as stabilizers to preserve the wine. All wine naturally contains some sulfites. Sulfites are on grape skins.”

Biodynamic Wine

Biodynamic winemaking mirrors the practices of organic winemaking, except it involves earthly and cosmic influences that play pivotal roles. The Biodynamic Association refers to it as a holistic and ethical approach to farming that brings plants, animals and soil together through supportive, mindful relationships aimed to balance the ecosystem as one, cohesive cell. First developed in the 1920s by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, biodynamic farming was a plan to help farmers prevail over the plights associated with animal and seed quality.

Steiner believed, long before climate change made headlines, that “western civilization would gradually bring destruction to itself and the earth if it did not begin to develop an objective understanding of the spiritual world and its interrelationship with the physical world.”

When biodynamic farmers mirror the moon’s cycles and astrological patterns, Mother Nature gets to call the shots, dictating when the grape can be sowed, watered, cultivated and harvested.

A deep connection exists with not only the grapes and the vine but the soil and atmosphere they grow in, all the way down to the animals whose manure enriches the soil.

“At its core, Biodynamics is an energy management system,” said Mike Benzinger of Benzinger Family Vineyards, who practices biodynamic farming in Sonoma, California.

During the Autumn months, biodynamic farmers fill cow horns with cow manure and place them in the earth for six months — pointed upward to the sun, the central body of the solar system, to draw important life forces. This method, known as Process 500, converts the manure into a nutrient-rich compost.

The cow horn serves to be a vital vessel in the process because it is a sinus organ, rich in keratin and nitrogen content. Cow horns also contain silica, the organic compound present in quartz. As one website devoted to biodynamics notes, “horn silica increases plant immunity, strengthens photosynthesis, enhances ripening.”

The horn must be from a cow, not a bull or other horned animal, because their unique four-stomach digestive system produces a dense manure that is ideal for compost. Cows on biodynamic farms are never fed byproducts, roam around freely and offer a sense of serenity to the farm.

Horsetail tea or BD508, another biodynamic preparation made from fermented materials, staves off fungal diseases and regulates the watery element of plants brought on by unwanted moon forces. When moon forces are either too weak or too strong, the crop can suffer. The horsetail plant, whose roots can be traced back to when dinosaurs roamed the earth, boasts benefits beyond grape growing because it can treat UTIs, ulcers and kidney and bladder stones.

German-born biodynamic guru Maria Thun, an adamant follower of Dr. Steiner’s philosophy, worked extensively in the garden, studying changes and outcomes in plants. She concluded, indicated by Earth Haven Living, that “a correlation between key parts of plants (root, leaf, flower, fruit/seed) and the four basic elements (Earth, Water, Air/Light, Fire/Warmth) associated with the twelve Zodiac constellations” tends to crop up.

Fruit days, for example, are best designated for harvesting grapes while root days pair best with pruning; flower days are left alone to allow optimal development, and leaf days are ideal for watering. Harmonizing these varied elements ensures optimization in plant growth and biodynamic farmers follow Thun’s planting calendar.

Yet, Madeline Puckett, certified sommelier and creator of the New York Times Bestseller, “Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine,” revealed that “the focus on the moon and how it affects life on earth goes back farther than that: 1st century Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder said the moon ‘replenishes the earth; when she approaches it, she fills all bodies, while, when she recedes, she empties them.’”

Some even claim that sipping wine according to the lunar calendar results in better flavors. Puckett has tested this theory for eight years and claims that “for some beyond-logical reason, red wine does seem to taste better on a ‘fruit day.’ White aromatic wines really do seem to sing on a ‘flower day.’”

The cosmic rhythms of the moon, stars and sun associated with biodynamic farming may seem contrived — or characteristic of the California hippie commune Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s characters come across in Easy Rider — but over 620 wine producers from around the world taut its benefits.

Those interested in biodynamic-certified wines should look for the Demeter or Biodyvin labels.

Natural Wine

Natural wine is made from organic or biodynamically-grown grapes. The grapes are rarely de-stemmed, and the whole grapevine is thrown in a jug for fermentation (similar to kombucha).

This approach consists of minimal intervention on the winemaker’s part. Because it does not include any additives or filtration processes, some believe it is the best type of wine on the market. Without additives, natural wines are easier to digest and are lower in alcohol content. Nonetheless, there is no fixed definition for what “natural wine” is.

One drawback to natural wine, however, is its inconsistency. Because the wine naturally ferments on its own, there is no controlling its flavor. While researching for this article, I asked Tom, a wine seller sampling his product at a Brooklyn liquor store, about natural wine.

“Without additives or sulfites, inconsistency is the game, and it is a game changer. One bottle in a case of natural wine could taste fine while the next tastes wonky,” he said.

I then told him about that time a friend of mine had brought over a bottle of natural wine to pair with the lasagna dinner I had made.

“There was no—” I paused, searching for the right word.

“Oomph!” Tom was right.

It tasted more like grape juice, and when I held the glass tip to the light, I could see right through the body of the wine. We ended up walking across the street to pick up a conventional bottle of Pinot Noir.

Conventional Wine

Industrialization, modernization, and capitalization have impacted wine. To meet the demands of thousands of liquor stores, restaurants and grocery stores, wine has to be made at a much faster rate.

To make a profit, conventional wine producers will resort to mass-produced, non-organic acrid-tasting grapes that require chemicals such as Mega Purple to regulate sugar levels or alter the color of wine, and up to 350 ppm of sulfites are needed to stabilize the wine. Rather than letting crushed grapes naturally ferment in their own juice (5-7 days), conventional wine producers add chemicals such as potassium sorbate to accelerate the fermentation process or to ensure that wine does not re-ferment once it has been bottled.

To achieve specific color and mouth feels in wine, synthetic pectins are added in the conventional wine making process. These pectins contain both GMOs and the culprit behind the wine headaches — high levels of sugar.

The alternative would be allowing the wine to age in oak barrels, but this method is both timely and costly. Oak chips are the better option for practicing sustainability rather than placing wine in oak barrels because they do not pose as much as a threat to forests and are more economical in transportation costs.

Organic Vineyard Alliance also points out the pesticides and herbicides that mass-produced grapes are doused in “remain in the wine after it is bottled.”

Final Note

In his 1977 ballad, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” Billy Joel paints a romantic picture of a couple sharing a meal. “A bottle of red, a bottle of white; it all depends upon your appetite,” he sings.

Maybe back then it really was that simple. But today, much more plays into the decision making.

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Comments (2)

  • Cool topic for an article. Thanks for sharing! Some questions: Is “USDA Certified Organic Wine” a larger heading for a particular reason, or is it simply another approach like the others? Is it clear how sustainable each of these various approaches actually is, as the title would have me consider? I’ve been to a vineyard where the winemaker mentioned how organic wine isn’t necessarily sustainable, and he prioritized sustainability. How sustainable are these approaches relative to one another? And what is the scale of each approach currently? Are various wine regions and/or grape types generally considered more sustainable (not necessarily tied to any particular approach)? Knowing this would make for an easier heuristic as a consumer. And a stretch ask- what is the expected effect of climate change on the market and regional availability of wine regions and sustainable wines?

    • Thank you for reading and for your note, Kevin. You bring up some interesting questions, specifically, on climate change. According to a United Nations study, the geography of grape growing could shift over 100 miles north, making places like southern England, Denmark, Sweden and Finland ideal. Imagine chocolate and wine in Sweden…

      Other factors play a role with rising temperatures: vineyards are grown at higher altitudes and on north-facing slopes, which minimizes the grapes’ vulnerability to the sun. Grapes can also be harvested earlier in the season.

      I also came across an article in the Harvard Gazette that suggests some grape varieties will fail with changing temperatures. This change will force the wine industry to use lesser known varieties of grapes. But this idea is met with contention with many traditional wine producers. Terroir is defined by the weather, soil, topography, and variety of grape, and in places like France and Italy, the historical terroir is conducive to great wine. Acknowledging that temperatures are rising is a confirmation that the terroir is changing, that the wine is changing. This must be a hard reality to face for all those generations-long vineyards in those European counties.

      As for which regions are considered most sustainable, that is difficult to measure. I do know that California has its Sustainable Winegrowing Program, which ensures vineyards and wineries practice conservation in water, energy, air and water quality, and healthy soil. I am sure there are plenty of other organizations throughout the wine making world.

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