Green Wine, Untangled
- Written by Diana Zahuranec
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Adding the word "green" to a word carries with it a certain, strong association: sustainable. Put that word before "wine," however, and more than one definition is at work.
Beyond its environmental connotations, green wine refers to Vinho Verde, a Portuguese style of white, red, or rosè wine that is young and meant to be drunk within a year. Or, when tasting a wine, "green" is usually a negative descriptor, meaning immature, not ready to drink.
We're interested in untangling the more modern version of green wine: organic, natural, sustainable, or biodynamic. What's so difficult about understanding those? Each one comes with a different set of rules. And to complicate things further, when more than one country gets involved, knowing the difference between "100% organic" versus "organic," "sustainable" versus "natural" or "biodynamic," nothing is simple! Let's untangle the labels and see what each one means.
Your green wine guide
Organic - Biologico
100% Organic, USDA-certified can only contain naturally-occurring sulfites up to 100 ppm. 100% of the grapes grown must be organic.
Organic, USDA-certified indicates at least 95% organically grown ingredients; the sulfite requirements are the same as 100% Organic certified wines.
Made with Organic Grapes means that artificial sulfites up to 100 ppm may be added. 100% of the grapes must be organically grown.
Made with Organic and Non-Organic Grapes can include added sulfites. 70% of the grapes must be organically grown.
See this USDA fact sheet for labeling wines.
Copper sprays may be used in organic-certified vineyards. Pesticides, fungicides, and synthetic materials are not allowed. And, for the record, sulfites, a point of contention in certifications, seem to have earned an exaggeratingly bad rap. They actually occur in many foods, particularly in dried fruit as an added, natural preservative; two ounces of dried apricots can contain ten times the amount of sulfites in wine. See sulfite myths debunked.
Organic wine has the green, EU leaf symbol. No desulfurication is allowed, sorbic acid is prohibited, and sulfites may be present at 100 mg/l for reds, 150 mg/l for dry whites and rosés (ppm and mg/l are almost exact conversions of the other).
Made with Organic Grapes means the grapes have been organically grown but may contain added sulfites. Copper sprays are allowed.
As of 2012, the U.S. and E.U. have an organic-certified wine trade agreement. Previously, only "wine made from organic grapes" was recognized, while vinification practices could not be certified. Its intentions were to help smooth out the differences between labeling requirements and give easier access, less bureaucracy, and lower costs to both markets, but it has possibly only made the issue more complicated. Why? American "made with organic grapes" wines can be sold as organic in Europe; European "organic wine" cannot be sold as organic but must carry the American "made with organic grapes" label in the U.S.
Biodynamic - Biodinamico
Perhaps a more controversial type of agriculture doesn't exist.
Many firmly believe that biodynamic farming goes above and beyond organic and sustainable practices. Its principles are based on a harmonization of cultivation processes in order to achieve a balance in nature. Not only is the use of synthetic chemicals prohibited, but farmers actively work to improve soil and plant life. Cover crops, green manures, crop rotations, and companion planting are all very important for a biodynamic farm ... as are planetary influences and lunar rhythms. Unsurprisingly, that is what often causes the raised eyebrows. It perhaps goes without saying that sulfites are not added.
Biodynamic certification may be decided by several governing bodies. The US-based agency Demeter, created in 1924, was the first to define and certify biodynamic agriculture. Demeter International | Demeter USA | Vini Biodinamici
For more information on the fascinating tenets behind biodynamic agriculture, see Demeter's site; if you really want a detailed, objective view of its practices, check out wine writer Katherine Cole's book Voodoo Vintners: Oregon's Astonishing Biodynamic Winegrowers.
Sustainable - Sostenibile
Sustainable agriculture practices include smart and environmentally-ethical stewardship of the land, but with less strict rules than organic or biodynamic. It is often used when a plot of marginal land in a tough climate is unable to cultivate organically, and is thus constrained to use synthetic treatments, but only when necessary; or, when a farmer is making the transition from industrial to organic agriculture and, even though he follows all the rules, must wait several years before organic certification is possible. Sustainable agriculture is certified by numerous, non-governmental agencies.
Natural wines - Vini naturali
The loosest and perhaps simplest definition is that of a natural wine. There is no single definition, but rather an overall principle of producing wine as "pure" as possible with minimal intervention. Native yeasts and organic or “almost” organic agriculture are generally thought to be acceptable natural wine practices, but there are no rules. Difficult to accept such a vague description? Alice Feiring, a journalist, blogger of The Feiring Line, and author well-known for being a strong natural wine advocate, describes it as a wine made with only naturally-occurring yeasts and very little outside chemicals used.
To really delve into the world of natural wine, read Alice Feiring’s recent book Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally. Or, come to Piemonte; many wine producers in Piemonte go natural.
To find where natural wine is being produced near you, Vinnatur has listed many natural wines in Italy and abroad.
Unfortunately, any one of these certifications can be used as a marketing hook. If the intentions of the winemaker behind the bottle are important to you, be aware that an official stamp of one thing or another does not certify ethics, beliefs, or whether or not the winemaker buys free-range chicken eggs. And, just to be extra-cynical, these labels almost always guarantee a higher price tag.
To be clear, the higher price comes from the higher cost of organic standards in production. Even transitioning from standard to organic requires an intimidatingly huge investment. Many environmentally-ethical winemakers fall through the cracks between the slats of time and money, producing by industry standards but lacking in the resources needed to acquire certification. Others follow the standards and go beyond the minimum requirements, yet choose to have no certification at all. All of these winemakers are truly stewards of their vineyards who, without a doubt, follow their own guidelines because they believe in a better, healthier wine, even without the added benefit of a label that guarantees payoff for their hard work.
The only way to know is to visit the cellars, walk through the vineyards, and talk to the winemaker. A simple visit that plays upon the intricacies of a face-to-face encounter will reveal a world of wines that even the staunchest environmentalist would drink happily.
This is especially true for Piemonte, where legendary winemaking has been passed down for generations in many families, and where the purity of wine and the perfect expression of the land are the highest aspirations for a producer. This is not to say everyone maintains perfectly harmonized, microclimate-paradise vineyards; rather, taking the time to personally discover new wineries will certainly be well worth the visit, and may reveal some pleasant surprises.
Start your exploration now with our list of Wineries and Itineraries in Piemonte!