Earth Day is a third March holiday with a strong wine connection. After all, winemakers are increasingly attuned to farming sustainably, organically or biodynamically and touting their use of these techniques on the labels. That makes it pretty easy to find wines that respect Mother Nature and restore vineyard lands.
What isn’t always so easy is understanding what sustainable, organic and biodynamic really mean.
Let’s start with the best known of these terms.
The point of farming organically is to remove all chemical products from the soil and to eliminate their use on the plants. The US Department of Agriculture certifies farmers to insure their methods avoid the use of synthetic materials, and wines that meet their standards can use the “USDA Organic” seal on their wines.
Some winemakers – both in the US and abroad – might decide to forego such certification and will often indicate this by indicating “practicing organic” or some similar language on the label.
A wine made with organic grapes is different from an organic wine, as detailed in these four categories from the USDA:
“100% Organic Wine” is made exclusively with organically grown grapes and vinified without added sulfites (the key to an organic winemaking process.)
“Organic Wine” indicates that at least 95% of the wine is made with juice from organic grapes and has no added sulfites.
“Wine Made with Organic Grapes” must have at least 70% of the cuvee made with juice from organically farmed grapes. However, this wine may have added sulfites. There is no USDA certification for this category, though it is offered through private organizations.
“Some Organic Ingredients” indicates a wine with organic grapes making up less than 70% of the blend. It’s probably also safe to assume that sulfites may have been added.
The next term to consider is sustainability. While many sustainable farmers use organic methods in the vineyards, the word suggests that growers and vintners also emphasize socially and economically conscious production methods.
Such sustainable practices include energy and water conservation, increasing vineyard diversity and soil revitalization. Though not regulated by the US government, there are numerous organizations that certify vineyards and wines that meet sustainable criteria.
Finally: biodynamic agriculture. Think of it as organic plus.
This philosophy (it was developed in the 1920s by Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher and social reformer) adds holistic and spiritual elements to the organic practice of eliminating chemical and synthetic products from the grape growing and winemaking process.
Biodynamic farmers see the vineyard as its own ecosystem and treat it accordingly. For example, biodynamic growers use predators such as ladybugs to control the pest population.
In addition, all farming is done to the rhythms of nature: farmers will use the lunar calendar to determine the ideal dates for vineyard work such as plowing, pruning or harvesting.
According to the philosophy, these same principles guide when a wine tastes its best: you want to drink the good stuff on a fruit day, when the moon is in Aires, Leo or Sagittarius – the fire signs on the zodiac. (It may be malarkey, it may be true, but their commitment to earth-life balance is undeniable.)
The oldest group is Demeter International, which was first established in Europe to certify and promote biodynamic farming; a US branch was created in 1985. A group called Biodivin serves the same purpose in France. It is increasingly common to see their logos on a bottle.
So, this April 22, honor the earth in whatever way suits you – just be sure to add an eco-friendly wine to the mix!