We wine lovers have a lot to think about on our way down the wine aisle. In addition to choosing varietal, appellation and vintage, we’re wondering: Is our wine eco-friendly? What does organic wine even mean, and what about biodynamic? And, most importantly, does green wine taste better?
Winegrowing in our fair state has come a long way in just one generation. Economics, regulations, technology and consumer awareness have caught up with good intentions in the wine business to make ecological practices the gold standard for quality winemaking. Wine is getting greener and greener, here and abroad, because doing the right thing is often the more economically viable, not to mention more tasty, way.
However, a wine’s greenness isn’t always clear to consumers. Many of even the most meticulously organic wineries don’t put organic on the label. They have their reasons. Maybe they don’t define organic the same way the USDA does, or maybe they don’t want to jump through the Flaming Hoops of Certification. And even the wineries riding high on the bandwagon are shy of the stigma the organic label can give, thanks to early years of funny-tasting sulfite-free wines in the marketplace.
So how can you tell if a winery is green? Start with the back label. You may see the words made with organic grapes, a legal statement that requires certification. Pass over any lingo about stewardship of the land. Everyone says that. But green wineries do get specific in their newsletters, websites, e-mails and brochures, where you may read about not only integrated pest management but also solar power, water reuse, biodiesel, composting, cover crops, owl boxes, recycled packaging and the like.
Some of the world’s greatest wineries are dedicated to organic or biodynamic agriculture. Eloquent spokesvintners include Lalou Bize-Leroy of Domaine Leroy, considered Burgundy’s best estate, and Michel Chapoutier, from the Rhone region, whom I once heard say, in his perfect, passionately accented English, Zee soil is zee MO-thair of zee vine! Tasting their beautiful wines, some of which sell for hundreds of dollars per bottle, certainly makes one open to whatever it is they are doing.
Here’s a quick guide to the jargon, the producers and the issues important to the great green wave of wine available now.
Under rules set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, organic winegrowers cannot use inorganic substances such as synthetic pesticides and petroleum-based fertilizers. Compared to other fruit crops, wine grapes actually do quite well without the Miracle-Gro. Their biggest nemesis is mildew, but that doesn’t require fancy treatment. Organic farmers prevent mildew with careful canopy management (giving the vines air flow) and by dusting with sulfur, which is allowed under the org laws. Want to know what pest is the biggest challenge to control organically? Weeds.
An organic wine isn’t just made from organic grapes. Under current U.S. law, a wine labeled organic must not contain added sulfites, which are used to stabilize the wine after fermentation and before bottling. Wines made without the addition of sulfites often taste flat or funky, giving organic wines a bad rap. The vast majority of wineries that use organic grapes forgo the organic wine designation and use sulfites to protect their product. And because grape skins come into the winery with naturally occurring sulfite, even organic wine contains some sulfites.
This modern version of Rudolf Steiner’s biological and astrological farming methods focuses on soil health and the phases of the Earth and moon. Science hasn’t explained it, or even tested it, but vintners following on faith find that it works for them. One whole winemaking region, in fact&emdash;Les Baux de Provence in the south of France&emdash;has determined that all wines of the appellation will be produced biodynamically.
Covering everything from vineyard management to water use to labor policies, sustainability refers to the long-term environmental, social and economic health of the winery. There are no laws, or even one philosophy, that govern the use of this term, but it is a hot topic. The Wine Institute has developed a code of sustainable winegrowing practices and has joined the California Association of Winegrape Growers to form the nonprofit California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance. For more information, see sustainablewinegrowing.org
Researchers at the University of Melbourne have shown what organic farmers have known for years: A high bug count of a diverse number of species in the vineyard results in lower damage to the vines. So managers are advised to stop spraying and let the good bugs duke it out with the pests.
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Wine Trivia Contest
In January, we asked: What is Pinot Grigio’s home turf in Northeastern Italy, known as Tre Venezie, named for? The correct answer: Trentino Alto Adige, Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia. The winner, Sabrina McKinney of Roseville, received The Wine Wheel.