Interest in ecologically-friendly wines and viticulture has never been greater, and simultaneously never before have so many winemakers been committed to, and technically capable of crafting such wines. The two forces are complimentary, and it’s hard to say one necessarily drives the other. Together, today’s eco-friendly wine landscape has never been more expansive, though it’s a varied topography, and a roadmap is often needed.
It can get confusing in terms of classification, and many wine producers, especially in Western Europe, have been practicing “ecological” wine growing for decades without seeking certification or recognition. That, too, is changing. A large number of wineries now proudly proclaim one green-oriented practice or another, and the days when organic or natural wines were viewed as somehow inferior are behind us. An array of often overlapping practices and certifications currently exists: certified organic (both for wine and grape growing), biodynamic, natural, dry-farmed, sustainable, Lodi Rules, anti-climate change, vegan, etc. s
At Bottle Barn, it’s easy to find wines from organically-grown grapes, dry-farming, natural and biodynamic production, and vegan-friendly. Just go to the “Green Wines” section under the Featured tab on the website. Shipping of these eco-friendly wines is available across the USA. What do these categories mean?
Let’s take a look.
Organic wines are certified by a third-party and must pass a series of standards in terms of both grape-growing and wine production that don’t allow synthetic or chemical inputs. There’s also a limit on the amount of sulfur (a natural compound, after all), that can be used in making the wine. Wines made from organically-grown grapes is another category, where you are assured that 100% of the grapes used in winemaking were organically-cultivated, but the wine production itself may fall below the organic standard, including the addition of sulfites as a preservative. Organic grape cultivation involves serious commitment, and its difficulty can vary tremendously depending on where the grapes come from. Growing organic grapes in an arid region like many part of Argentina, for example, can be a lot easier than in a humid region, like Bordeaux because of the vines’ susceptibility to mildew and pests. Examples include (click on the link to visit the product page) the 2019 Quivira Alder Grove Sauvignon Blanc, which scored 92 points from Wine Spectator; the 2020 Tenuta Delle Terre Nere Etna Rosso; and the 2020 Idlewild The Bird Flora & Fauna Red Wine.
Dry-farmed grapes come from viticulture involving zero irrigation – just reliance on natural sources of water to feed the vine. Vitis vinifera, the plant species used to produce most grapes used in winemaking, is tough and hardy; it can send roots far and deep, really deep, in search of water and nutrients. Of course, it takes time for such roots to develop, and young plants (less than three years old) may need some help getting established in dry regions, but not too much. Lots of irrigation early in a vine’s life will not encourage it send roots down looking for H2O-born sustenance.
Dry farming has numerous, far reaching advantages both for the environment and for the wine. A report from the Community Alliance of Family Farmers notes: “Dry farmers argue that the quality of the product cannot be beat. The flavors and colors of the grapes are more intense and express more of the characteristics of the vineyard site, all to produce high quality wine. There are also environmental benefits to dry farming. Dry-farmed growers are reducing water use by not irrigating.”
Some viticultural regions, especially in Europe, forbid irrigation, or it is strictly controlled. Dry-farming is a term mostly applied to New World vineyards, including in California, Australia, and Chile. Did you know that Spain even has one IGP appellation called “Desert of Almeria,” next to Europe’s only true desert in Tabernas where a lot of the Spaghetti Western movies were filmed in the 1970s? Vines in such climates must struggle to survive, which many wine experts believe lends greater concentration and other distinct characteristics to the resulting wine, in addition to conserving precious water resources, which is of increasing concern in many areas. Consider the online wines 2019 De Martino Gallardia Cinsault or 2018 Tonti Family Wines Russian River Valley Old Vine Zinfandel, which is also made from organically-grown grapes.
Biodynamic wines can be viewed as a sub-category of organic with special characteristics based on the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner. Practices include paying attention to moon and zodiac cycles, spraying homeopathic remedies, and most famously, burying cow’s horns filled with manure and quartz to focus “vital forces.” Biodynamics has its critics, though it is probably less controversial among wine growers than in other agricultural fields. Clearly, all the benefits of organic cultivation also accrue to grapes grown biodynamically. Many extremely high-quality wine producers swear by it, and that’s hard to argue against. Renowned winemaker Peter Sisseck, for example, says: “If you have a better balanced vineyard you are less affected by disease, you have to be proactive and work on prevention, in much the same way that as a human if you look after yourself you are less prone to disease. With a good balance you don’t use fertilisers and have active and microbiological life in the vineyard, it is not sterile. So, for example, you create competition between fungi so one doesn’t take over and become established.” Try the Champagne Lelarge-Pugeot Tradition Premier Cru Extra Brut or the 2016 DeLoach OFS Russian River Valley Chardonnay.
Sisseck is not a fan of the Natural Wine movement, but it has many adherents and even gained a French government classification in 2020. Natural wine refers to wine made from organic grapes or the equivalent, and fermented and aged without additions,” according to the New York Times; these wines “are unpredictable but alive, energetic, vibrant and surprising.” Such wines are an extreme reaction to the industrial winemaking that gained huge ground starting ten to twenty years ago. “Many mainstream wines are made from chemically farmed grapes, then produced like processed foods, with the help of technological manipulations and artificial ingredients, to achieve a preconceived aroma-and-flavor profile,” writes Times columnist Eric Asimov. Examples include the 2019 Cruse Wine Co. Monkey Jacket Red Wine.
Vegan wines refer to wines made without any animal-based products, which most often refers to traditional fining agents, like egg whites or milk-derived casein, used to clarify the final drink. Vegan requirements can also extend to beeswax used to seal a bottle, or animal manure used as fertilizer, which are perfectly acceptable in, say, biodynamic wines. Totally unrefined wines are vegan, as are those fined using substances like bentonite, a kind of natural clay. (Refining agents are generally removed prior to bottling). Consider the 2020 Juan Gil Honoro Vera Monastrell, which also happens to be dry-farmed from organically-grown grapes in an extremely arid Spanish viticulture region!
Written By: Charlie Leary