After looking at the environmental impact of wine, it’s time to offer up some alternatives to conventionally produced wine. Mass made conventional wine is all about making a consistent product at a large volume with the help of preservatives (speaking of which, brace yourself to learn about the shocking amount of additives allowed in wine). This is where you, the consumer, comes in. It’s up to you to purchase wine from people that are tending to their land in a thoughtful way, and taking care of the environment along the way (and avoiding those who aren’t!). We can’t underestimate our power in our role as buyers of products. If we can distinguish products that are environmentally friendly from those that are not, and give our money to those who do best, we can enable serious change in the wine industry!
Look, it’s confusing. I’m not going to pretend it’s not. Restaurants and bars throw around words like “organic”, “natural”, “low intervention”, and “sustainable” all the time. But what do these terms actually mean? How do their environmental impacts differ from conventional wines? Well, buckle up folks, because we’re about to dive in (P.S. You’ll notice fairly quickly that there is considerable amount of overlap between categories. However, they have varying founding principles, guidelines, and certifying bodies).
By now, I think we’re all pretty well acquainted with the term organic. Similarly to organic produce, organic wine is made exclusively with non synthetic ingredients. This means that synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and chemical fertilisers are not allowed. Genetically modified organisms are also prohibited. However, additives such as fining agents, yeast, and fertilisers are allowed, so long as they are also certified organic. Organic compost is good for vineyards (assuming the producers make it themselves and don’t get it shipped from a significant distance). Fining, for those of you who may not know, is the process used by the majority of winemakers, to “purify and stabilize the wine, give it clarity of color, remove sediments and suspended solids, and strip away any unwanted tannins, odors, or colors.” Winemakers can then sell wine that is crystal clear, but some argue that this process also strips away some of the wine’s flavor. Not to mention that this purification process is done with the help of some pretty strange things (think fish swim bladders, oxblood, casein, egg whites, etc. YUM!!!).
Other defining regulations for EU certified organic wine include limits to sulphur additions. On the other hand, organic wine made and certified in the United States must be produced without any sulphur additions. Sulphur is an antimicrobial agent that preserves a wine’s freshness and prevents the growth of unwanted bacteria. It is currently the best available natural preservative for wine, allowing wine to travel well and elongate shelf life. Despite what some people might be saying, it isn’t actually that bad for you and is naturally occurring in food we eat daily.
There are different rules for certification depending on a vineyard’s location, and the corresponding certifying body. Unfortunately, as for many of these categories, there is some ambiguity due to the fact there are no international guidelines surrounding the term “organic wine”. Additionally, be careful of the wording used by producers. Organic wine differs from wine made from organic grapes. The latter is not produced using 100% organic grapes and allows the addition of sulfites.
Biodynamic farming predates organic farming by nearly twenty years. It dates back to 1924 and is based on the teachings of Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner. In many ways, biodynamic farming practices go above and beyond organic farming practices. It is a form of holistic agriculture that focuses on interconnectivity and views the vineyard as an ecosystem in and of itself. This requires vintners to work with the natural order of things, rather than against it. Biodiversity is used as a tool for success (i.e. planting wildflowers between rows of vines, having sheep roam free around the vineyard and grazing on weeds, etc.). It can help grape growers move away from the monoculture that most vineyards find themselves in.
No chemicals, or man made additions of any kind are allowed in the vineyard (this means wines must be spontaneously fermented with the help of native yeast rather than the addition of cultured yeast). By definition, biodynamic grapes are farmed organically (whether or not they’re certified as such). Where it differs significantly from organic farming is that the vineyard calendar follows the cycle of the moon. Meaning, key viticultural activities are planned around astrological cycles. Special compost preparations (some, like filling a cow horn with manure and burying it for four months, are a little stranger than others) must be adhered to and herbal sprays of nettle and chamomile used on the vines. Although the practices can be a little “witchy” at times, it is embraced by vintners around the world due to its benefits for long term vineyard health and soil vitality. Unlike organic or sustainable certifying bodies, there are only two Biodynamic Certifications in the world available to vintners (Demeter International and Biodyvin).
I’m all about organic and biodynamic wines, but let’s not forget: “an official certification for organic or biodynamic practices bears little relation to a farmer’s […] carbon management.” Organic and biodynamic growers can plow or till the rows between their vines, releasing additional carbon into the atmosphere. On the flip side, they could be maintaining cover crops, which creates a much lower carbon footprint. Remember, each vineyard is different, resulting in different environmental impacts based on their individual practices, so stay vigilant and don’t get swept up by a promising term.
Natural wine has been everywhere lately. It’s definitely become a buzzword. At the same time, people are a little fuzzy on what it actually means. Natural is an unregulated term that remains undefined and is subject to dispute. When used in conjunction with wine, it’s largely understood to mean wine made without anything added, or anything taken away. In other words, it’s a low intervention wine. No chemicals, no filtering, no fining, no added yeast, often dry farmed, and with little (to no) added sulfites (the issue of sulfite additions in the natural wine community is a contentious one so let’s not get started on it). It’s grown in popularity lately because it has this aura of informality surrounding it. It feels unfussy, unpretentious and accessible to consumers. Moreover, certifications (such as biodynamic, organic or sustainable) require money that not all winemakers are able to fork over.
“It is above all an ideal, a desire to farm with respect for nature and centuries-old traditions, and to make wine with as little intervention as possible.”
Now let’s take a look at sustainable wine. You might be thinking that all of these organic, biodynamic and natural wines would come under the large sustainability umbrella. In many ways they do, however, there is a separate certification, “sustainable”, available to winemakers. The issue with sustainable wine is that the term itself is unregulated and as a result, it means different things to different people. Despite its looseness, sustainable wine differs from organic, biodynamic, and natural wine as its primary focus is limiting wastefulness in the vineyard and the cellar. In other words, it’s about managing the use of resources efficiently. Standards in vineyard management, biodiversity, soil health, water usage, air quality, energy use and chemical use must all be adhered to. Moreover, certified sustainable producers tend to grow their grapes in a socially and economically responsible matter. Sustainable winemaking comes as a response to climate change, and as such, different wine regions will have different certifications that correspond to the unique environmental stressors of their particular locations.
Where to Buy (and Drink) Your Wine in London
Christmas and New Years are coming up, and I’m sure you all have busy social calendars these next few weeks. If you’re hosting, why not treat your guests to some (you guessed it) natural wine? And if you’re going to be a guest, you wouldn’t dare show up empty handed would you?
Here in London, we are blessed with a plethora of bottle shops, wine bars, and restaurants that offer a selection of natural, organic and biodynamic wines. Our choices for sustainable sipping are: Noble Fine Liquor, P Franco, 40 Maltby Street, Newcomer Wines, Brawn, Natural Born Wine, Bright, and Duck Soup.
Some of these a little too far from your flat, or are you travelling over the holidays and need to find a wine shop out of town? I recommend using the app Raisin to search a global database of restaurants, bars and wine shops offering natural wine. Alternatively, Raw Wine has a feature on their website that allows you to explore importers, distributors, restaurants, bars and shops around the world (pssst they also have an event coming up in March and you best believe the wherefrom crew will be there).
So let’s raise a glass to all those trying their best to do right by our planet and making delicious wine along the way!