Wine Label Guide: Natural, Biodynamic, Organic and More
Natural wine. Organic wine. Biodynamic wine. You’ve heard about them, read about them, maybe even tried some. But what exactly are they and how do they differ from conventional wines?
As the good food movement expands to vine to table, more and more people are questioning how their wine is produced, and are seeking out sustainable options. Global sales of organic wines grew from 349 million bottles sold in 2012 to 676 million bottles in 2017. The wine and spirits consultancy firm IWSR expects global sales of organic wine to top 1 billion bottles by 2022. But what makes a wine organic? And what about the other sustainability-focused labels you see at the store?
Here’s what you need to know about the various “green” wine terms, both for US-produced wines and the foreign wines you’ll find at your local store. We’ll also help you figure out how to purchase bottles that help increase biodiversity — and explain why that matters.
As with certified organic food, certified organic wine refers to wine made using organic principals, including grapes grown without chemicals and pesticides, and free from the sewage sludge present in some fertilizers.
But exactly what certified organic wine actually means depends on where the wine is being produced — and therefore where it is certified. US organic standards (overseen by the US Department of Agriculture) allow for the use of some naturally based pesticides and a few synthetic ones that meet a strict set of regulations. It does not allow for any sulfites to be added. French standards (designated on wine bottles with a green-white logo of “AB – agriculture biologique”) don’t allow for any use of synthetic pesticides but allow for the possibility of some added sulfites. These two sets of standards both differ from Chilean organic standards … and on and on.
In the US it’s also common to see bottles labeled “Made with Organic Grapes,” meaning the grapes grown to produce the wine were organically grown but the wine as a whole cannot be USDA certified organic because it includes additives such as Mega Purple or sulfur, which many winemakers use to keep the wine from going bad.
Takeaway: Organic wine is often easier to find than biodynamic or natural wines and due to strict certification processes you have a clear idea of what you’re getting.
Developed by Austrian Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s, biodynamic farming is a holistic practice that considers the entire ecosystem instead of simply the end product. As with organic farming, grapes are grown without pesticides and other chemicals. But where a lot of farming practices (sometimes including organic) can degrade the soil, biodynamic farming focuses not only on healthy grapes but also healthy soil (as well as other plants and livestock). There’s also an aspect of biodynamic farming that incorporates the cosmos, linking practices like soil treatments, vine pruning and grape harvesting to the lunar calendar. As with organic wine, vineyards that use biodynamic practices are not all certified as such, and if you’re interested in wine produced in this way your best bet is to ask your local wine shops for recommendations. A certified biodynamic wine is usually certified by Demeter International — or for US-based wines Demeter USA, both of which have lists of certified wines on their websites.
Takeaway: Certified biodynamic wines can be hard to find (as of 2016 only 639 vineyards where certified), but if you do find one, you can be sure that the biodynamic winemakers paid deep attention to the well-being of the planet.
Natural wine is having a moment but has no certification process (some natural winemakers actually balk at the idea of the label becoming official) and can refer to multiple grape growing practices. Often the word “natural” on a food label doesn’t carry much meaning, but when it comes to wine, it may be a different story.
Generally speaking, “natural wine” refers to wine produced with little to no intervention. This means that natural winemakers practice organic or biodynamic farming methods: the wine is produced by hand (picking of grapes, destemming and juicing) and they add no chemicals, sulfur or commercial yeasts in the process. By and large, you can taste the results of these production choices in the funky and earthy flavor profile of the wines.
Takeaway: There is no official certification for these wines but it is common to see bottles labeled ‘natural wine.’ These funky, interesting wines are worth a try but in order to learn about the farming and production methods, it’s best to ask the winemaker (if possible) or someone knowledgeable at your local wine shop.
Another broad phrase, sustainable wine loosely means wine produced in a way that is good for you, the environment, the farmer and farm workers but there is no one definition or certification process. It can refer to grapes farmed organically, biodynamically or even conventionally, or could mean the vineyard has a focus on renewable resources or water conservation or uses recycled glassware. The California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, for instance, offers a sustainable certification that has allowed the use of the pesticide Roundup; its certification requirements differ from other US-based ones including the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers, and so on.
Takeaway: While these wines encompass a wide range of farming practices, their producers are aware of and trying to mitigate some of the effects of agriculture on the planet. Those interested in these wines should look to the different sustainable alliances to find out exactly how they were produced.
Other Wine Label Terms to Know
Many wineries uses animal ingredients such as egg whites, animal milk proteins, gelatins made from cows or pigs, or isinglass made from fish to help speed up the practice of filtering out sediment from grapes. Since there are no vegan wine certifications, with wines marketed as “vegan,” the consumer is trusting that the wines were made without the use of animal products. Websites including Vegan.com, Barnivore, and VegNews, have regularly updated lists of both vegan wine brands and specific bottles.
Produced by a vineyard where workers receive a living wage and work in a healthy, safe environment as certified by Fairtrade International.
No Sulfites Added
A small amount of sulfites appear naturally during the fermentation process but many winemakers will add extra sulfites to help prevent oxidation which can cause the wine to go bad. While a tiny portion of the population is allergic to sulfites (the FDA estimates less than 1 percent), there are no other documented health risks associated with sulfites and they’re common in many other foods including dried fruits and even frozen pizza. In the US, the USDA organic seal guarantees that the wine does not contain any additional sulfates.
Beyond the Labels: Why Varietals Matter
Chances are you’ve heard of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc but what about Saperavi or Cayuga? There are more than 10,000 wine grape “varietals” but the 10 most popular ones make up 41% of the wine produced. For the adventurous wine drinker, branching out could mean not only discovering a new favorite wine, but helping to increase biodiversity and reduce the need for pesticides.
“We’ve prevented the famous wine grapes from naturally evolving, because they are reproduced by cuttings,” says Kevin Begos, author of Tasting the Past. “That means pests and bugs keep figuring out new ways to attack vines, but those grapes are genetically frozen in time. End result: we need more and more pesticides to fight the bugs, and those grapes are more and more at risk of a global pandemic, like what hit Irish potatoes and what wiped out the leading banana variety in the 1950s.”
The solution could be to expand the market for different and new varieties. In New York, for instance, one of the reasons it’s hard to produce organic or biodynamic wine of the current popular varieties is because of the state’s climate. The humidity makes it easier for pests and diseases to attack grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon than in California or Oregon.
“We are trying [to develop] new varieties that have better disease control and could reduce the pesticide use but the challenge has been getting them to market,” says Hans Walter-Peterson of Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Finger Lakes Grape Program. If wine drinkers don’t buy the unusual varieties — if they always seek out Cabernet — then there’s not much incentive for growers to try something new, even if it’s something that would do well on their land and decrease their need for pesticides.
So What Wines Should You Look for at the Store?
For anyone looking to be more “green” in their wine drinking, talking to the staff at your local wine shop is one of the best places to start. While some stores such as the wine department at Whole Foods stock a lot of sustainable, organic and biodynamic wines, at some wine stores you might have to look a bit harder. And sometimes the size of the vineyard tells you some of what you want to know, so ask someone in the store about the size of the vineyard and their yearly production.
“While there are some big places doing it well, if you’re buying from a winery that is family-owned and operated, they’re more likely to be living among the vines, and you’re going to get a wine with less of an environmental impact,” says Jeff Harding, Beverage Director at the Waverly Inn.
Natural, organic, sustainable and biodynamics wines each have their pros and cons even before you consider how far they travel to get to your table, and other environmental factors such what glassware was used for the bottle. Given how complicated it can be, we recommend starting with the terminology we gave you above and looking for those labels and terms. Start by looking for a “natural or organic” section of the wine shop or asking an expert at the store to recommend a bottle by telling her or him your preferences.