One of the biggest trends in wine today is the explosive growth of the “green and friendly” category. From sustainability to organic certifications, this broad spectrum covers a whole range of wine making and grape growing philosophies and practices.
Navigating this diverse world, however, can be difficult and confusing for the average consumer. So, whether you’re concerned about your carbon footprint or just trying to embrace a healthier lifestyle, here is a quick rundown to help you sort things out.
In a nutshell, organics refers to grape growing and/or wine making without the use of manufactured fertilizers, pesticides, or other banned products like sulfur dioxide.
Many countries (as well as the European Union) have their own rules, regulations and certifications regarding organic practices. (Note: You might not always see these certifications on the label of foreign wines sold in the U.S. If you are looking for organic wines from, say, France, you might need to do a little internet research.)
In the U.S., the USDA that establishes the criteria for organic wine, and certification is offered through USDA-accredited local or regional bodies. In reality, there aren’t that many U.S. producers with organically certified wines because sulfur — one of the banned products — is still widely used as a preservative for wine.
The next best thing for the consumer might be to seek out wines that are labeled as “made with organic grapes.” While you won’t see the USDA organic seal on the label, the only real difference might be that a small amount of sulfur dioxide was used during the wine making process.
Something to keep in mind, as well — the odds are good that you’ll be exposed to more sulfites at that restaurant salad bar than you ever will from a glass of wine.
While natural farming practices are centuries old, the “spiritual science” of biodynamics was developed in the early part of the 20th century by Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian philosopher.
Kind of like the “Farmer’s Almanac” on steroids (and with a cult-like following to boot), biodynamic farming assumes that all parts of the land are interconnected as an ecosystem.
Using special compost preparations, cover crops and native pest management, the goal is to create a natural balance in the vineyard. The forces of nature are considered to be an integral part in preserving the health of the land.
When to water, when to prune, when to harvest or just when to leave the vineyard alone: It’s all determined by the elements, the phases of the moon, the alignment of the planets. The biodynamic approach is like taking organic processes for the most part and adding some metaphysical touches.
While many producers practice varying degrees of biodynamic viticulture, relatively few are actually certified by the two international programs, Demeter and Biodyvin.
By far, this is the broadest category of “green wine,’’ simply because the philosophy of sustainability in farming addresses so many relevant issues today — whether that’s viability of land and crops or consideration of social and economic goals.
Global concerns about climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, water conservation, erosion control and protection of endangered species often provide the impetus for these initiatives.
Although these concerns are global, a growing number of sustainable certifications in recent years have been developed to address the environmental and economic issues unique to a particular locale.
From smaller areas such as Lodi, Calif.s “Certified Green” program; to multi-state collaborations such as “Salmon Safe” encompassing Oregon, Washington, California and Idaho (as well as British Columbia); to whole-country campaigns such as South Africa’s “Integrity and Sustainability Certified” program — sustainable practices are found everywhere that grapes are grown.
So, the next time you pick up a bottle of wine, look on the label for the logo of a green program — Mother Earth will thank you. Here are a few green wines to try.
2014 HANDLEY CELLARS ANDERSON VALLEY RIESLING
The benchmark for production of cool-climate whites from Mendocino County, Calif., Handley Cellars makes the majority of its wine from organically grown fruit in Anderson Valley, sourced from either their estate vineyards or responsible local growers.
In addition, the vegans among you will be happy to note that as of 2012, all of their whites are vinified “free of animal products,” meaning no dairy, eggs or animal-derived materials were used at all in the winemaking process.
With only 233 cases produced, the 2014 riesling is like a breath of fresh air. Crisp and clean, with racy acidity and pronounced minerality, it’s made in a dry style that will appeal to most white wine drinkers.
Typical notes of petrol — a marker for the grape — are balanced by tart tropical fruit on the nose. Citrus flavors of lime, grapefruit and orange burst at the seams, making this wine a must-have in my summer beverage arsenal.
Approximate retail: $18
2016 SPIER STELLENBOSCH SOUTH AFRICA CHENIN BLANC
Even in a country where sustainability practices are emphasized on a national level, Spier stands out.
Not only is the winery organically certified and an adopter of biodynamic and sustainable practices, but it also has received many accolades from various international organizations — the World Wildlife Federation to the Fair Trade in Tourism Organization — for its enormous eco-friendly commitment.
The winery’s commitment to quality follows through in the glass. The 2016 chenin blanc, with its classic notes of apple and pear and aromas of white flowers and fruit blossoms, is a refreshing alternative to chardonnay or pinot grigio.
Bright acidity keeps the wine interesting on the palate and makes it a perfect pairing for soft cheeses like Brie. With such an attractive price, it could easily become your house white.
Approximate retail: $9
2013 GRGICH HILLS ESTATE NAPA VALLEY CHARDONNAY
When one of the most venerable estates in Napa makes a commitment to organic and sustainable practices, you know that it’s not just a trend, it’s a movement.
All five Grgich vineyards are certified organic — farmed naturally, without artificial pesticides or herbicides. The Grgich Hills Estate chardonnay has always been the benchmark for California’s production of the grape.
The 2013 vintage was a nearly perfect growing year. Ripe stone fruits of pear and yellow apple on the nose are equaled by the ripeness of the tropical fruit on the palate.
The wine is rich and creamy as a result of extended “sur lie” aging, but balanced so well by natural acidity. If only more producers in Napa showed the same level of commitment to the land as they do to their wines.
Approximate retail: $35
2012 CARDWELL HILL CELLARS ESTATE BOTTLED WILLAMETTE VALLEY PINOT NOIR
Employing sustainable agricultural practices, Cardwell Hill is a certified member of Salmon Safe, an organization whose mission is to protect the water quality and biodiversity in the Willamette Valley and other important Pacifc Northwest salmon watersheds.
By planting cover crops, applying natural means for pest and weed control, and monitoring run-off water quality, Cardwell Hill meets rigorous standards to maintain this yearly certification. A portion of the vineyard and other acreage also is set aside as a home for the Fenders blue butterfly, an endangered species.
The 2012 Estate pinot noir offers up lovely floral aromas of lavender and roses, as well as enticing notes of cherry and raspberry on the palate. An underlying earthiness — a slight “forest floor” quality — adds depth but never, ever detracts from what a pretty wine this is.
Drink a glass of pinot, save a butterfly — I can’t think of a better way to spend your time.
Approximate retail: $30
2012 CHÂTEAU PONTET-CANET PAUILLAC
As the first classified Bordeaux estate to go green, Pontet-Canet received its organic certification from Ecocert in 2010, as well as biodynamic certifications from Biodyvin and Demeter in 2010 and 2014, respectively.
The château’s commitment to the land is seen in practices like the Breton draft horses quietly working the vineyards — an alternative to the tractor’s heavy hand on the soil.
This Grand Cru Classé house has a reputation for producing some of the best wines in the world, and its 2012 cabernet sauvignon-based blend certainly doesn’t disappoint.
Full of energy, the wine shows a balance of power and precision that can only be achieved at this level. The brightness of the fruit — both red and black fruits — positively sings with expression, tempered by savory notes of earth and herbs. Judicious use of French oak adds the finishing touch.
Pricey stuff, I’ll admit, but well worth it.
Approximate retail: $100
Rebecca Davidson is a wine professional with Total Wine & More in Reno.