Wineology: How to Choose Sustainable Wines

With Valentine's Day around the corner, earth-wise lovebirds around the country are planning for a romantic evening. But when it comes to picking the most sustainable wines, the choice isn’t as straightforward as you might like. The old rule of thumb — look for products labeled “organic” — doesn’t work on the wine shelf. Federal regulators only allow that label for foods free of synthetic additives. Many winemakers, however, still add sulfites to their products — a practice followed for centuries to prevent spoilage. As a result, plenty of wines grown organically and sustainably don’t qualify for the “organic” label. Some, instead, opt for the label, “Made with organically grown grapes,” meaning they contain the organically grown fruit eco-conscious consumers are looking for, but they also contain added sulfites, though usually in levels far below those found in conventional wines.

The label reading doesn’t stop there. Certified “Biodynamic” wines not only contain organically grown grapes, but come from farms that follow a wider range of holistic farming practices than those required to achieve the organic label. Then there’s “Salmon Safe,” an eco-label that recognizes farmers who follow practices that protect wildlife habitats in the Pacific Northwest. Oregon-based LIVE — Low Input Viticulture & Enology, Inc. — is another private organization that certifies Oregon and Washington vineyards following sustainable agriculture practices. The Central Coast Vineyard Team, a group of California farmers committed to sustainable practices, plans to launch a third-party audited “Certified Sustainably Grown” label for California wines in 2009.

Within the winemaking community, debates rage about which practices are the most ecological and which produce the best wine. “As with many other sectors, there’s no real clear, simple answers,” says Josh Metz, of the Magnanimus Wine Group, who has been helping develop a code of sustainable winegrowing practices for California.

Phil Cline, owner of Naches Heights Vineyard near Yakima, Washington, advises friends to seek out wines made with organic fruit. “There was probably more care given by the grower to get that product to you, and you’re going to help support somebody who cares about the planet,” he says.

Jan Henrichsen, who buys wines for Chicago’s Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread and Wine store, advises customers to get to know their wine merchant and ask them to point out the organic and sustainably grown wines on their shelves, especially since not all such wines are specially marked. “If you’re only buying based on organic labels, you can miss out on some small artisanal, sustainable producers,” she says.

As with everything over the holidays, however, over-thinking it is a surefire buzz kill. Use the cheat sheets we’ve provided, choose wines that follow some kind of green practice, and then raise a glass to yourself for going that extra mile for Mother Earth.

Concerned about your chosen bottle’s carbon footprint? According to green wine blogger Dr. Vino, those west of Ohio are better off buying California wines, while those living east would do better to pick a Bordeaux. Parse the particulars by searching “greenline” at DrVino.com.

What Are Sulfites?

The term “sulfites” in winemaking refers to a family of chemicals that are a byproduct of the fermentation process. Sulfites act as antibiotics and antioxidants. All wines have naturally occurring sulfites, but not enough to stabilize them and prevent spoilage. As a result, in a practice dating back centuries, most vintners add a small amount of synthetic sulfites to their wines as a preservative. (Sulfites are also used as enhancers or preservatives for other food products, such as dried fruit.)

Sulfites have gotten a bad rap because of widespread publicity about their potential health hazards for a small portion of the population. In some people with asthma or sulfite allergies, the substance can provoke severe reactions. As a result, the government requires any food that contains sulfites, including wines, to be so labeled, and limits the amount of sulfites — measured in parts per million (ppm) — that products can contain. Although the legal limit in wine is 350 ppm, most wines with added sulfites contain less, generally 25-150 ppm. According to federal law, if a wine contains 10 ppm or more of total sulfites, the label must state “contains sulfites.” For the majority of the population, however, sulfites are harmless.

Designation
USDA Organic

What It Means
Made with 100 percent organically grown grapes. No sulfites added.
Certified by USDA.

Choose This If
You’re a purist, or you have concerns about sulfite sensitivity.


Designation
Made with Organically Grown Grapes

What It Means
The grapes are organic, but the wine contains sulfites (though usually not as in large quantities as in conventional wines).
Certified by USDA.

Choose This If
You want to your fruit organic, but you don’t mind sulfites to help keep the wine stable.


Designation
Biodynamic

What It Means
Follows certain holistic farming practices, in addition to organic practices. Certified by Demeter USA.

Choose This If
You want to support farmers who are going above and beyond to live in harmony with Mother Earth.


Designation
Salmon Safe

What It Means
Comes from a vineyard that eschews practices that harm wildlife habitats.
Certified by Oregon-based Salmon-Safe certification program.

Choose This If
You’re buying a wine from the Pacific Northwest, and you want to make sure you’re doing everything possible to save salmon.


Designation
LIVE

What It Means

Follows certain sustainable farming practices in addition to organic practices. Certified by LIVE, Inc.

Choose This If
You’re buying a wine from the Pacific Northwest, and you want to support sustainable farms.

 

WINES TO TRY


Mendocino Farms Redvine Series (a blend of Cabernet, Petite Syrah, and Syrah), California, 2004 (Biodynamic)

Our Daily Red 2007, California, (USDA Organic)

Ceago Vinegarden Sauvignon Blanc, California, 2006 (Biodynamic)

Alma Rosa Pinot Gris, California, 2007 (Made with organically grown grapes)

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