Whether you’re a self-professed oenophile or just enjoy an occasional glass of red table wine with dinner, navigating the labels of wines that purport to be eco-friendly can be confusing: “100-percent organic,” “made with organic ingredients,” “natural” or “vegan-friendly.” But before you give up on finding a greener glass of wine, check out Earth911’s guide to wines that aim to please your palate and seek to reduce their impact on the planet.
A bottle of conventionally produced wine may contain up to 250 different types of chemicals, according to EcoVine Wine, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based wine club specializing in organic and vegan wines.
But now you can choose from a wide selection of wines – all regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program – that come from vineyards that avoid using synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.
As its name suggests, 100-percent organic wines must contain 100-percent organically produced ingredients and have been processed using only organically produced aids, not counting added water and salt. In addition, winemakers cannot introduce added sulfites to 100-percent organic wines, as the USDA considers sulfites to be a synthetic food additive.
Does that mean that 100-percent organic wines are sulfite free? Naturally occurring sulfites are found on grapes, onions, garlic and many other plants; they are nature’s way of protecting plants from harmful microbes. During the winemaking process, natural sulfites are also produced when the grapes are fermented.
In a 100-percent organic wine with no added sulfites, there are likely to be naturally occurring sulfates present in amounts ranging from six to 40 parts per million, according to EcoVine Wine. Compare this amount to conventional non-organic wines, which may contain sulfite levels up to 350 parts per million, EcoVine Wine says.
When used properly, sulfites are not inherently toxic to humans or the environment, EcoVine Wine says. Only about 0.4 percent of the population is highly allergic to sulfites, while others with a low tolerance for sulfites may be considered sulfite-sensitive.
Winemakers have used added sulfites for centuries to prevent spoilage and bacteria growth, as well as to preserve the wine’s natural flavor.
To find a 100-percent organic wine, look for a statement declaring the wine to be 100 percent organic, as well as the name of the agency that certified the wine; the bottle may also bear the USDA organic seal.
But “100-percent organic” isn’t the only label you may find on a wine bottle listing organic ingredients.
Wines marked as simply “organic” must be made from at least 95-percent organically produced ingredients, not counting added water and salt, and cannot have added sulfites. Like 100-percent organic wine, organic wines must list their certification agency and may carry the USDA organic seal.
You may also see wines that boast that they are made with organic grapes. Wines labeled as “made from organic ingredients” are required to contain at least 70-percent organically produced ingredients, not counting added water and salt. These wines will not display the USDA seal and are allowed to contain added sulfites – up to 100 parts per million, according to EcoVine Wine.
If you pick up a bottle of biodynamic wine at your local wine shop, you’re not only guaranteed a taste of organic grapes, but also a vineyard that takes sustainability well beyond shunning pesticides and other chemicals.
Unlike organic farming, which often simply replaces synthetic fertilizers and herbicides with naturally-derived products, biodynamic farming is a holistic agricultural method that treats the farm like a living organism, rather than a factory.
Instead of bringing in outside fertilizers and pesticides, biodynamic farmers build soil fertility and manage pests by encouraging biodiversity among crops, livestock and wildlife and by using specially prepared farm-generated outputs like composted animal manures, plants and minerals. These farmers also aim to conserve their farm’s resources, especially water and soil.
Modern biodynamic farming is based on agricultural principles proposed by Austrian scientist Rudolf Steiner in 1924, as a reaction to the declining soil fertility and crop quality farmers observed as they adopted industrial farming techniques like monoculture and synthetic fertilizers.
A vineyard cannot legally refer to its farming practices or products as “biodynamic” without being certified by the nonprofit Demeter Association. And, in order to qualify for Demeter biodynamic certification, a farm must first meet the requirements of the USDA’s National Organic Program.
Once the vineyard is certified as biodynamic, its grapes are considered biodynamic, but the finished product – the wine itself – cannot be labeled as biodynamic unless it goes through Demeter’s secondary verification program for processed agricultural products.
To ensure you’re purchasing a biodynamic wine, try to find a statement saying that both the vineyard and the finished wine product have been certified by the Demeter Association, and look for the organization’s biodynamic seal.
Like other food products labeled as “all natural,” so-called natural wines can’t back up their eco-friendly claims with federal laws or certification programs.
But winemakers who subscribe to the natural wine movement, which started in France in the 1970s, say that their grapes are grown organically, often using many of the same farming techniques practiced by biodynamic vineyards. The high cost of achieving organic and biodynamic certification, however, may prevent many of these small winegrowers from verifying their farming practices under these programs.
Natural winemaking isn’t just about sustainability in the vineyard; it’s also about authenticity of the wine. Natural winemakers process their wine with as little intervention as possible, avoiding additives like sugar, sulfites and acidifiers and technological manipulations such as spinning cones to remove alcohol and micro-oxygenation to accelerate aging.
Because there is no national standard for natural winemaking, many wine critics disapprove of branding wines as “natural” and point out that there is nothing stopping industrial wine producers from taking up the vague term if they feel it will aid their marketing efforts.
Does that mean you should avoid wine labeled as “natural” altogether? Not necessarily.
While it may be difficult to discover the reasons why a winemaker calls its wine “natural” when you’re shopping at the grocery store, you can ask the company directly if you’re buying wine from its tasting room or website. To help make your purchasing decision, determine which aspect of natural winemaking you think is most important that a vineyard follow; fewer chemicals, sustainable farming practices or no artificial additives.
You may be surprised to learn that not all wine is vegan or even vegetarian.
To filter the wine prior to bottling, most winemakers use ingredients derived from animals such as egg whites, milk proteins (caseins) or gelatin from fish bladders or cow and pig hooves. These animal products help remove solid impurities like grape skins or yeast from the fermentation process and can adjust the wine’s tannin levels, resulting in a clearer, brighter and better-tasting wine.
While vegans will want to avoid wines processed with any of these animal products, vegetarians who still drink milk and eat eggs will need to steer clear of wines filtered with gelatin.
Fortunately for vegans and vegetarians, it is possible for winemakers to process their wine manually or using minerals like bentonite or kaolin. But how can you be sure you’re sipping on a vegetarian or vegan wine?
While there are no government labeling requirements for the use of animal products in wines, you may find that some wines are marked as vegetarian- or vegan-friendly. Check out EcoVine Wine and other specialty wine clubs and stores that offer a selection of pre-approved vegan wines, or visit Barnivore, a database of vegan wines submitted by the website’s users.
When all else fails, you may have to call the wine company directly to inquire about their use of animal ingredients.
Fair Trade Wine
Fair Trade wine isn’t just better for the planet: it also ensures stable incomes and safe work environments for wine growers in developing countries.
Just like Fair Trade coffee and chocolate, Fair Trade-certified wine grapes are grown sustainably, without the use of pesticides or genetically modified organisms. Fair Trade vineyards are also required to promote agricultural diversification, avoid the “slash and burn” farming method and conserve water and energy.
Vineyards must also comply with fair labor practices, paying workers fairly and providing a workplace that is free from child labor, forced overtime and harassment.
Currently only wine from estates and small farmer cooperatives in Argentina, Chile and South Africa can receive Fair Trade certification.
To find Fair Trade wines locally, look for bottles that carry the Fair Trade Certified label or check out Fair Trade USA’s list of certified companies and wines.
Carbon Neutral Wine
From using gas-guzzling farm equipment in the vineyard to shipping wine bottles to customers across the globe, winemaking can have a large carbon footprint.
But now some wineries, concerned about climate change’s effect on the planet and on their industry, are taking steps to become carbon neutral: first, by cleaning up their own operations that release greenhouse gases and then by purchasing carbon credits to offset the emissions they couldn’t avoid.
For example, Parducci Wine Cellars, the first carbon neutral winery in the U.S., upgraded its lighting and machinery to super-efficient models, switched to solar and wind energy sources and started using biodiesel in company vehicles and farm equipment. After reducing its carbon footprint as much as possible, the Mendocino, Calif.-based winery balances the remainder of its emissions by sponsoring local forest conservation and renewable energy projects.
To ensure a winery is living up to its claims of carbon neutrality, you can ask the company directly or peruse its website to determine if it uses a reputable third-party organization to offsets its carbon emissions.