Organic, Biodynamic, and Sustainable Wines

This article is a reprint of an article Phillip and Laura wrote for the Triangle Downtowner.

Every day in the Triangle many of us make conscious decisions to purchase organic fruits, organic meats, organic pasta, and a myriad of other organic foods. However, as soon as we begin to wonder which wine will offer the perfect complement to our meal, this search for organic ends. As Triangle residents, we live in a community which supports a vibrant organic food movement. So then, why does this demand for organic food in the Triangle not coincide with a demand for organic wine?

This dichotomy exists for the very simple reason that there is a lack of understanding of what makes a wine organic. Several terms are used to identify organic viticulture and organic wines with multiple certifying groups. This leads to confusion that ultimately discourages many consumers from trying organic wine. Hopefully the answers to the questions below will help clear up some of the confusion!

What is organic viticulture?
Organic farming only utilizes substances that are naturally occurring. Thus, organic grapes are grown without the use of man-made compounds, such as chemical fertilizers, synthetic pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, or materials or organisms that have been genetically modified.

What are organic wines?
In some regions, organic wine is wine that is made from organically-farmed grapes. However, in the European Union and the United States, wine that is labeled as “organic wine” (instead of labeled as “made with organically grown grapes”), must also conform to certain winemaking practices.  For example, organic wines in the US and EU restrict the addition of sulfites. In the US, no sulfites may be added and only naturally occurring sulfites may be present in the wine, while in the EU, some may be added, but the total amount of sulfites permitted is less than what is permitted in non-organic wines.

Why don’t all producers who follow organic practices obtain organic certification?
There are many producers in the world who farm organically, but who have not obtained formal certification. Because they lack the certification, these producers are not allowed to state on the wine label that their wines are organic or that they are farmed using organic practices. Despite this limitation, there are reasons an organic grower would choose not to obtain organic certification.  First, obtaining the certification can be very expensive for small wine producers who don’t necessarily have the extra resources. Second, the procedure to obtain certification is time-consuming. Finally, many producers who have farmed organically for centuries do not see the value in obtaining certification or view it as a marketing fad.

What are biodynamic wines?
Biodynamic viticulture shares the principles of organic viticulture that eschew the use of industrial chemicals; however, biodynamic viticulture involves additional practices and philosophies that are beyond the requirements of organic viticulture. Biodynamics promotes a holistic view of farming, and aims to promote the health and sustainability of the land as a whole through the application of special organic composts and the integration of farm animals and beneficial wildlife and insects. Biodynamic farming also observes a calendar that integrates lunar, solar, and planetary cycles that indicate the best times for particular vineyard work.

What are sustainable wines?  
The goal of sustainable wineries is to minimize harm to the environment, while also maintaining an economically viable operation. A truly sustainable winery will take into account all varieties of environmental and community factors, not just those that impact the winery’s vineyards or the wines. For example, the winery will consider purchases of any outside materials and the oil that would be used to ship those materials to the winery. Also, a sustainable winery will consider the overall safety, health, and living conditions of its employees. In short, a sustainable winery seeks to “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Sustainability does not have a consistent or a universally regulated meaning. There are independent organizations that certify “sustainability,” but these organizations do not all have the same qualifications.

This is starting to make sense, how do I find the right organic wine for me?

Ultimately, you’re going to get more candor and communication out of shopping with your local wine experts rather than the grocery store. Find some organic wine tastings around town or join an organic wine club. In the end though, it’s about empowering yourself with information, asking the right questions, and demanding honest, knowledgeable answers. I find organic wines to be extremely satisfying to drink and encourage you to learn more about them!